sully's life

The life and times of Cleveland firefighter John Sullivan. (Fiction)

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Sunday, September 18, 2005

Chapter Sixteen

Ah, God. Grace.

I should have known better.

I should have known better than to ever have walked through the door of her house. All the saints and angels couldn’t save me now. Maybe I can save myself, but I’m no saint and no angel, and I wonder if it’s even any use trying.

Not that it was a bad evening, or that anything particularly dramatic happened. Actually, if you had videotaped the whole thing, I don’t think anyone would be able to point out anything wrong or unusual. Certainly nobody would be able to say, “This -- this, then, is the point at which John Sullivan once again lost control of his life, his heart and the sense he was born with and placed it into the hands of a woman.”

It wasn’t obvious. It never is when it’s real. But the heart knows what the mind will not allow.

I got to Grace’s house around 7:30. The address she gave me turned out to be a nice little brick house in West Park, nothing fancy but a solid, pretty little post-WWII bungalow. Turning onto the street and approaching the house, I noticed immediately that there were rosebushes surrounding the porch -- mostly floribundas, but one climber on a trellis. I wondered if they had come with the house or if Grace had planted them herself. The floribundas were nothing special, but the climber was a Gloire de Dijon, I was pretty sure, even though it would be a few months before it broke dormancy. The canes had a familiar look to them, and it was the right growth habit. Gloire de Dijons will pull down a trellis and even a wooden porch if they aren‘t pruned carefully. From the look of it, someone had known what they were about with a pruning shears. I wondered if it had been Brad or Grace.

I hadn’t brought wine -- I just couldn’t see opening a bottle of wine with dinner all for myself. Grace doesn’t drink, Seanny isn’t supposed to and Kate is nine years old, so what would have been the sense in that? But I did have one arm around a big bag of groceries: some fresh French bread, a sack of apples, some fresh vegetables for a salad, a few bags of snacks for the kids. In my free hand I carried a 12-pack of Vernor’s ginger ale, to which Grace ad always been partial. I figured if she wasn’t drinking any more, it might be appreciated and…

My thoughts were interrupted by a four-legged Fury of brown fur, drool, tail and toenails flying a me from behind the shrubs at the side of the house, knocking me flat on my ass and sending apples rolling down the driveway from the spilled grocery sack. “AOOOOOF! AOOOF! UFF! AOOOFF!” roared The Thing.

The front door opened and an auburn-haired little girl ran out and down the steps after the dog. “Tick! TICK! STOPPIT! BAD dog! BAD, bad dog! STOPPIT!”

Tick stopped it, all right, long enough to grab the loaf of French bread and run like hell toward the back yard.

I pulled myself to my feet, attempting to retrieve the renegade apples and dust sidewalk salt off my navy blue trousers without looking too stupid. Much easier said than done.

“Hi,” I said, extending a hand. “You must be Kate. I’m John, an old friend of your mom’s.”

“She said your name was Sully.” She said this not with an air of inquiry but as if straightening me out on a matter regarding which I was obviously confused. She shook my hand firmly and quickly -- more like shaking on a bargain that a “how do you do“. “C’mon. I’ll get the rest of that. You ought to go in and sit down. Honestly, that damn dog -- sorry.”

I wasn’t sure if she was sorry for the language or the dog’s behavior, but she didn’t give me much time to consider it. “I’m Kate,” she said, grabbing up the Vernor’s, and proceeded to steer me by the elbow up the front steps and into the house.

As soon as the door opened, the rich aroma of roast beef made with garlic greeted my senses. There was something else, too -- cinnamon? A pie? I accepted Kate’s instruction to “Sit down right there on that couch, and I’ll get Her for ya.” I chuckled at the slender little figure retreating through the swinging doors of the dining room. The square shoulders, the brisk gait, the absolute no-nonsense attitude with which she seemed to regard her world -- whoever had told me she was like Grace had been wrong. Kate was Grace at that age.

I looked around the living room, which was furnished with very simple, sturdy furnishings in neutral tones -- Grace’s picks, I was sure. The décor was simple, earthy and welcoming -- a stoneware vase with some dried sunflowers, a low coffee table with a few picture books -- “Ireland: A Photographic Portrait”, with an introduction by the redoubtable J. P. Donleavy, a book of Ansel Adams’ work, and a photo album bound in unbleached muslin with a few sprigs of some dried herb tied on with ribbon.

I started to open the photo album when Grace came through the dining room doors, wiping her hands on a linen apron and looking flushed from the stove heat. Her haor was out of place in charming disarray, a wavy strand falling into her eyes.

“Well!” she said, grinning broadly. “Look what the dog dragged in! I hear you met Tick.”

“Oh,” I said. “Then it was a dog. I thought maybe you’d taken to raising wildebeests.”

“Sorry about the bread. That great idiot. I just fed him, too, to make sure he’d behave while you’re here. Ah, well,” she finished. “What’ll you have, John?”

“I brought some Vernor’s. I’m fine with that.”

“Sure you won’t have a beer? I bought a six pack of Anchor Steam in honor of your visit. Nobody here will drink it, so if you aren’t having one now I’ll send it home with you.”

“Oh, you didn’t have to do that. Um, sure, I guess; thanks…if it’s not going to bother you.”

“If it’s going to bother me, I’m in more trouble than can be fixed by your not having one,” she said a little cryptically. “I want you to enjoy yourself. It’s not much of a recovery if I’m not capable of showing hospitality, now is it?”

I had to allow as it wasn’t. Being tremendously fond of Anchor Steam, I concluded the only polite thing to do would be to drink it. Manners are so important.

Grace brought back a small tray bearing a cold bottle of the beer with a frosted mug, and a stemware glass filed with something effervescent, a neat curl of lime peel dangling from the rim. “Pellegrino water,” she said. “I’ve become a mineral water snob, I’m afraid, and this is the only stuff I like now.”

I admired this. I always thought of people who “couldn’t drink” as being relegated to consuming Hi-C from plastic tumblers. I found the sophistication endearing. Not sure if “brave” is the right word, and certainly not a word she’d want me to apply, but there was something heartwarming about it. Okay, another word Grace wouldn’t want me to apply.

As we sat and made small talk, sipping our drinks, I watched Grace’s face intently. Not so that she’d notice and be uncomfortable, but still, I wanted to take in every detail. It occurred to me that what I was doing was memorizing her in case this was the last time I saw her for a long time. “Taking pictures with the heart,” we used to call it, a hundred years ago when we were dating. A hundred years ago, they didn’t have digital cameras, I thought. This made me smile.

“Well, it’s nice to see you smile, anyway, John,” said Grace.

“Ya bring that out in me, Grace,” I said, broadening the smile to a grin.

But I remembered that I hadn’t come to talk of the weather, nor to flirt with Grace, and I asked her, “Grace, is Seanny around?”

“Oh, he’s around, up in his room, I imagine, unless he snuck out. He does that a lot. I tried to get him to promise that he would stick around tonight, at least for dinner, but I’m afraid if he knows that’s what I really want, he’ll do the opposite. It’s as bad as that.”


“Yep. The only reason he even agreed to stay tonight was that we’re having roast beef, which he loves, and apple pie. That and the fact I told him you were coming. He still remembers you. He adored you, remember?”

I did indeed. I remembered Seanny as a sturdy, active, outgoing little fellow with a huge cheery grin and a warm, friendly manner.

Which is why I was so ill-prepared for the person coming down the stairs, I guess.

Seanny had changed, all right. He had grown tall, muscular but lean, with finely planed features and rugged good looks. At least, what you could see of his face. He had hidden most of it under a maze of facial hair, cut in lines and patterns according to the current “raver” fad. We had a young guy at the firehouse who had done this. We called him “Crop Circles” until he shaved.

Seanny’s attire was a Hot Topic goth/raver/punk collection of skull wristbands and necklace, a black t-shirt bearing the jolly lowercase motto “you suck“ -- quite the icebreaker -- clown-wide black jeans with enough hardware to open a Home Depot fasteners counter, and bright red-orange tennis shoes with flames airbrushed onto them. For a tall kid with not much to him, the effect was unfortunately more comic than scary.

“Seanny,” Grace said. “You remember Sully, right?”

“Hi,” said Seanny flatly, looking bored.

I extended a hand. Seanny continued to stand there. It was awkward. Ugly awkward. As it was obviously intended to be.

“Right,” I said, and withdrew my hand, trying not to let my irritation show. Something told me it would have pleased him immensely to piss me off, despite his apparent flat affect.

“Seanny,” Grace said, an edge barely discernible in her voice, “why don’t you go wash up for dinner, okay?”

Seanny mumbled something and disappeared back up the stairs three at a time.

“You’d think he’d trip in those pants,” I commented.

