Scenes in a Minor Key
by Jonathan Curelop
Jonathan Curelop's fiction and non-fiction have appeared in various publications, including Liquid Imagination, UMass Amherst Magazine, apt, The Melic Review, The American Book Review, and Aura. He lives in New York City with his wife and works as an editor through his website ( www.theperfectword.info) and as a compliance officer at an international investment bank. Jonathan is represented by The Carol Mann Agency in Manhattan.
Sherm sat at the bar getting sloshed with Lenny. It was Lenny's first Friday at the lab and tradition dictated that the battery techs take him to Malachy's. These welcome-to-LabTech parties had run late in the past, but never this late; it was already after midnight.
Sherm had been drinking slowly, as was his custom. Beer tasted too good to rush. Schaefer was his favorite, followed by Pabst. He was flying pretty high right now. He looked around. Crowded as usual for a Friday night. But the assassination of Martin Luther King yesterday and today's riots infused the bar with a somber buzz.
He looked up at the television bolted to the wall above the highest shelf of liquor. The flickering grey images showed James Brown spinning and whirling in front of the Garden crowd. Sherm tapped his fingers along the bar, feeling the beat. He glanced at the set at the other end of the bar. Close-up of a black man. Sherm couldn't say who—so many black men on television these days. The image flipped to King behind a podium, then to a still shot of the motel in Memphis where he'd been shot. Then video of flames erupted on the screen, stores and homes on fire, black men throwing rocks through windows, mounted police trying to restore order.
Sherm turned away and looked around the bar, measured the possibility of the violence spilling from the screen into the neighborhood, the city. Maybe it was a mistake to come out tonight.
He rummaged in his pocket for his keys, then found his footing on the floor. About to leave, he noticed Lenny hop clumsily from the stool. Son of a bitch, he thought, almost left without him. His head was so dim he could barely remember a few days ago when he'd discovered that his new colleague lived in Kelton, the next town over from Sanders, and that they'd agreed to carpool.
"You hanging in there, buddy?" Sherm said, holding his arm out in case Lenny needed support. Time to take the new meat home.
"Hanging in," Lenny giggled. "Okey-dokey."
Sherm laughed too. He'd liked Lenny from the get-go, liked the specific questions he asked during training and the precise way he took notes.
The only people left from the lab were two guys sharing the pinball machine near the jukebox. A few kids in their twenties passed the bar on their way out, asking each other if the Green Line was still running. Sherm settled up with the bartender, waved to his colleagues, and ushered Lenny out to the car.
Once in the driver's seat, Sherm sat upright and squared his shoulders. At least he could look sober behind the wheel. He lifted the passenger lock knob and Lenny fell heavily into the seat.
"I shouldn't be this drunk," Lenny said, laughing while his head nodded forward. "I'm a church deacon, after all."
"Oh, yeah?" Sherm turned to say something else, but Lenny didn't seem in much condition to talk.
A few minutes away from Hammond Street, turning left and right on ridiculously curved roads and backtracking on dead ends, Sherm was lost. Lost, he thought, minutes away from Malachy's. Fucking embarrassing. He burped and tasted beer in his nose.
Lenny sat there, eyes closed, mouth open. "Ahhhhh," he breathed heavily, "I could go for one last beer."
That's all Sherm needed to hear. He scoped for a tavern, looking down side streets. In no time he saw one on the corner, coming up on the right. He found a parking spot half a block beyond the bar, pulled over and turned off the ignition.
"What are we doing?" Lenny roused from his nap.
"One more for the road, right? You said . . ."
Lenny's head snapped from left to right. "Where are we?" he said nervously.
Sherm shrugged. "Back Bay, I think."
"It's kind of dark."
Sherm looked out the windshield. Two of the street lights had blown out. Up the block, though, three figures walked casually together. Safe enough. "Come on," he said, opening the door. "How dangerous can it be? We're minutes away from Malachy's." He pushed himself out and started toward the Schlitz sign hanging a few storefronts down; the sign called to him like an ambassador of good will. Laughter rose from an open window several floors up.
"Hey." Lenny stood by his open door, apparently unwilling to leave the car.
"There's a bar this way."
"I've never been around here." Lenny had suddenly sobered up. "It's a volatile night."
"Look around. You think a riot's gonna break out?" He remembered the footage on the television at Malachy's, remembered thinking that this might not be the safest night to be out, but now he thought, fuck that. No one's going to tell me where I can or can't drink a beer. "Just one and we'll head home," Sherm said.
Lenny looked around the neighborhood—the tenement-style buildings, steel bars over garden apartment windows, metal pull-down shields protecting storefronts.
"Hey, you said you wanted one last beer."
"One last beer for the night, not for my life."