“I wish he would,” muttered Grace. A pained expression clouded her features, and she pressed her lips together. We sat silently for a moment. At last she spoke again. “John, I didn’t say that,” she said. “I know I said it, but that wasn’t me. It’s been….rough.”

“I kinda gathered that,” I said. “He’s not exactly running for office around here, is he?”

“I don’t mind the sullen stuff, the brooding stuff, the rebellion. That’s natural. But Jesus, John, sometimes I think he hates me. Or maybe not just me. I think he hates everybody. Or maybe just himself….” she finished, musingly.

“Well, part of it’s the age. But I think maybe a part of it too is what’s happened. And maybe the problems with alcohol affected him. Uncle Eamonn drank a lot, and you say you had a problem, so who knows? Maybe it’s true, this stuff they say about it being hereditary. Is he drinking a lot?”

“Mostly I think it’s the drugs. But he’s drinking too. I think he just pretty much uses whatever he can get ahold of. And these friends of his are just…God, John, they’re just such assholes.”

For Grace, possibly one of the least judgmental people I know, to lump a whole group into the “asshole” category seemed at least as good an indicator of the severity of the situation as anything. (I was going to say “pigeonhole”, but then you have “pigeonhole” and “asshole” and the whole thing just doesn’t work…well, anyway.)

Kate burst into the living room and announced, “The potatoes are done. Ya better come on and eat, because they’re not gonna keep.”

We got up and headed toward the dining room, Grace calling briefly at the foot of the stairs for Seanny, who appeared momentarily. He seemed a little less sullen but I couldn’t be sure if this was because of an effort to improve his disposition or the prospect of roast beef and apple pie.

Dinner was, incidentally, absolutely delicious. Roast beef rare, rubbed with garlic and herbs, a potato souffle type dish with cheese and fresh green beans with bacon and onions. Kate had taken the fresh vegetables from the groceries I had brought and put together a very presentable salad. I have done my share of cooking in the firehouse and if there’s one thing I can appreciate it’s a good meal, especially one that someone else took the trouble to prepare. Everything was wonderful.

We had a very pleasant meal together. Seanny snapped out of his funk well enough at least to speak when spoken to. Grace and I were exchanging news on mutual acquaintances, and Kate supplied stories of schoolmates and offered a rundown of Tick’s genealogy. “He’s part Boxer and part Malamute,” she said, “and Ma thinks he may have some Airedale in there too. He is,” she finished with authority, “a mutt’s mutt.”

When we had finished the main course, I got up to help Grace take the plates into the kitchen. We were getting dessert plates for the pie, and Grace called out, “Seanny, will you please put these out on the table?” when we heard the front door close with a soft click.

“Dammit! He always does this,” said Grace.

“Ditches the dishes?”

“No, leaves without telling me where he is going. He’s off to get loaded with the friends, probably.”

“Will he be back tonight?”

“Who knows?”

“I hope not,” said Kate, who had come in to expedite the pie delivery system. She said this quite matter-of-factly while taking the vanilla ice cream from the freezer.

I was struck by such bitterness in one so young, but said nothing. It showed in my face though, known so well to Grace.

“She’s just used to it, Sully. She’s had to put up with a lot. Last week he swiped her bike to go to a friend‘s, someone took it, and we found it in a dumpster. And he said it served her right for leaving it unlocked.”

“Oh, shit. Seriously?”

“Very seriously.”

“Jesus Christ, Grace, he’s twenty years old! What kind of grade school bullshit is that? Doesn’t he even want a job? Or to make something of his life?”

“Sully, it’s as if the ability to care about anything was just left right out of him. All he seems to care about is partying and avoiding work. And getting on my last nerve,” she finished, putting the ice cream neatly on top of the pie slices. “He’s really had it in for me, for some reason.”

“Probably because he knows you won’t go anywhere. I mean, look -- he never knew his biological father, right? And God knows I didn’t stick around long. And then there was Brad -- well, you left him, but still, you‘re the one consistent person in his life. He knows you aren‘t going anywhere, so you‘re the lucky recipient of all his “angry young man” bullshit.”

“When did you become John Sullivan, licensed psychologist?” laughed Grace. “But you know what? I think you’re right about all that.”

We retired to the living room after dessert. The incredible Katie, who was fast becoming my favorite kid after my nephew Jay, offered to make us a pot of coffee. “I know how,” she assured me. “I help Ma when the AA’s come over.”

“Katie, darlin’, you’re my good girl,” said Grace. “But no thanks, sweetie. I think it’s about time for you to get ready for bed. Is your homework all done?”

“Nah. But it’s just spelling words. I already know ‘em.”

“Katie….” Grace cautioned.

“I know, I know, ‘there’s always room for improvement’, okay, okay.” She did a little sigh-and-eyeroll bit indicating that no matter how many times you explained things to some adults, they just didn’t get it, and it was a waste of breath arguing with them.

Katie stuck out her hand briskly, and I solemnly shook it.

“It’s nice to meet ya, Johnny Sullivan. Yer all right. Stay safe, okay?” Before I could respond, she had scampered halfway up the stairs.

“What an incredible kid,” I said.

“Thanks. She’s a handful, but it’s mostly because she’s very bright. She’s actually not a behavior problem excepting when she’s being stubborn. You have to know how to handle her. She’ll do anything for you if you work with her, but draw battle lines with her and you’ve already lost.”

“Imagine that,” I said.

“Are you being smart?”

“Oh, no, no, no. Not at all. It’s just that I have never known anyone like that in my life and can’t fathom where she gets it.”

Grace smacked me playfully with a small couch cushion. There was a time when that would have quickly resulted in some pretty rambunctious sex. I’m not saying it wasn’t an attractive idea, but it wasn’t appropriate even to think of it. Or was it? This was confusing.

“Well, anyway, she’s a great kid. Now. About the Seanny question….”

“I was hoping you would talk to him. Obviously, that isn’t going to happen tonight. But you see what I’m dealing with.”

‘Yeah, it’s bad. Seriously, do you think he’d listen to me?”

“I don’t know. You stand at least as good a shot as anyone. Certainly better than I do.”

“Well, I’ll try. I don’t know how much I have to offer him, though.”

“Sully, I wouldn’t have called you if I didn’t think you could help.”



“Well, maybe the best we can do is for me to try to get ahold of him again a little later. At least now he knows I’m around….”

“Are you?”

“Well, yeah. I’m around if you need me. You called, I came over, right?”

“Right, well….”

There was something she and I weren’t’ saying, and I didn’t know where to go with this. I tried changing the subject.

“So, this AA thing, this sobriety -- it’s working for ya, huh?”

“Sully, the drinking just had to go. I was a mess.”

“Hard to imagine, but I’ll take your word for it. You were never a mess that I knew of.”

“We all have our bottoms. Mine still hurts where I hit it.”

I laughed. “You’re a caution. Always were.”

Grace smiled fondly at me. “Yeah, well, you tore up a few miles of road yourself back in the day.”

We looked at each other. It seemed like a very long time passed. Finally, Grace lifted her hand and touched my face.

“John, I don’t want you to feel obligated here. I turned to you for help because I don’t know what else to do with Seanny. I’m not looking for anything else.”

“But if something else should come of it?”

Long pause. Long, long pause.

“We…I guess we shall see, won’t we?”

“Yes, Grace, I guess we will.”

I leaned toward her and gently kissed her. She returned the kiss, gently at first. But it was like we never had been apart. People say that sometimes, and until you’ve felt that way you just don’t know…how close, how quick, how dear….how passionate…and how fast it all comes back….

Memories washed over me. I wanted more and knew more was not mine to take. Grace’s soft, warm mouth, her agile tongue, her soft lips…

“Grace.” I stood up, hugged her to me a little bit. “Grace, I have to go.”

“I know,” she whispered, her eyes lowered. “I’ll walk to the door with ya.

We walked to her door, and I gently kissed her forehead, and she raised those eyes to me, those hazel and olivine eyes, so tender and expressive, and stood on tiptoe, kissed me quickly on the mouth, and said, “Stay safe, Johnny Sulivan. Until we meet again.”

I got halfway across the porch, turned and said, “That will be…when?”

She looked at me, shook her head, blew a kiss and closed the door.

God damn it. I’d settle for a night’s sleep, let alone a way to figure this out….

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Chapter Fifteen

Well, I don’t like to be bored. It’s a good thing, too.

I took the half-tour for Bones, who went home with the flu. I don’t mind filling in when a guy is sick or needs a day, because it’s a chip you can always call in, and besides, it bugs me to think of the house being short a guy. The thing about having A, B and C shifts is that there is always a long list of people they can call, but if somebody asks, I say yes. No skin off my ass and generally comes in handy at some point.

It’s almost a rule, though. If you take an extra shift or a half, you’re in for some fun. Stuff that would never have happened seems to have a way of coming together -- what the news analysts are always calling a “concatenation of events” -- any time you’re overextended, you’re in for a ride. I don’t mind; it’s just how it seems to work out.