"Well, we're here now . . ." He started toward the Schlitz sign again. "Come on, I'm still buying."
Lenny followed. The street was desolate. Even right outside the bar nothing could be heard from within. "Probably closed," Lenny said.
Sherm pulled the handle. The door opened. They stepped into a tunnel. Dim as soon as you walked in, even dimmer farther down. The whole space seemed to narrow as they gazed into the darkness. No real atmosphere to speak of, no pictures, just brown walls and some hooks banged into them for coats and hats.
Trumpet sounds melted from an old-fashioned phonograph at the far end of the bar. Sherm recognized the Miles Davis tune right away, even knew the L.P.—Kind of Blue.
The place appeared empty at first, but after a second the sound of billiard balls rattled the smoke-tinged air. Eyes adjusting to the darkness, Sherm made out a blurry figure bent over a pool table. Others huddled around. It was impossible to tell if the players were watching the game or the newcomers hovering at the entranceway. A wary black man stood behind the bar.
Aw fuck, Sherm thought. They should turn around and walk back out the door. But now that he was in, he knew he wasn't leaving without a beer. Not after he'd made such a brouhaha about dragging in Lenny. You start something, you finish it, goddamn it. Besides, he couldn't leave in the middle of this tune, not until Bill Evans finished his fiery cascading riff.
"We're leaving," Lenny said.
Before Sherm had a chance to respond, the wiry old bartender said, "Damn right you're leaving." He looked toward the back of the establishment as though at any second the pool players might pounce on the foreigners. "Right now. Please."
"You heard the man," Lenny said.
"One beer, that's all," Sherm said. "Then we're out here. Outta here. Out . . . of . . . here." He faced Lenny. "There, I said it right. Bet ya didn't think I could."
"Let's just go," Lenny said.
Sherm looked at his new friend's face—his round head, soft guileless features shiny with perspiration and fear. The poor guy just wanted to go home to his wife and kids. "Don't you get it?" Sherm said. "Don't you know why we're here?" He wanted to launch into a brilliant speech about screwing the white-black thing: we drink where we want; we socialize with whom we want. We—you and me, Lenny—we can forge a bond between the races right here, right now. Tonight. Over an ice cold Schlitz, we can together lift our glasses to unity and peace.
Damn, he was shitfaced. What was he thinking? Oh, yeah. "Don't you see?" he said again.
Lenny kept following the bartender's gaze to the back of the room. Laughter roared as a bottle crashed to the floor.
"All the bars we coulda walked into tonight. And we walk into this . . ." Sherm spread his arms wide. "Playing the greatest jazz album of all time. No, no, the greatest album of all time, period. How do you explain that?"
"Who are you, Humphrey Bogart?" Lenny whispered fiercely. "We're not in a movie."
The bartender placed two glasses on the bar and said, "Hurry up and drink. Then get the hell out."
"That's all we wanted," Sherm said, grabbing both beers and handing one to Lenny. "You know, I didn't even want to come in here," he said to the bartender. "But this guy . . ." He tipped his glass toward Lenny, spilling an inch of beer onto the floor. "Oops," he said, looking at the puddle. He turned to the bartender and said, "Can you top me off?"
"But I spilled some."
"I don't give a shit."
"Fine." He downed half the beer in a gulp. "He's the one who wanted to come in here. 'One last beer,' he said. Personally, I think he's got a drinking problem."
"Everything good there, Zed?" a low voice rumbled from the back of the room.
"Yeah, yeah, T. J., I'm good."
The sounds of the game stopped. Three figures appeared out of the smoky haze, looming larger as they made their way toward the entrance. They stopped a few feet shy of Sherm and Lenny, clutching their pool cues.
"What the fuck you want?" the middle one said.
They're not very big, Sherm thought. But there are three of them, four including the guy behind the bar. What to do? Turn and run? He decided to answer the question. "Beer," he said, swigging the remainder and setting the glass on the bar.
One of them stepped forward.
"Easy now," Sherm said, stepping next to Lenny. "This man's a deacon."
Everyone's eyes turned to Lenny, who hadn't flinched since the threesome stepped down from the pool area.
"It's true," Lenny said, holding his full glass of beer out in front of him like a peace offering. "I'm a deacon."
The guy on the left seemed like he might be reasonable. He had that kind of face. The one in the middle, though, wanted them dead. His eyes flooded with hatred as he stood there, squeezing his stick.
"Get the fuck out of here," one of them said.
"Oh, God," Lenny said helplessly.
"Got it, we're going, no problem." Sherm dug out his wallet from his back pocket. "Just have to pay . . ."
"Get out now," another said, pounding his cue against the floor.
Sherm flung some singles in the direction of the bartender, then opened the door and bolted. Running up the block toward the car, he heard Lenny say, "Don't run. We don't want to draw attention to ourselves." Sherm turned around and saw Lenny speedwalking, still holding his glass of beer, keeping it out in front of him so he wouldn't spill any. At the car, he chugged it down and placed the glass on the curb.
Sherm peeled rubber for the first time in his life.
"I told you!" Lenny shouted.
"We're okay. Everything's all right."
"This is a black neighborhood!"
"Stop screaming, will ya. Hell, I was just trying to show you a good time."
"Are you soft? Martin Luther King was killed yesterday."
"What are ya yelling at me for? I didn't do it!"
He drove extra carefully, maintaining the speed limit, staying in the center of the lane. When he turned onto a major road, he saw by the street sign he was on Blue Hill Avenue. Jesus, he thought, I was way off. This fucking city, with its neighborhoods within neighborhoods. They might have been in Grove Hall, Mattapan, Savin Hill. Fucking suicide, tonight of all nights. He thought of Gwen and his boys—Warren, Leon and George—tried to keep them focused in his head, as much as the booze would allow. His jaw shook at the realization of what could have happened.
Somewhere around the Milton town line, finally out of harm's way, Sherm heard a squeaky sound. He looked over at Lenny. Bent over, laughing. Tears streamed down his cheeks. Sherm started to laugh too. Huge convulsions of relief and joy. He had to pull over.
"We don't want . . ." Sherm tried to speak through the laughs, the car now parked at the side of the road.
"Want what . . .?" Lenny managed through the gasps.
Sherm thought of Lenny running from the bar holding out his glass. "Don't want to draw attention . . ." It was hard to breathe. ". . . to ourselves."
On Monday morning Sherm stood looking outside his kitchen window. Warren and Leon had already left for school. Third grade and fifth already. Damn, he thought, hard to believe.
"You gave him good directions?" Gwen said from the kitchen table.
"I thought so."
He watched little George sit contentedly on her lap. Three years old. He remembered how badly Gwen had wanted a third. Still no girl, though. The idea of trying until a girl popped out made his insides curdle. He hoped they were done.
"Maybe his wife doesn't want him to associate with you." He sensed her staring from the chair. "No more nights of drunken debauchery."
"Here he is," Sherm said and walked over to Gwen. He kissed the tiny wrinkle at the side of her mouth, then caressed her neck beneath her thick blonde hair. George leaned toward him and Sherm kissed the top of the boy's head.
"Home right after work tonight?" she said with a grin, having dressed him down the better part of Saturday.
He kissed her again and said, "Home by six."
They sat at a table under posters touting the importance of safety in the workplace.
"So, a deacon, huh?"
"Yeah, my wife got me involved. She's been teaching Sunday school for years."
"What do deacons do anyway?" Sherm said as he unwrapped his tuna on rye.
"I'm kind of like a PR guy for the church."
"And you tell people . . . what? How the church can help them?" A drop of pickle juice fell to his lap. He wiped it with a napkin.
Lenny gulped from a can of iced tea, then said, "It started that way. But I don't talk up the church as much as I used to. A lot of these people, it's not the church they need, it's money. Anyway, I run the outreach programs, promote all the events we sponsor, picnics, dinners, field trips."
"My favorite part is just talking to folks. There's this one kid, Chester, at the Corwin Houses. I've known him since he was two. I bring my mitt when I visit. Sometimes my son comes along. We play catch for a while, shoot the breeze." He swallowed a bite of his sandwich and washed it down with the iced tea. "That's the good part."
"There's a bad part?"
"Bureaucracy, red tape . . ."
"Exactly. And . . . hypocrisy . . ." He approached the word gingerly, as though he no longer wanted to discuss the subject. "But it's a small price to pay if I get to do the other things."
"Like play catch with Chester."
"Precisely." His face glowed for an instant. "Good ole Chester."
On the ride home Lenny said, "You know, you should come to the Kelton Cinema some night I'm working. Bring your wife." The radio crackled in the background.
"Yeah, I'm a projectionist, part time."
Sherm had to laugh. "So you got a full-time job. You're a deacon. You show movies. And you got a wife and what, two kids? You're not Superman too, are you?"
"I do fly," Lenny said, almost apologetically. "I take pilot lessons."
"You want to fly planes?"
"Like what, Delta, American?"
"Well, I can only afford a little at a time. Then I have to log an insane amount of hours. Plus, Joanne's mother isn't doing too well, so we spend a lot of time in Pennsylvania looking after her parents."
"I'm sorry," Sherm said.
"I'd give up everything to fly," Lenny said after several minutes of silence. "Not my family, but the rest of it, the jobs, the deacon stuff. To soar through the clouds. Dream come true." He adjusted himself in the seat as though the car couldn't contain him.