Tonight was no exception.

Early on, it was the usual for a Saturday night. There were a bunch of kitchen fires, an out-of-control barbecue in some guy’s garage -- by mid-February, Cleveland people are tired of winter and longing for a taste of outdoors -- and the usual smattering of false alarms and minor medical emergencies. Neighborhood stuff. Some lady locked herself out of her apartment, and she was half drunk, and I let Derrico talk to her, having had enough of that particular dish for awhile. She was pretty cute, but it didn’t help her case with me that her name was Jennifer, and as long as we could get her into the apartment, I really didn’t care to investigate the perks. I wore my hero hat Friday night, and it’s been my experience that if you’ve seen one drunk broad, you’ve seen ‘em all, at least for one weekend. It all depends, I guess, on how desperate you are and how lean a stretch it’s been, but after the Jenny debacle, I was good for at least a week.

Of course, Derrico the comedian was all jollies on the ride back to the house. “Drunk AND cute and her name was Jennifer. I think she smokes too, Sully. Shoulda given that one a go, brother.”

“Have I ever told you the joke about the shithead firefighter who keeps teasing his buddy about the drunk broad? No? It’s a long story. I’ll just give you the punch line: Fuck you.”

“Jesus, you’re not sore or anything, are ya, Sully?” He made a little noise like he had had too much to drink and was about to blow guts. Very convincing.

“Derrico, I hope your wife is in a three-day bad mood for ya. I hope your kid gets online with your credit card and buys a whole whorehouse. I hope the goddamn…”

The radio interrupted this cavalcade of kindly thoughts with a call for an address over in the ‘hood. The truck and engine were both called.

As we turned down the street, McCann, who was driving, said, “Payday, kids. Hope everybody’s rested up.”

It was obviously a good working fire, a hell of a blaze. It was about three o’clock in the morning, so it was likely a bunch of kids or drunks, arson. What we couldn’t make out for a moment was what type of a building it was, standalone on a vacant lot next to some apartments. It seemed like a strange place for a building. Maybe -- wait -- was it a trailer?

No, it wasn’t a house trailer, it was an 18 wheeler. Abandoned, perhaps stolen and abandoned -- but how likely was that? And why the hell was an abandoned 18-wheeler on fire? Must be a case of arson for fun rather than spite or profit, unless it was full of goods.

Well, it turned out to be full of goods all right, and as we rolled up, we also saw it was full of people. People were everywhere. Climbing out the back doors, standing in the lot, and some running and jumping the fence. A couple of CPD zone cars were pulling into the lot just as we parked. We got the pumper started, and the truckies got onto the roof and started venting it.

A guy was running across the lot and we shouted at him, “Hey! Anybody inside?”

“Oh, man, everybody was inside!” he yelled, and kept running. One of the cops shouted for him to stop but he was over the fence before they got out of the car.

It didn’t take long to get the fire knocked down, but the people standing around didn’t stick around to volunteer any information. They were off and down the street, melting away like the patches of February snow on the asphalt around the truck.

But when we got inside, the site itself told a story.

Inside the burned-out hulk of the eighteen wheel tractor trailer was the semi-destroyed remains of what had apparently been an illicitly operated bar, also known as a cheat spot. There were several folding card tables, a few wooden crates that had been draped with plastic cloths to serve as the bar, and an old plywood entertainment center stocked with a few dozen bottles of cheap liquor. They had everything -- brandy, vodka, bourbon, liqueurs, even a few fancy flavored vodkas. There were two Coleman coolers full of canned soda -- club soda and ginger ale, mostly -- and another cooler full of ice. Plastic cups were scattered everywhere, some melted together and stuck to the floor.

There were posters on the walls that looked like somebody had swiped them from a travel agency -- there was Italy, France, Spain and a huge outdated map of Russia that said “USSR” in block letters and hung crookedly over the bar back. There was also hanging over the bar a crudely lettered poster board that read: “Bar Drinks Three Dollars And No We Cant Take Checks So Don’t Even Ask. No Guns And No Drugs. The Management”. The sign was smoke-stained and warped by the water and hung crazily at an angle by its remaining thumbtack, but the printing was still clear. We weren’t sure whether the “No Guns And No Drugs” part meant they weren’t allowed or weren’t supplied. “Gotta bring your own, I guess,” said Derrico.

The source of the fire became readily apparent when the smoke had cleared. Running through the center of the truck was a collection of four or five frayed extension cords connected end to end. This was connected to a huge spotlight -- far too big to be supported by the power drawn by the misfit collection of cords -- which was trained on an improbably large mirrored disco ball suspended from the ceiling by a couple of coat hangers and some fishing line. Running off one of the plugs on the extension cord was a boom box. The cord had started a fire in one of the cheap throw rugs scattered around the floor, and the fire had spread to the glitter-impregnated gauze which someone had attached to the walls with a staple gun. It was a regular Four Seasons ballroom in a box.

“Hey, Sully,” said Cullen, “what do we do with the stuff that’s left here?”

A big red-faced cop whose badge identified him as Officer Degyansky had just lowered himself through the vent hole we had hacked in the ceiling. This really wasn‘t necessary since the truck‘s doors were wide open, but whatever. He bellowed out: “You don’t touch it. Crime scene.”

“He’s new,” I said. “He’s just trying to help. A probie.”

“Well, you better control your men,” snarled Officer D.

“Hey,” I said, “there’s no need to get that way about it.”

“Yeah,” said the cop, “and the next thing you know the booze disappears from the scene.”

“Oh, you know,” I said, “you’re right about that. That would be a goddamned shame, because then there would be none left for the cops.”

“Sully,” started Derrico.

“I got it,” I said. “Come on, Cullen, you don’t want to hang out with the criminal element here. You’re off to a good start and I don’t want ya getting corrupted.”

“Listen, asshole,” the cop began.

“Ah, keep yer goddamn hair on,” I said. “Come on, guys, let’s clear the scene. There’s stuff left here that hasn’t been stolen yet, so let’s let the cops do their jobs.”

“You got a problem with cops, jerkoff?”

“Oh, nooooo, Officer. In fact, one of my cousins is a cop. A uniform in the Second District.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s his name?”

“Pogue. Pogue Mahone.”

For the uninitiated, pogue ma thoin means “Kiss my ass” in Irish Gaelic. I figured there was no way somebody named Degyansky was going to get this unless he was half Irish, and this guy didn’t look half anything but stupid.

So we parted on fairly good terms. Derrico, who has hung around the mostly Irish firehouse long enough to become culturally enriched, turned away so the cop wouldn’t see him laughing. We walked outside with Cullen and started helping with the takeup.

As we rolled out of the lot, the cop waved a reasonably civil goodbye and asked warily, “Now what is this cousin’s name again?”

With a mind like a steel sieve, I had just about forgotten the exchange. Derrico was at the ready, though.

“Pogue Mahone,” he cried cheerfully. “If you know Pogue Mahone, you know every Irish firefighter in town.”

To say I found this funny is quite an understatement. I said to Derrico, “Ya know, for a complete shithead you do okay sometimes.”

We rolled back to the house, and when I got to my bunk and checked my cell phone, there was another message from Grace. I didn’t really want to call her so late, but Grace is a night owl just as I am, and since we’ve never stood on ceremony, I decided to go ahead and return her call. May as well get it over with, I figured. Her messages were never long or detailed, just “Call me when you get this.” If I wanted to know what was up, I was going to have to call her.

We have a little exercise room just off the shower room. I think it was meant to function solely as alocker room, but we’ve managed in the last few years to kick in here and there and raise ourselves enough money for some workout equipment. Nothing too fancy -- a couple of weight benches, a weight machine and a treadmill. Enough to keep us fit and keep us from going stir crazy in bad weather when we can’t get outside. Anyway, it’s far enough from the bunks to be somewhat private, so I took the phone in there and dialed Grace’s number.

“Hello?” Grace’s voice sounded tired, but not as if I had woke her up.

“Yeah, Grace, it’s me. Sorry I didn’t call you before this…”

“That’s okay; I never said what it was about.”

“Anyway, what’s up?”

“Sully, it’s…it’s Seanny. It’s…well, it’s about me and something I’ve done…”

“Grace, what? Are you okay?”

“No, no; let me finish. What I’ve done isn’t bad. But Seanny…”

“What did he do, the little shit? You want me to straighten him out for you?”

“Johnny Sullivan, will you please for once let me explain before you jump in, guns blazing? I’ve managed these last fifteen years on my own -- got married, had a baby, got divorced, all that -- and now you want to save the day for me. What’s going on is big and it’s going to take some explaining, and you can’t solve it with a bigger hammer.”

“Okayyyyyyy…then, what’s the trouble? I’m all ears.”

“Let me start at the beginning, or at least where the touble began…oh, Jesus, John, it’s such a mess….”