The newscaster was relaying the fallout of Westmoreland's gaff of requesting 200,000 more troops. What a fucking mess, Sherm thought. He was going to say something, but figured he shouldn't. Touchy subject.
"What about you?" Lenny said.
"What, me fly? I'm happy being a passenger."
"No, I mean dreams. What do you do when you're not at work?"
The first thing he thought of was the boys. The weekend drives. The jigsaw puzzles and toys and models. The sports. Didn't seem like enough. He considered telling Lenny he volunteered for Unicef or something. Then he realized he wasn't even sure who Unicef helped. Starving children maybe. "I spend my time with the kids."
"What about before the kids, before Gwen?" He slowed for the Harrison Boulevard exit.
Only minutes from home, Sherm thought. Can't get there soon enough.
"Come on, man, I spilled my guts."
Fuck it, he thought. If you can't talk to a deacon, who can you talk to? "I played piano as a kid," he said quickly.
"Why'd you stop?"
"I took lessons at a community center. They sold the piano." He chuckled to himself at the memory of his mother blowing her stack when they'd been told of the piano's fate.
Lenny turned onto Sherm's street. "Didn't your school have a piano?"
"Yeah, right," he spat a laugh. "Where I went to high school, boys that age didn't play piano."
"Did you consider playing after school? Study music?"
"Yeah, with all the money I had." He thought of the shit jobs he'd scraped together after graduating high school. "Ended up joining the Navy." He recalled the ruthless cold, the monotonous drudge work, then the camaraderie, the horseplay. "What about you, you serve?"
"Nah, I got an exemption," Lenny said as he pulled up in front of Sherm's house. "My father split when my sister was a baby."
Sherm reached for the handle. "Well, thanks for the—"
"Were you in Korea?"
"No, I ended up in Iceland."
"We were in Iceland?"
"Yeah, thank God. We kept hearing these stories about LSTs unloading troops on Korean beaches. Kids getting their heads blown off before reaching shore." Sherm hardly ever opened up about himself. Truth was nobody really asked. Something about Lenny made talking easy: the way he nodded, the gentle tone of his voice, the encouraging sound he made once in a while without actually saying a word, like a quiet hum.
"There's a piano at the church," Lenny said after Sherm climbed from the car.
"Na, I don't think . . ."
"Why not, you can use it nights, weekend. Whenever you want."
Sherm closed the door and leaned down toward the open passenger window. "They wouldn't mind?"
"I can make it work."
A few minutes later—the kitchen filled with children relaying events of the day and the rich scent of meatloaf and gravy and roasted potatoes—he thought of the ancient turreted community center on the corner of Jensen and Cadish, the mildew stains on its walls and ceilings. And that scratched-up piano with the busted wheel.
That evening, Sherm told Gwen about Lenny's offer.
"You should do it." Gwen sat on the bed rubbing cream into her arms and elbows.
"Gwen, I haven't touched a piano in over twenty-five years."
He settled under the covers and kissed Gwen for a moment longer than their usual goodnight peck. The smell of Jergen's filled his nose.
"What's that for?"
"For saying I could take lessons."
"Well, why not."
"Seems kind of silly spending money on that when it could go toward the kids."
He remembered sitting on the piano bench all those years ago; the sound of notes crept into his head, like porch chimes at first, then becoming stronger, confident, more fierce.
His eyes closed, but he didn't sleep.
Lenny and Joanne were waiting outside the theater when Sherm and Gwen pulled up under the Funny Girl marquee. The guys greeted each other with a handshake, then introduced their wives. Lenny escorted them past the ticket booth and up the stairs to the projection booth. It was a tiny space. Two projectors stood side by side, a huge reel on each. Several film cans were stacked in a corner. Lenny explained how the film got spooled, how the frames advanced, how the light reflected the images onto the screen. He showed them the changeover pedal he used when switching reels.
"You sure we don't have to pay?" Sherm said after the ladies left to grab seats.
"I'm allowed a few guests."
"It's one of the little perks."
After the movie, they ordered onion rings and fish and chips at Dockers down the street and talked about how they'd met. Sherm and Gwen at a dance at the old Colonial Hotel on Tremont Street; Joanne, from Pennsylvania, had attended Northeastern and met Lenny at a restaurant where she waited tables.
"Hey," Joanne said, dunking an onion ring in ketchup, "this is fun. We have to do it again."
They raised their drinks and clinked their glasses.
Returning home, Sherm paid the babysitter and Gwen went upstairs to prepare for bed. He was about to turn off the lights when he heard a sound from the kitchen. His middle son, Leon, stood sleepily near the stairs.
"What's the matter, kiddo?"
"Nightmare." His pajama bottoms dragged on the floor as he walked toward Sherm. "I can't sleep."