“Easy, Grace, easy. All will be well, remember?”

This had been our code phrase for years. “All will be well”. A school friend of Grace’s got it from the biography of some saint or something, Julian of Norwich, and passed it on to Grace, who passed it on to me, and we drew on it for everything from family deaths to running out of money before payday.

“Well, I hope you have some time to talk,” said Grace.

“I do,” I said, “and what concerns you concerns me, so let’s get it all out on the table.”

“Well, you remember in the old days how we used to drink and carry on?”


“Well, Sully, that’s part of what went wrong in my marriage. I was still drinking long after the party was over. You know how I used to get so drunk sometimes that I wasn’t making sense and didn’t remember anything the next day?”

“Well, hell, Grace, everybody does that.”

“No, John, not everybody. At least, they’re not supposed to. And certainly I’m not supposed to. John, I’m an alcoholic.”

This struck me as pretty extreme. Now, that girl from the other night, Jenny -- she probably qualified as at least an alcoholic in training. But Grace? My Grace? Well, not that she was my Grace, but….

“Grace, don’t paste a label on yourself. I’ve never even seen you drunk. Sure, you liked to tie one on back in the day. We all did. Still do.” Here I ruminated on my own none too stellar history with the bottle of late. “But Grace, don’t be too quick to judge yourself. What is this, some kind of support group speak?”

“No, John, no” she said slowly. “I drank too much for too long. And this isn’t sudden. And I’m not drinking any more. As a matter of fact, with the help of God and the support of my fellows, I haven’t had to take a drink in eighteen months.”

“Wow. Well, that’s great. But the divorce? I thought that was recent.”

“It was. It was finalized last month. My marriage survived my drinking, but it didn’t survive my sobriety. It happens.”

“Oh….well….I’m sorry.” I mean, what the hell can you say to that?

“Anyway,” Grace continued, briskly shifting focus, “this isn’t about me. It’s about Seanny.”

“Yeah, okay, well, how can I help?”

“John, he’s lost. He’s totally confused and a mess. He started using drugs and drinking some time last year and I thought maybe he’d snap out of it, but it’s gotten worse. I thought the divorce and the move might actually help -- you know, the fighting and the tension ended, it got us away from his old crowd…”

“How’s Kate doing?” Kate, Grace’s daughter, is nine and looks and acts just like her mother, according to my many sources among family and friends. In my perhaps biased opinion, there needs to be a man in their lives in the future just to keep the shotgun trained on prospective suitors. Grace would probably be more than capable of handling that, though, if my experiences with her are any gauge. Anyway.

“Kate is fine. She isn’t happy, of course, misses her dad -- Brad and I have a split custody arrangement…”

Brad. Grace had actually married someone named Brad. I had forgotten that.

“…and Kate is doing fine in school, staying in touch with old friends, making new ones. But Seanny is about to drive me mad.”

“He in any legal trouble?”

“No, not yet….But John, this whole thing…it’s threatening my sobriety. I mean, I’m not about to rush out and get drunk. But it’s the water torture thing. He gets high in his room, I find the stuff, throw it out…he stays out all night, I change the locks, he climbs in the window…he gets mouthy with me, I call the police…they say there’s nothing they can do…”

“Wait a minute. Isn’t…err, Brad…isn’t Brad supposed to be helping you out here? How old is Seanny, anyway?”

“He’s nineteen. And Brad never had official legal custody anyway. And even if he had, John, they never got along.”

“Yeah, that sounds bad. Listen, Grace, do you think it would do any good if I talked to him? I mean, he may not even remember me…”

“Oh, yes he does. You know that little Tonka fire engine you gave to him when he was five? He still has it on his dresser.”

For God’s sake. The stuff we do that we never figure will matter a bit to anyone, and here come to find out….

“Listen, if you think it will do any good, I’ll talk to him for you. Just don’t hold me responsible for the results. Every time I’ve talked to anybody lately I seem to hve made bad matters worse.”

“Well, since he’s neither working for you, supervising you or sleeping with you, I’d say you stand a prayer in hell.”

“Thanks, smartass.”

“You’re more than welcome. When shall I expect you, then?”

“Tomorrow okay?”

“I have to work during the day, but why don’t you come over for supper around seven?”

“Okay; I’ll bring a bottle of wine. What kind…oh, wait….I guess I shouldn’t…”

“Sully, I don’t give a damn what’s in your glass; I only concern myself with what’s in my own. Kinda like the old days.” I could hear the sly mischief creep into her voice. “If you want something for yourself, bring wine. I’m drinking club soda. We’re having roast beef. See you at seven.”


She had already hung up. God alone knew what I was getting myself into, but it would be good to see her. I wasn’t sure I understood all this business about her being an alcoholic, but I trusted her judgment.

Now if only I could be sure I can trust my own.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Chapter Fourteen

What did I say? What did I say about being an Indians fan? And being optimistic?

Jesus H. Christ on a cracker. What the HELL was I thinking, imagining this Jenny business could go well?

All right, so maybe it wasn’t a total disaster.

No. Bullshit. It was a disaster.

I pick her up at eight, right? We are going to go to TGI Friday’s, no place fancy, it’s just a first date, and all we want to do is have a few drinks, a bite to eat, get to know each other a little better. Then, if we hit it off, I had plans to take her to a movie, maybe an after-movie drink, maybe a smooch or two in the car or in front of her apartment, then who knows? I could call her next week, we could go out again…you know the drill. Blah and et cetera and on into the relationship, until Sully fucks it up or until the girl breaks it off for unexplained reasons, or until we hit it off and bells ring and fireworks explode and this is The Girl, and I pop the question and she accepts and we get married and have a house full of rug rats named Hadley and Brielle who will take dancing lessons and get straight A’s while their mother goes to medical school and I make Chief and…..

All right, all right. Out of all the scenes I’ve outlined, which one seems most likely to you?

Yeah, okay, whatever. But I can guarantee you the scene which took place tonight would not only never have occurred to you, it would never have occurred to me either, or I would never, NEVER have asked this broad out. And if you know me and know of my distinct habit of non-selectivity in the ass-chasing department…well, anyway. It ended badly, and if the guys at 19 ever hear about this, I am never hearing the ass-end of it, until they plant me. Let’s just hope to Christ we don’t get any trauma runs this month, or that, if we do, Jenny, may God bless and preserve her dear sweet ass, is not on duty over at Metro.

Anyway. I pick her up at eight, at her townhouse apartment, a nice little place in Broadview Heights (lovely name for a community, incidentally), and she comes out before I even get a chance to ring the doorbell.

“Hi,” I smile. (I am always very sharp with the smooth lines on a first date.)

“Hi,” she says. “Ready to go?”

“Ready if you are, gorgeous,” I smile. “Where to? Friday’s still sound good?”

“Terrific,” she smiles back, and I help her into the cab of my truck. As I do so, I notice a distinct note of something additional in her cologne. I am hoping it’s not tobacco smoke, but maybe it’s just a kind of general musky smell. Maybe her neighbor smokes and she was over there visiting. And alcohol. I think I can smell alcohol, too. Bourbon whisky, to be exact. Despite years of inhaling every kind of toxic gas and fume known, I still have a bloodhound’s nose. I really wish I didn’t. Stuff that other people can’t even smell will keep me awake nights. Derrico, the smartass, calls me “Dr. Lecter”. Anyway. Maybe Jenny had a drink after work or something, and that’s what I’m getting. I decide to ignore this and we head out.

We chat along the way, mostly about work, about our respective jobs, and I notice that Jenny is a lovely woman, in a young Debra Messing kind of way. Long, blonde hair, delicate features, creamy complexion. Not built badly, either. A fine armful of a girl, as Uncle Owen would say. Not beautiful, but lovely. Very pretty.

We are playing the radio, searching around the dial for something good, and a song by Mariah Carey is on the local Top 40 station. Now, Mariah Carey has a lovely voice, but I don’t like her choice of material, and I would probably rather have someone work on my bare ass with a tattoo needle for twelve hours than listen to an entire Mariah Carey CD. This, however, is not an appropriate observation for a first date, and so I just smiled silently.

“Mariah Carey! Oooh, I LOVE Mariah Carey!” said Jenny.

I continued to smile and kept my opinion to myself. It’s a wise man who keeps his mouth shut until after dessert, if you get me.

We continued on to Friday’s, which was, of course, crowded, even the night before Valentine’s Day, and gave my name so that we could get a table.

“Smoking or non?” asked the hostess.

Jenny jumped in, “Would we get a table faster if we sit in the smoking section?”
“Probably so,” said the hostess. “We’re pretty busy right now, so it might improve your chances.”

“Okay, we’ll go with that. Okay with you, John?”

It took me a second. I honestly do forget that I have a first name sometimes. By the time I recovered my wits, we had agreed to sit at the first available table, smoking or non.