Sherm squatted and extended his arms. Leon extended his as well then suddenly lowered them, as if deciding he was too old to need comforting for something as silly as a bad dream.
"We need to get you good and tired," Sherm said. He noticed the overlap of Leon's bottom teeth and reminded himself that he had to check if his insurance policy covered braces. "You know how to get tired, don't ya?"
Leon shook his head.
"Ya gotta run," he said, standing up and jogging in place.
Leon followed suit, laughing, pumping his arms and legs as fast as he could.
"Knees up. You call that running? Come on!"
Leon drove his arms even harder to keep up with Sherm. His face glowed red, highlighting a scar from when he'd fallen from his roller skates last year.
"Here we go." Sherm started jogging around the sofa.
Leon chased him. They circled the couch about ten times, then stopped, bending forward, breathing hard.
Sherm opened his eyes wide and said, "You know how else you get tired?"
"How?" Leon panted.
"Hugging!" He hoisted the boy into his arms and held him tight. "The harder you hug the more tired you get."
Leon squeezed with all his might. Sherm's nose fell perfectly into the curve of his son's neck.
"That a boy," Sherm said, setting him on the couch. He plopped down next to him, a bit winded.
"What's this," Leon said, pointing at a booklet on the end table.
"Took down some old books and things from the attic." Sherm reached for the book and placed it in the boy's lap. "What's that say?"
"Piano for beginners." The boy opened the book to an illustration of fingers placed over piano keys. He placed his own fingers over the fingers on the page. Then he pointed to the opposite page and said, "These are notes."
Leon turned the page and placed his fingers over some of the other illustrations, his attention still captured by the drawings and notes.
"You like music, don't you?"
Leon nodded, not looking up.
Sherm's heart raced at his son's interest in the book. "Remember that concert at the library?" He saw Leon smile at the memory. "And at the park gazebo, when everybody danced?"
"Yeah, I remember," he said, stifling a yawn.
Sherm turned the pages to the middle of the book. "You know this song?"
"Yeah, everyone does."
"Sing it with me."
Sherm took his son's hand and pulled him from the couch. The boy kept hold of the book.
They sang quietly as they moved across the den toward the stairs. "Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are. Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky. Twinkle, twinkle little star . . ."
The door squeaked when Lenny pushed it open. The lights revealed a rectangular room with a half-dozen throw rugs scattered over the cement floor. In a corner lay a mountain of lettered building blocks and toy logs. The battered wood grain piano stood against the opposite wall near a child's table and chairs.
"There you go," Lenny said. "I think it works."
Sherm walked over and played a middle C. It sounded like it had been tuned fairly recently. Not pristine exactly, but better than what he feared.
Lenny clapped. "Wow, you're really good.
Sherm laughed along.
"All right, I'll be upstairs about an hour. Enough time?"
"That's great, thanks.
Lenny closed the door. The bench was in better shape than the piano, which had been standing up against the heat vent for God knew how long. Shameful, he thought. You'd think whoever tuned the thing would've taken better care. He pushed the piano a couple inches away from the wall, then sat on the bench. His fingers settled on the keys to begin a C major scale. He played slowly, picturing the hammers striking the strings, imagining the decades of grime and crust building between the keys. He switched to D major, hoping he could play all twelve without screwing up.
Price tags danced in his head. How much would one of these cost? It wouldn't have to be new. Eyes now closed, he recalled the piano from long ago. He recalled Mrs. Donovan. The way she tapped the side of the keyboard to the tempo of the metronome. The metronome. He had hated that thing at first. Then he'd grown to depend on it. Then, in the end, he'd disregarded it completely.
"So what's the movie tonight?" Gwen said as they turned onto Washington Street.
"I don't remember. Lenny said Dustin Hoffman's in it."
"My, look at the crowd."
About thirty people stood under the marquee and across the street. As they got closer, they saw that many of them carried wooden signs: "Say No To Straw Dogs." "Families Against Violence." "Rape is BAD." Some of the protesters wore sweatshirts with UPC across the front.
As they moved along with the other cars, Gwen said, "Oh, there's Joanne."
Sherm saw her waving from the sidewalk. She walked beside the car until he was able to pull over and park.
"Why the protesters?" Gwen said.
"Everyone saying it's too violent. They're saying there's nudity and rape."
"What's UPC?" Sherm said.
"United Parents Coalition. I know some of them from church."
"Are we going in?" Sherm said, heading toward the door.
Joanne stayed put.
"What's the matter?" Gwen said.
"They're . . . well, they're part of our congregation." Her face seemed gripped with fear, as though the protesters might attack her.
"If you'd rather . . ." Gwen looked at Sherm. "We don't have to see the movie. We can get something to eat. Right, Sherm?"
Sherm didn't care about Straw Dogs one way or the other. But he didn't like the idea of do-gooders telling him what he could or couldn't see. He thought of the newscast he'd watched over breakfast. The gay couple killed in Cambridge. Attica repercussions. The intensified bombings in North Vietnam. And these assholes are worried about a movie. "Why don't you guys go eat. I'll see the picture and grab Lenny when he's done. We'll meet you after." He turned to Gwen. "That okay with you?"
"I'm sorry," Joanne said. "I'm being a baby, but . . ."
"No," Gwen said. "We understand. I'm not crazy about seeing the movie."
They made plans to meet at the Ludlow Street Café, then Sherm walked through the throng of protesters into the theater.
After the credits, he studied the poster in the lobby. Hoffman wearing those shattered glasses. Creepy. Even creepier after having seen the movie.
The concession girl, a high school kid, walked along the back of the lobby dragging a large trash bag. Sherm strolled to the glass door. Outside two policemen stood on the sidewalk, one eyeing the few remaining protesters, the other watching the theater door from the police car at the curb.
After a few minutes he heard the high school kid shout, "Good night, Lenny."
Sherm watched the protesters. One was putting his sign in the trunk of his car. Sherm didn't get it. Yes, the movie was violent. And the woman suffered horribly. The whole thing was grisly, yet too complex to dismiss; it tackled marriage, love, friendship, war, politics, mental illness, religion. But it was simple too, like a western, with everything leading up to the final standoff.
The lobby lights darkened. Lenny strolled around the corner. "Where're the ladies?"
"Joanne got nervous with the protesters," Sherm said nodding toward the street. "I guess some of them are from the church. She felt . . . I don't know . . "
Lenny took a key ring from his pocket and opened the theater door. He glanced at the final protesters driving away. Locking the door, he said, "Well, they have a right. It was pretty gruesome."
Sherm didn't think the point worth arguing, so he just watched Lenny lock the doors.
"So what's the plan?" Lenny said, pocketing the keys. "Are we meeting them—"
"Excuse me, Lenny," one of the policemen said, approaching from behind. A burly guy wearing a jacket a size too large.
"Hey, Norman," Lenny said. "Everything quiet tonight?"
"Oh, yeah, no trouble."
"This is my friend Sherm . . ."
"Lenny, there's a little problem here." Norman removed folded papers from his back pocket. He spoke softly, apologetically. "We got an arrest warrant. For you."
"Me?" Lenny stepped back.
"Let's do this quietly, okay? Just—"
"This is crazy," Sherm said. "What did he do?"
Norman lowered his voice even further, then unfolded the papers and pointed. "Distribution of pornography."
"Pornography?" Lenny said.
"What!" Sherm shouted. "Come on, it's not like he owns the place. He just runs the projector, for Christ's sake."
"The owner's got it comin' too." The officer shot a hard glance at Sherm, then stared at Lenny. "See this my way. I'm being told what to do. So just get in the car. We'll work out the details at the station."
"Ah . . . I . . ." Lenny stood there, rattled. He looked at Sherm.
"Give me your car keys," Sherm said. "I'll pick up Jo and Gwen and meet you."
A passerby turned toward the scene with mild curiosity as Norman's partner opened the cruiser door. Lenny slid in, then looked through the closed window like a lost child. Sherm bumped the glass with his fist and watched the car roll away.
"Another one." Sherm said, pointing at the article in the Enterprise.
Gwen sat across from him, sprinkling sugar on her grapefruit. Pink curlers lay stiff along her hairline. "Anything new?"
"All the papers say the charge should be dropped. Poor guy was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Why it's even news is beyond me."
Lenny's church wasn't as generous. They appreciated—"deeply appreciated" Lenny had said—his and Joanne's contributions, but appearances needed to be maintained. They were asked to resign. No more deaconship; no more Sunday school.
Three days later, the Enterprise discovered a link between the zealous prosecutor and the United Parents Coalition, and the charge against Lenny and the two owners was dropped.
"Joanne went straight back to church," Lenny said on the way to work the morning after he got the news. "To get her class back."
"No dice," he said, staring out the side window. "Screw them. There're other ways to help the community. Joanne, though, she loved teaching her kids those Bible stories. Me, I said let's find a new church. Who are they to judge us? Especially Joanne. She didn't do anything wrong."
"Neither did you." A slight mist had started. Sherm turned on the wipers.
Silence lingered. Sherm thought he heard Lenny mumble to himself. At some point Lenny said aloud, "I don't even go to church anymore. That literacy program I started at the library is taking off. I spend my Sundays there."
When Sherm killed the ignition in the garage, Lenny didn't make a move.
"You all right?" Sherm said.