Meantime, we sat at the bar, and I ordered my usual date drink, which is a Guinness. They have more bang than a beer and are considered a little less hardcore than whisky, and might even hold you until dinner. Plus there’s all that “Black 47”, “hard man“, U2 bullshit mystique involved there.

Jenny ordered quickly, “Manhattan, no cherry, and a twist, please. Rocks.”

“Wow,” I laughed. “I don’t think I’ve heard anyone order one of those since my Aunt Peg was living.”

Jenny laughed. “It’s kind of an old-fashioned drink.”

“No,” I said. “That would be an Old Fashioned.”

We chuckled at that, her probably more to be polite than because it was such a witty remark. We sipped our drinks and made some conversation about the weather, which was intensely slushy and nasty at the moment, and about the movies -- the usual first date stuff. As we finished our drinks, the bartender asked us if we would be having another, and I started to say that we were expecting our table any minute, but Jenny immediately said “Sure!” Not wanting to appear either a lightweight or a tightwad, I nodded. Usually I am careful not to drink too much on a first date, but Jenny didn’t seem too concerned about it, so I decided to lighten up a little.

We drank some more and talked some more, and the little electronic pager went off, telling us our table was ready, and so we found the hostess, who guided us to a table that was smack in the middle of the smoking section. I wasn’t too keen on this, but figured I’d just try to go along and have a good time rather than make a fuss.

As we sat down and were presented with menus, Jenny excused herself to the powder room and departed through the blue haze surrounding our table.

As I looked over the menu, a waitperson approached with two fresh drinks.

“Thanks,” I said, “but we didn’t order these.”

“The lady ordered them, sir,” he said.

Huh, I thought. I’ll be goddamned. Well, that’s fine. As long as we are having a good time, I reasoned….

Back to the table came Jenny. Jenny and her freshly lit cigarette.

“Um, hey,” I said. “I didn’t know you smoked.”

“Do you mind?” she smiled.

“Not as long as you don’t force me to smoke too,” I said. I knew it was a lame thing to say, but I figured we had got this far with the evening and were having an okay time, and everybody was happy, there was no need to be a jerk about it. I had seen and dealt with worse things. You have to give people a chance.

This is usually your first and worst mistake in this situation, though it is usually by no means the last one.

Jenny downed the remains of her original drink in one gulp. She then grabbed the fresh drink as if it were the cure for cancer and took three long swallows. She finished this off with a luxuriant puff on her cigarette, most of which went straight in my face.

I was rapidly becoming unimpressed.

“Would you like to order now?” I asked, in a tone that I hoped implied this was more a polite command than a request for information.

Jenny tossed back her long, blonde hair, took another sip of her drink and said brightly, “Oh, we don’t have to hurry on that, do we? What’s the hurry? We’re just getting to know each other. In jobs like we have, we so seldom get to relax -- let‘s not hurry.”

I don’t know what it was -- maybe the extra drink, maybe her using the same word three times in rapid succession, maybe the smoking -- but my “oh, shit” alarm was going off with a clang. This date was not going to end well, but God willing, it was going to send soon. I had every intention of feeding this broad, hauling her tipsy, nicotine-addicted ass home and calling it a night.

“Let’s get some food and talk about it more.”

“Sure!” she said. “C’n I have another drink?” She was already lifting her glass to summon the waiter.

Well, what could I do? I could have ended the date right there, I guess, but I didn’t want to be the bad guy, and I don’t like scenes. I’ve had my share of scenes with drunken babes being told they can’t do what they want to, and you may trust me, my brothers, when I say I have done your research for you and you aren’t missing anything. Like Jesus, I have suffered so you won’t have to, if only you will heed my word.

Anyway. I okayed the drink, compounded that with the mistake of ordering another for myself, to calm both the nerves and rising irritation that were beginning to make this night anything but fun, and made an utterly ineffectual attempt to steer both the conversation and the course of events toward at least an approximation of “normal” and “fun”, words one generally associates with voluntary social activities.

Looking back, I should have just called a cab, sent her inconsiderate ass wheeling home, and gone home to watch basketball and drink beer with Chester. I would have been better off, would have got my laundry done, and would have avoided the entire rest of the evening with Jenny. But then, I wouldn’t have anything to tell you, would I? You had damn well better appreciate this, dear readers, whoever you are.

Just as I was trying to persuade Jenny to order some food, she excused herself to the ladies’ room again. When she returned to the table some fifteen minutes later, I was aware that she was shitfaced drunk, totally plastered. She could barely walk. Her lip gloss, a too bright vinyl pink, was smeared, her hair, which had looked so soft and touchable earlier in the evening, was shellacked back with what appeared to be Gesso, and there was a raccoonish coat of fresh eyeliner ringing her once blue and now very red and blue eyes. She plopped herself down in the chair, which spun rakishly around, and all but bellowed, “HEY! Waiiiiterrrrrr! How about another drink for me an’ my friend here?” She then turned to me and said, in an exaggerated whisper, “You are my friend, aren’t you?” She followed it with a leering wink that reminded me of nothing so much as Bette Davis in her turn as “Baby Jane”.

I summoned my courage. Coward that I am, I took a gulp of Guinness first and savored my last few seconds as a non-hated non-“Bad Guy“.

“Jenny,” I said. “I think you had something more to drink when you left the table. Now, I think it would be a good idea if we ate something right now, and if you didn’t have any more drinks until after we have some food.”

“Oh, bullshit,” she said, with what I guess was supposed to be a dismissive wave of her hand, but which knocked the paraffin candle over onto the tablecloth, where it promptly ignited.

“Jesus everloving Christ,” I said, and grabbed the nearest thing I could find to smother the flames. It was, unfortunately, Jenny’s oversize purse. It did a fine job of smothering the small blaze on the tabletop, but the drawstring cinch at its top came open and the contents came tumbling out, including two packs of Camel filters and a pint bottle of Black Velvet with a very loose cap, which of course, came off. Whisky, cigarettes, lipstick, ragged Kleenex, stray earrings, a few tampons, a small address book and a roll of peppermint Life Savers tumbled to the floor out in a merciless cascade of embarrassment. I was almost glad for Jenny that she was so goddamn smashed. With a little luck she wouldn’t remember any of this.

“Could we please have our check?” I asked the waiter, who came rushing over with the manager?

“HAHAHAHAHAHA!” shrieked Jenny. “He’s a goddamn fireman and we started a goddamn fire! How fucking funny is THAT?”

Apparently, a hell of a lot funnier to her than to anyone else in the place. I gathered the drunken woman, her sodden purse, jacket and possessions and handed the waiter a fifty dollar bill.

Steering a woman in that condition toward the door of a place she does not wish to leave is no mean feat. I have carried people weighing three times Jenny’s weight across some treacherous paths, but I have had the advantage that they were either passed out from smoke inhalation or at the very least they wanted very much to get the hell out of there. No such luck here.

“HEY! Whaddya mean, we gotta leave? We were just getting’ started! What about dinner? Hah? Aren’t we gonna eat our goddamn dinner? I mean, what the FUCK?”

I did what I would do in any situation where a person objected to being carried away from a dangerous situation. I slung her over my shoulder and carried her out of the restaurant, away from the stunned and snickering patrons, a few of whom applauded, and to the relative safety of my truck.

With some difficulty, I managed to maneuver Jenny into an upright position in the passenger seat, and I climbed in and started the truck over her shrieked objections. But as I pulled out onto the road, she shut up for a few seconds, looked at me with bleary-eyed admiration, and said, “You just carried me out of there. Just fuckin' picked me up and carried me out of there. That is soooooo sexy, baby.” And to my horror, she began to hike up her skirt.

Fortunately or unfortunately, she didn’t get very far. Midway through this maneuver, she made a noise resembling the firing of a small steam boiler, and abruptly and thoroughly vomited -- all over herself, and all over the newly detailed upholstery of my truck.

Jesus Christ in garters. Up to now, I had been the picture of patient chivalry, but my truck! My freshly washed and newly detailed truck!

“Goddammit,” I shouted, “couldn’t you have at least rolled down the goddamn window?”

She did what all drunken women do as a matter of last recourse. She burst into tears.

“You didn’t h-h-h-h-have to yell at meeeeeeee,” Jenny began wailing.

“Oh, for the love of Jesus, shut UP,” I muttered, half to her, half to myself.

That was it. This tore it. This couldn’t have been a worse balls-up if I had planned it this way. But I was wrong.

As I floored the truck in hopes of getting this daffy broad home and the hell out of my truck, my sight and my future agenda, what should I spy in the rearview mirror but the flashing lights of a Broadview Heights zone car?