"I guess," he said, reaching for the handle, then stopping. "This whole thing, though. It's taking a toll on Jo."
Sherm twirled his keys, not sure what to say.
"What miracle?" Sherm said, pulling the tab from his beer and tossing it on the coffee table.
"The movie theater. The owners are opening up a string of theaters along the east coast. I met with them. We talked about all the crap Joanne and I had to endure. They felt I went above and beyond. Anyway, they want me to manage one. Whichever location I want."
"Tell them the kicker, Len," said Joanne.
Lenny looked at his wife and smiled. "There's one in Pennsylvania, about twenty miles from Joanne's dad."
Joanne said, "We've been going back and forth since my mom died. Should we move in with Dad? Should we move him up here with us? But this answers the question for us. It's fate, right, Lenny?"
"Wow," Sherm said, "no more LabTech."
"I know," Lenny said. "Almost four years. Can you believe it?"
"Time flies," Sherm said.
"We'll miss you guys," Lenny said. "But this is a great opportunity. I'll be a general manager of a huge complex. It's one of those . . . you know . . . multiplexes. They show four, five, six movies, all under one roof."
"Yeah, they've been talking about opening one at the mall."
A moment of silence passed before Joanne said, "We'll keep in touch, though, of course."
Gwen and Sherm both said, "Sure, sure."
They were gone about three months when Sherm removed an envelope from the mail box with a "Harrison, PA" return address. With Gwen beside him at the kitchen table, he eagerly opened the letter. It contained a picture of an old stone church. A note on the back in Joanne's scrawl read, "We've joined my mother's old church. They took such good care of her when she was ill. And I teach Sunday school! We miss you both. Lenny's busy with the new job. He sends his regards."
"That's it?" Sherm said. "No real letter? No phone number?"
"We should write back."
"Dear Lenny and Joanne," Sherm said. "Thanks for the picture of the church. We'll cherish it forever."
"Don't be a troublemaker. Write something nice."
He did. He wrote a brief letter saying that it was good to hear from them. Both he and Gwen hoped they were settling in comfortably.
Several months passed before a similar envelope arrived. Sherm could tell from the weight that it wasn't just a picture. Definitely a letter. As before, he sat at the table with Gwen and opened the envelope. This time it was one of those Christmas letters that people copied and sent to friends and relatives. Lenny's job was going well. The kids "loved" their new school. And their new church was "heaven sent. Ha ha ha."
"Are they shitting me with this thing?" He turned the letter over to see if Lenny had written something on the back. No such luck. "This doesn't peeve you?"
"Oh, here's a card." Gwen removed a small card, which contained type-written words.
"What's it say?"
She laid it on the table. They read. It relayed a story about a Jewish used clothing salesman whose car breaks down on the side of a road. A caring Christian pulls over and lends a hand. The Jew sees the light and converts.
"Huh," said Gwen. "A parable."
"It's a . . ." It's a disappointment is what it is, Sherm thought. "I don't know . . ."
"It's like a prayer card, Sherm. She's trying to be sweet."
That night Sherm wrote a response. He provided a few lines updating Lenny and Joanne on the children—the sports teams, Leon's piano lessons, schoolwork. Then he thanked them for keeping in touch. He especially thanked them for the conversion story and suggested that the real reason the salesman "saw the light" was because there was probably more money in selling Bibles than in selling used clothes. Sure, it was a jab; he didn't like the idea of being just another name on a mailing list. But he also thought it was funny. Lenny would think so, too. If not . . . well, fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. What he really wanted was a response.
Apparently they couldn't take a joke. Months passed without a reply. He wondered if his Bible salesman comment had caused them not to write, to obliterate their friendship. Probably not; it was more likely the distance. Or perhaps the friendship would have faded even if Lenny and Joanne had remained in Kelton. Everything had a lifespan: plants, animals, humans. Friendships too.
Sherm thought of Lenny many times over the years. Like in '79 when a church broke ground across the street from the fairgrounds. A couple years later he was sitting in the stands at the University of Massachusetts stadium for his oldest son Warren's graduation when he remembered that Lenny's oldest was the same age. He wondered if Lenny's boy was graduating this spring, too. He thought of Lenny whenever he sat at the piano. He thought of him most Martin Luther King, Jr. Days, and he thought of him again when Coretta Scott King passed away early in 2006. Toward the end of that year, on December 26th, he turned on the radio in the den and heard that James Brown had died and remembered the night he'd watched James Brown at Malachy's with Lenny.
As the newsman listed James Brown's accomplishments, Sherm sat back on the sofa and quietly wept. Not for Brown; he'd never been a huge fan. Not for Lenny, either. Sherm had understood decades ago that he'd never see his old friend again. The truth was he wasn't sure why the hell he was crying. For Christ's sake, he thought, just let a man cry if he wants to cry.
Warren stayed at the house one Christmas. Brought his wife and two kids, all four of them running around and making a mess of things. Fine with him as long as Gwen didn't mind. He noticed everyone huddled around a laptop. He stood behind them to see what they were making a fuss about. One of the grandkids sensed him there and said, "We're updating our Facebook page."
"Oh," Sherm said. He owned a computer, used email occasionally. And he had his favorite websites on the Internet, out of town newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post. He couldn't for the life of him understand this surfing business, though, sitting in front of the screen all day. He knew about Facebook and the other things too. MySpace, Twitter. YouTube he enjoyed, with all the old footage so easy to access.
"Hey, Dad," Warren said, turning from the computer. "I got friended by three guys from high school this week."
"Ah, great . . ." Sherm said, turning away, then thought . . . friended?
About to leave the living room, he wondered what results would come from punching Lenny's name into Facebook. No, he thought. Silliness really. But the kids' giggles held him in the doorway. "Warren, can we try something?" They typed in Lenny's name. A long list of possibilities filled the screen.
"Let's narrow it down," Warren said. "Does he live in Massachusetts?"
Hundreds of names still remained. Sherm said, "You know what, never mind."
A stupid idea, this Facebook thing. Glomming onto people and wanting them to glom onto us. Like those hideous TV families that cracked open their mean ugly lives for all to see. As though anyone cared. But we do care! he thought, suddenly sad and anxious. For some reason we do care.
He sat on the piano bench in the den, lifted the cover and plunked a low C.
"Are you gonna play, Grandpa?" little Jessica shouted from the living room.
"Come on over," Sherm shouted back.
When Jessie appeared in the doorway, Sherm slid over and patted the bench. Jessie climbed up with a little assistance from Grandpa.
Sherm played a few notes and said, "You know that song?"
She shook her head wildly. Her straggly light brown hair flew around her shoulders.
"But you have such a pretty voice. Will you sing if I sing?"
She shrugged, then said, "Okay."
"Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are . . ." He improvised a jazzy riff; his hands floated over the keyboard, his fingers dipped and jabbed.
"That's not the song," Jessie said.
"It's there," Sherm said. "You just have to listen for it." He played for a few more seconds, then said, "Ready? One. More. Time."
Together they sang: "Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky . . ."
The family arranged a dinner for Sherm's seventy-fifth birthday at Ivan's Patio in Taunton. Toward the end of the meal he excused himself. Coming out of the bathroom, in the corridor that led to the dining room, he noticed a man about twenty years his junior looking at him very carefully. Sherm offered a nod and a smile and was about to continue toward the dining room when the man said, "Excuse me, sir."
Sherm turned around and faced the stocky, friendly-looking man. His skin was fair and his forehead filled with reddish freckles. It was his unruly red hair, slightly graying, that finally triggered Sherm's memory. Son of a gun, if he could only remember his name.
"Sherm, right?" the guy said.
Sherm extended his hand. They shook. "I'm sorry . . . I . . ."
"No worries. I'm Calvin. We used to—"
"Oh, I remember. LabTech."
They stepped over to the coat racks, out of the way of the foot traffic in and out of the bathrooms.
"Are you still there?" Sherm said.
"No, I'm at ConEd. Been there almost five years."
"That's swell. Good."
"Well, it was nice to see you, Sherm."
"Likewise, Calvin. Take good—"
"Hey, you know who I saw last summer? It's the craziest thing, running into both of you. I was at Hersheypark with the kids and I'm sitting there . . ."
Hershey, Sherm thought. Pennsylvania.
"You know, they got these picnic tables set up everywhere. You ever been?"
"Well, I'm sitting at one of the tables. And this man comes up to me. You know him, you guys were tight."
"Lenny . . ."
"Lenny, right, right. He's there with a crowd of people. Family reunion, I think. He asked for you. Of course I hadn't seen you in years, so . . ."
"Was he all right? He looked healthy?"
"Oh, yeah. You know what he said? He said he became a pilot."
"Really?" Sherm folded his arms over his chest and found himself beaming in the dim hallway. "He always wanted . . ."
"Said he was with Eastern for about ten years. He got out before they went belly-up. Worked somewhere else for a while, Continental maybe. 'A dream come true,' he said. I'll never forget the way he said it, his face all lit up like a kid."
"Wow, that is something."
"I'm glad I remembered," Calvin said.
They said goodbye and Sherm started back toward his table. He realized his fingers were tapping the side of his leg like they did when he heard a song he particularly liked. But no music played in the restaurant.
He smiled at the thought of Lenny in a cockpit. Then remembered the night they ran away from that Roxbury bar, Lenny holding out his beer. Damn, it still made him laugh.
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