I pulled over and showed the cop my ID. They don’t take kindly to much deviation from the norm in beautiful suburban Broadview Heights, and if he had wanted me to take a Breathalyzer, he probably would have had me dead to rights. Still, the cop took one look at the sobbing and by now hiccupping, vomit-covered broad to my right, glanced at my firefighter’s union card, sniffed the air of the truck and must have figured I had enough problems. I didn’t mention Jenny’s job because I didn’t want to embarrass her, though I might have gone that far if it looked like a tie-breaker was needed. The cop let us go with a warning. He did the second worst thing he could have done, though, only exceeded by writing a brother a ticket: he snickered.

Oh, well. A Broadview Heights cop’s snickers didn’t cost me a couple of grand in fines and three mandatory days in the slam, so I guess I can forgive him that. I’ve certainly done my share of giggling and even downright guffawing in similar situations, so I just nodded as a thanks for the professional consideration, and he waved me on my way. I dragged Jenny up the steps to her door and fished her keys out of her purse, carried her inside and laid her down carefully on the bed, on her side to avoid choking. Just to show what a prince of a guy I am, I very thoughtfully dug in the broom closet for a bucket and left it on the floor beside her lovely head, lest she have need of an emesis basin during the night.

Christ, what a night. And when I got home, there were two messages: one from Grace, and one asking if I could go into work the next day and take a tour for a guy who had the flu.

Happy goddamn Valentine’s Day. Is it baseball season yet?

Chapter Thirteen

Well, that’s set up. I’m picking up Jenny at eight tonight. Valentine’s day is tomorrow night, but we figured we’d grab a bite and maybe see a show tonight since it might not be easy to get show tickets or a table tomorrow.

I’ve been trying to call Grace all goddamn day, and all I get is her message machine. I left a message on the first try, but I’ve had stuff to do around here, and I don’t want to sound desperate.

It’s not like I’m worried or trying to impress her -- I’ve known Grace almost all my life, for Christ’s sake. But I don’t know her situation, and I don’t want to scare her off. That’s one thing about Grace. She tends to bolt and run, especially if she feels pressured. I don’t know why that is, but it’s a good thing to know, especially since I’m not interested in having her drop out of sight for several more years just because I said something stupid.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I won’t say something stupid. I just don’t want to say THE something stupid, the one thing that will trip her trigger. Saying stupid things to women happens to be a specialty of mine, a craft I’ve mastered after twenty-plus years of practice. I like to think that in a field of experts, I stand out as one of the all-time virtuosos. I am goddamn Bob Feller throwing a no-hitter when it comes to saying stupid shit that no woman in her right mind can respond to with anything like a positive reply. But most women will at least take a crack at it. Maybe they like the challenge; I don’t know. But Grace won’t even take a shot. You say the wrong thing to Grace, and you are leaving the ballpark, they’re turning out the lights and nobody’s seen her since the bottom of the third inning.

Heh. Baseball. I miss baseball, especially this time of year. I know the Indians are warming up in Winter Haven, but it’s still too long until Opening Day. I can’t stand the thought of no baseball for almost two months.
Baseball is important to me for many reasons.

Some of my earliest, fondest memories center around baseball. It has consistently, throughout my life, been the one thing I can depend on to pretty much be what it is, what it appears to be and what it promises to be. This has nothing to do with winning or losing, promises of another type entirely. I am talking about baseball's basic promise: it Is. Strikes and other nonsense notwithstanding, Baseball Is.

I remember as a very tiny child, listening to my parents and our friends and relatives discussing the Rocky Colavito trade. I had the sense something happened to someone we knew personally. Those adults, who would later try to drag me to church and civic organizations and teach me manners and compassion, had already accomplished that in part. They were together, mourning a loss, and determined that one individual's or group's bad behavior (in this case the evil manager Frank "Trader" Lane) would not determine their overall outlook or their opinion of the institution. "Ah well," they would say, "I'm still gonna wait and see what happens. It's a long season."

And, from their perches on the sunwarmed concrete steps of the back porch, they would take a pull of their Stroh's longneck, a puff of their Lucky Strikes, and start discussing the Tribe's chances for '66. When you are exhausted from a long day's work at the steel mill, the railroad or the firehouse (or from washing all the work clothes twice -- there was no "extra rinse" cycle in those days -- and hanging baskets of soggy, heavy cotton clothes out to dry -- in those days women didn't need weight training for 'toning') -- when you are exhausted and sore and losing hope for the world's state, it is a good thing to sit on one's porch on a summer night and talk baseball.

If you minded your manners and got good grades in school, the nuns would tuck a pair of Indians tickets -- box seats! -- into your report card. The Tribe gave them to the Diocese, and the Diocese gave them to us. They were printed paper tickets, red or orange, and they were a Sign from Above that good work is rewarded -- maybe not immediately or as specified, but 'if you do A, then B is a reasonable expectation' -- another lesson baseball taught me early. You would bug your dad every day from school's closing to game day. Then, when the big day came, you would climb into the passenger seat of the '59 Oldsmobile, Da at the wheel, and wave as solemnly to the neighborhood kids as if you were a head of state being chauffered. You'd go down to the game, and the Indians would of course not win, but your old man would buy you Sno-Kones and hot dogs and peanuts and lemonade, and he would drink several waxed paper cup beers, and you would get to watch the names you heard on the radio actually working in the field, and it would be wonderful. It was like proof the saints existed or something. Duke Sims, Leon Wagner, and the heartbreaking Sudden Sam McDowell, all there in living color, just as you had heard of them on the radio and watched them on the old black and white Philco with the foil on the antenna. It was as close to proof of the existence of something greater as some of us got, and there you were at your Dad's side, taking it all in.

Summer evenings, when my Dad worked overtime or night shifts or was out with the boys, my mother and we kids would listen to baseball on the radio. Ma was always busy with something -- painting a porch, repairing cabinets, stripping varnish from woodwork -- and baseball was her background noise. It was usually the Indians, but she wasn't averse to listening to a Reds game if we could pick one up -- growing up in rural Indiana, she was a big-time Reds fan too. So Ma would work, and baseball would be on the radio, and we would "help" by getting in her way, or we would sit on the porch playing with cars and trucks, or Kevin would come over, or my older brothers would be hanging out with their friends, and we would listen to the Indians and to Herb Score. Wounded by a wild ball at the height of his career, Score went on to become one of Cleveland baseball's most beloved voices. So, right there, I learned multitasking, the virtue of keeping one's mind engaged while working, and, from Score, that a career-ending injury can be the start of something else.

All my life, baseball has been there. It was the only 'date' on which I really felt comfortable during my adolescence because I knew and understood what was going on, there was something to talk about, and we were in a public place and out in the sun. Movies and other indoors entertainments were not as enjoyable -- I had to make small talk and had to pray I didn't make a complete klutz of myself, such as a gangly, tall guy like myself does at dances and miniature golf. If I could talk a girl into going to a baseball game, though, she was on MY territory, baby, and confidence was mine. Plus the likelihood of her old man suspecting me of being an axe murderer, a pimp or a Communist was considerably lessened.

When later in life I went through some troubles, I could always count on listening to a baseball game to make me feel better. It was a combination of happy childhood memories, the orderly predictability of nine innings and 27 outs in most cases, and enough flexibility that it didn't always happen that way, thus keeping it interesting. When Grace was going through her first divorce, and she would come over, there was nothing unaffordable, immoral or challenging about our sitting at my wobbly wooden kitchen table, swigging beers and listening to the '86 Indians take a worse trouncing than even we had taken in our personal lives. And there was always the remarkable Tom Candiotti to remind you that even in the worst of times, there is something to look forward to.

Baseball is a constant down at 19, too. Sitting around the firehouse listening to baseball, out on the concrete apron on a summer evening watching the girls go by, drinking lemonade or occasionally some beer somebody sneaks into the house -- well, there is nothing better than that. That and watching the poor goddamn cadets polishing the engine while we sit there on our webbed folding aluminum lawn chairs, telling them they missed a spot.

Through all the ups and downs of my life, baseball has been a constant. I do not admire the way it has become a money sport, and I do not like the crybabies. But I have a feeling that just as music survived disco, the Church survived Vatican II and fashion survived the '80's, baseball will endure.

It HAS to, for Christ's sake. I am not going to die, happy or otherwise, unless Cleveland wins a Series in my lifetime, and nobody wants a 118-year-old grouch hanging around.

Well, anyway. I gotta go get ready to pick up Jenny. I hope we have fun tonight. Chester is a pal, but he’s not much company. Always bitching, doesn’t care about anything but dinner or whether I brought him something, hogs the covers, so forth. Which pretty much describes my last six girlfriends, too, but at least Chester can’t talk.

Okay, I am going to try to have a positive attitude here. Maybe Jenny will be all right. New season, fresh start.

Of course, I have to be optimistic. I’m an Indians fan.

Monday, February 07, 2005

Chapter Twelve

Last night we had a couple of standard runs to factories for accidentally tripped alarms, and we also had a small apartment fire with no injuries and only one unit involved, so life is good. I am going home in about an hour to take care of the house, of Chester, the no-good cat, and to get a head start on the landscaping leads for the coming spring. It's not too cold, about 45 degrees F outside, and there's a nice February mix of sun and clouds. Can't complain, wouldn't do any good, as the old saw goes. No reason to, really.

It's kind of odd being home in the middle of the week sometimes. It's like you're out of step with the rest of the world. I am headed home on the freeway at an hour when most people are headed off to work. I like that feeling. It's almost as if I'm playing hooky in a way, even though I just put in a twenty-four hour tour. I have always liked going against the grain, so I suppose in many ways this job is a natural. Firefighters do a lot of things in their lives the opposite way of the rest of the world.

When I get home, Chester will be waiting for me with a sob story of how terribly he's missed me and how cruelly his world has treated him, how he has done nothing but sit by the window and cry throughout the lonely hours. This is mostly bullshit. I know it and he knows it. He's a cat. A big, fat, lazy ginger tomcat who was on life number eight when I pulled him out of the alley behind the firehouse and brought him home with me. Chester's life prior to our acquaintance consisted mostly of scrounging from garbage cans and dumpsters, fighting other male cats, and servicing all the female cats in the neighborhood. That and spraying like a mad bastard. Amazingly enough, that stopped after he was neutered. For some reason, even though I had the vet take a chop at Chester's package and deprived him of his harem, he has not been angry enough with me to spray my house. Gratitude, I guess.

This isn't the story with the other cat, the firehouse cat. We keep him around because he is a good ratter and mouser, because he is friendly, and because he can be good company when he's not in a biting and fighting mood. We took him down to the Animal Protective League and had him neutered too, just because it's a healthier thing for them -- keeps them from wanting to fight and roam. My sister Katie has a bunch of cats, and this is what she says, so we did it. Katie is on a first name basis with the docs down at the APL, and they gave us a two-for-one special on Chester and the firehouse cat.

This cat, however, rather than being grateful that he will spend his days being fed and cared for, developed an attitude. Derrico says he doesn't blame him; if somebody took a whack at our testicles, we'd be in none too shiny and happy a mood either, and I suppose put that way, it makes sense. But the only place in the firehouse that this cat is allowed is on the apparatus floor, where there are hoses and drains. This is because he can spray at a greater radius, at greater volume, and with greater gusto than any animal I have ever seen. This is how he got his name, "Seagrave". A standard Seagrave engine can pump about 500 gallons of water a minute. I would say that Seagrave would give Engine 19 a run for its money. If there was a Cat Piss Olympics, I would bet my house and two vehicles on Seagrave. I have seen him hit moving targets from a good twenty feet away.

We had a Lieutenant who didn't like Seagrave. Lieu would aim a boot at him every chance he got. Seagrave appreciates subtlety and paybacks -- a legacy of his years on the street. So he waited until Lieu was having a conversation with the Batallion Chief after inspection one morning, took aim from across the apparatus floor and doused him across the back of his dress jacket. Lieu jumped a few feet, whirled and dodged. Seagrave wasn't finished. He let Lieu have it right across the shirt front, finishing up with a good blast to the eye. Lieu was jumping and yelling, "That son of a bitch is GONE! OUTTA here! Sully, let's get this bastard!" Seagrave, no stranger to the principle of cause and effect, was suddenly nowhere to be seen, a black and white streak of lightning between the rigs and then nothing. Lieu dove under the ladder trying to grab him and came up with a handful of nothing. The Chief was laughing like hell. I was laughing like hell. Derrico was practically in hysterics. Lieu was as red as 19 and probably a little louder than its siren. Bones was standing in the office doorway, shaking silently with mirth, tears in the corners of his eyes. Cullen came in from the yard, where he had been doing a little work on the flagpole lanyard, sized up the situation and dove into the kitchen lest Lieu see him laughing. A couple of other guys, McCann and Williams, were in the kitchen and immediately called the guys over at 43 to let them in on the hilarity. Good sports reporting requires a color commentator, and we could hear McCann's detailed description: "Yeah...all the way across the goddamn apparatus floor...oh, Christ..Lieu was screamin' like a woman, I tell ya...."

It wasn't long after that we got a new Lieutenant, a guy named Walsh, who's still here now. We like him pretty well, a little better than the old Lieu. We've never had a really bad one in all the years I've been with 19, but let's just say that Walsh is a little more flexible and a little less likely to become flustered at an unexpected apparatus malfunction.

Well. This morning I expect to go home and feed Chester, change his litterbox, do a little laundry, pay some bills and catch up on correspondence. I'm sure there will be a bunch of messages on my machine. There's a girl I was really hoping to take out for Valentine's Day -- since I will be working, it will have to be before or after that. She works second shift at Metro Hospital, so she'll probably understand. I met her in the ER at Metro when I was on a medical run. The EMT's didn't take the run because it was a minor emergency -- some guy was choking on a fish bone, had since dislodged it and was now just being transported for evaluation and a possible psych eval as well -- my work calls for such heroism sometimes -- and she was on the admissions desk. Her name's Jenny -- really pretty girl, smart, good sense of humor. Our patient was obviously going ot pull through, which left us a little time to talk while doing the paperwork. Turns out her brother and my brother Mike worked with the same PAL softball league. We hit it off, at any rate, and it will be nice to have a date with somebody who actually understands the complications of working emergency services for the city. I've been getting a little tired lately of girls who get mad at me because I have to work weekends.

Anyway, I think this morning I will avoid the stop at the Tap House on the way home. As I said, there's something fun about going against the grain, and sitting in my favorite bar on a Wednesday morning drinking beer and watching the rest of the world speed off to work is kind of funny. It's like that Sheryl Crow song about the people drinking across from the car wash. And really, that is all I want to do today is have some fun. But I have bills and house chores, and I am pretty sure I will need to get some serious quality sleep if I am planning a date with Jenny -- I'm sure we'll be out late.

I just wonder what it was that Grace wanted when she stopped by last night. I really want to call her, but I'm afraid to. What can it all mean that she's not married any more? And what is it that she could possibly find so important to talk about after all these years? I'm curious, but, and I hate to admit this, I'm also afraid. A conversation with Grace is always a can of worms -- I have never known a woman who can say more in less time, nor one who could start more trouble,internally and externally, with a few simple declarative sentences. Still, we have known each other many years, and one of the hallmarks of our relationship is that no matter what kind of dealings have gone before, we remain friends always. We have always been there for each other, sometimes in the most unlikely of circumstances, and if Grace needs to talk, then we are going to talk.

I have never forgotten that Grace was there for me when my little brother Paulie died, back when we were kids, and that she understood in a way that none of the adults were able to just what was going on inside me. I know she'd say I owe her nothing for that, but I will always be grateful. And when Grace's brother, Sean, was killed in Viet Nam a year after that, I clumsily tried to return the favor. I don't know if I was a comfort to her, but it seems to me that at times when nothing that can be said makes sense, the greatest comfort anyone can be is to be there for you. Also, when Grace came back home after her divorce form Seanny's father, she leaned on me in ways that neither of us ha forgotten -- I don't think they ever had much of a marriage, and I don't think Grace had ever experienced much happiness in an adult relationship, and, well, we taught each other a lot. During the days after Grace's divorce, we cried together a lot, sometimes for sadness at the bittersweetness of it all, but also sometimes for pure joy. For Grace, the experience of joy is not a simple thing; her joy is transcendent almost in the religious sense. We share a powerful bond, Grace and I. I owe it to her not to leave her waiting to hear from me.

Still, this is going to be difficult, especially after so long a time, and especially knowing that she must be going through more trials, seeing as she made the remark about not being married any more. We shall see, I suppose.

Okay. I am very nearly out of here. I can hear the B-shifters rolling in for their briefing now. I need to make sure that I stop on the way home and get some Pounce treats for Chester and maybe a cold half-rack of beer. And laundry soap. Always laundry soap. I suppose I could pick up some actual food, too, though I am not too fond of cooking for one. Maybe I will grab a couple of steaks for the grill. Grace likes steak....

What am I thinking? Beer for one, steak for one, and Pounce for Chester. That's the list. At least, for now. More later, I suppose. Always more later. I think that's what I want on my headstone. "More later".

Take care and stay safe 'til God wills we meet again, as Uncle Owen would say.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Chapter Eleven

A lot of people think being a firefighter is an exciting life. Much of this is because when you see a TV show or movie about firefighters, it focuses on the action. Fairly or not, people get the idea that we are constantly racing around, responding to third, fourth and fifth alarm situations, rushing from one exciting conflagration to the next. They see us as heroes, warriors, gladiators in the battle against the Red Devil.

We would love it if this were the case, if we were given this much opportunity to be useful, but unfortunately, it's not. A lot of firehouse life is just like your own life at home only more so, as Yogi Berra might say.

We live together, eat together, sleep under the same roof, all one big happy and occasionally slightly cranky family. Since we work in twenty-four hour shifts, that's a lot of hours logged together. Out of each twenty-four hour shift, our engine company will get an average of between twenty and thirty calls a shift. Of those calls, on a busy night for our house, two or three might be what we call working fires, blazes that require a certain amount of throwing our backs into it. Of the rest, there will be freeway accidents, medical calls and about ten will be false alarms. Most of these are accidentally tripped alarms at businesses and residences.

Not many people these days pull false alarms for the fun of it, because it carries substantial penalties. In what my Uncle Owen remembers as the Hough years, during the riots and civil unrest of the late 60's and early 70's, fase alarms were pulled as a form of civil protest, and the busier companies could get up to thirty a night. The greatest problem with this was that for every batch pulled, at least one was a true alarm, and quite often it was a working fire, a serious one, so each alarm demanded immediate response. Those years saw a lot of arson in Cleveland's Glenville/Hough neighborhood.

This reflected the scene for fire companies in every major U. S. city. Arson was in those days not only a crime against property but considered a form of protest. Large urban areas that had fallen to decay were filled with properties, businesses and apartment buildings owned by slum landlords. Inner city residents were unemployed, angry and restless. There was a growing climate of dissatisfaction with the war in Viet Nam, the poor economy, the worsening conditions of poverty and despair that afflicted big cities like some sluggish cancer. The disenfranchised and the disgruntled adopted arson as a form of anarchic justice. If nobody was going to listen to them, they were going to make themselves heard. "Burn, Baby, Burn" was the urban guerrilla's battle cry during that restive era.

I have listened to Uncle Owen and some of my other uncles and older cousins tell stories of this era. They saw the residents of these neighborhoods as victims too, although their empathy was not always returned. A lot of times firefighters would be lumped in along with the cops as "The Man," the presence of authority. There would be jeers and taunts directed at the firemen on the scene (for in those days there were no female firefighters; "firefighter" wasn't even a term used much back then. These days, in the era of PC jargon, we say, "We are firefighters. A fireman works on a steam engine."). Still, the majority of the people were law-abiding citizens trapped by social and economic circumstance within a climate of anger and fear. Although citizens displayed hostility on occasion, the firefighters knew that they were battling conditions far more dangerous and hopeless than fires in abandoned buildings, and most of them were sympathetic.

One time when I was a kid, listening to the uncles and cousins in our kitchen telling stories of their day's work, I asked Uncle Owen, "If you guys were the good guys, why weren't they glad to see you?"

He answered, "Because we were the ones who showed up." I never forgot that. His answer was completely absent of rancor and sarcasm; it was plain to me that he felt empathy for the people he served. Firefighters are indeed "who shows up". No matter what the circumstances, no matter what the reason, if we are called, we will be there. Unlike bureaucrats and politicians, we are bound to our duties by personal ethic as well as federal law. We leave no cry for help unanswered; we do not even hesitate. The most routine run in the world is still as important as "the big ones". We don't question why or how we were called, nor who called us. We show up. It's what we do. You can bet your life on it, and we understand that quite often that's exactly what's at stake. You call, and we answer. It's one of the reasons I feel good about what I do. My badge is an emblem of dependability, usefulness and responsibility to the community I serve and, by extension, to humankind. I'm very proud of that.

Well. Before I started waxing saintly here, I was telling you about how routine firehouse life really is. And it is that.

Just yesterday, I was out shoveling the snow from the sidewalk in front of the firehouse. It's one of those things we do that make this job a lot more like a lifestyle than a career. If you have a regular job, you get in your car and go to work and somebody who was hired to do so has shoveled the snow. When you get home, you shovel your own snow. That's kind of a capsule description of firehouse life: you shovel your own snow. In the same way, you cook your meals, you wash your vehicles, you shop for groceries and you clean the place regularly. In some ways, I suppose that makes it more like home than home is for some of the guys. The married guys usually get a little help in the housekeeping department. Here we do our own.

I don't mean to make that sound like a pain in the ass, either. It isn't. I actually enjoy some of the chores around here. Shoveling snow is one I pretty much enjoy. It gives me a chance to get outside, which can be a lot more refreshing in mid-January than it sounds. When you are between runs and you've cleaned up after dinner, and you've done all scheduled equipment maintenance, exhausted all possible discussions of the Super Bowl and of baseball off-season trades and news, and there's no good gossip, and you're tired of playing cards and you're not tired enough to turn in, the firehouse can be a pretty dull place to be. Quiet is good, but sometimes in midwinter, the place can actually be too quiet.

So I like to go outside, shovel all the snow from the apron in front of the apparatus bays and do all the sidewalks and paths around the building. We actually have a snowblower that somebody brought in from home and that somebody else fixed and that somebody else broke again, but even if the thing were running perfectly, I wouldn't want to use it. I like the chance to be outside, to say hello to neighborhood people, to think that I might spare the older folks a slip on an icy walk. I like the quiet, steady hard work of shoveling snow under the iron-grey Cleveland sky, using a broad-blade steel shovel to push and scrape, steadily, thoroughly clearing a path.

Snow shoveling, properly done, is an art. It's like I suppose a Zen exercise would be. You are making the path before you be not-snow, accepting that more snow will cover your work and eventually the sun will melt all. There is nothing permanent about snow shoveling. Maybe I've been reading too much about Eastern religions lately, but if there's one principle they seem to grasp, it's that nothing we do is eternal. In this way, snow shoveling has similarities to firefighting. It teaches you acceptance. You shovel snow and an hour later the path is covered again, but you do it anyway, because all that you can do anything about is what is here and now. In the same way, a building that's on fire now needs to be put out now. It may burn to the ground a week, a month, a year from now, but that is not your problem. Firefighting very much teaches you to be here now, as they say.

Well, in the midst of similar meditations yesterday, I was hit in the back of the neck by an iceball. Hard. It wasn't big, and it wasn't hard enough to injure me, but it stung like hell, and it made me pretty mad. I immediately swung around to see if I could spot the marauder. There are a couple of young kids in this neighborhood who are pretty mischievous, and I was trying to spot a rapidly retreating dirty Browns parka or camouflage flak jacket, favorite apparel of a few of the primary suspects. My plan was to chase down the offender and give him a good facewash with a gloveful of snow, not really too terrible but certainly a punishment fitting the crime.

I looked in all directions in the rapidly deepening winter dusk but saw nothing. I took a few tentative steps in the direction of a large oak in the treelawn on the street alongside the firehouse. I heard a giggle. It sounded like a girl -- no, more like a woman. We have a few of what my father calls "characters" in the neighborhood; I was hoping it wasn't Mrs. Duffy from around the corner, who is fine when her daughter can persuade her to take her meds, but also has some disctinctly non-fine days here and there, an occasional one of which requires transport to the psych unit at Metro.

I kept steadily, slowly onward in the direction of the tree until I was nearly up to it, then rushed over to run around behind it.

There was Grace.

Flushed, smiling, with snow in her hair and all over her coat, laughing and giggling like she was about eight. At least, like I remembered her from when we were eight.

I didn't know what to say. I was totally astonished. I stammered a bit. Finally, I managed, "Grace -- what the hell -- what ARE you doing here?"

"Sully, I need to talk to you."

"Just like that? You show up after all these years, whack me with a snowball, and it's 'Hi, Sully old pal; let's have a chat? How's every little thing?' Are you crazy?" I didn't mean to sound like an asshole but I also realized to my horror that I had a running start on the prospect. Too late to take it back; best to shut up now while I was at least somewhat ahead.

Grace shook her head, shook some snow from her hair and laid a finger over her lips as if we really WERE still eight years old and hiding from older neighborhood bullies.

"Not now, Sully. But I need to talk to you. Here's one of my cards," she said, fishing a business card from a knit wool bag, "and there's an email address and phone number written on the back. Use them; don't use the business numbers."

I wasn't sure whether I was irritated, amused or both. I settled on both.

"What's with the Bond girl routine? And what is so important after fifteen years that couldn't wait until you at least tried to see if I thought it was a good idea to talk?"

As if it answered my question perfectly, she said, "I have to pick Seanny up from the bus stop in ten minutes and then go get Kate from after-school. But I want you to call me." She turned to fly off into the night, down the snow side street, away again, always away from me....

I reached out before she could go and grabbed her shoulder. It felt so thin through her cloth coat, like the bones of a bird.

"Grace. What is this about? Why now? Why ME? And I thought you were married. Is everything okay at home?"

"WAS married. There is no 'at home'. But it's all right. Call me. I really have to go."

And she twisted free form my grasp, lightly, quickly, and was off down the snow-silent street just as the streetlight came on, casting its cold glow over the snowdrifts.

Maybe I'm a coward but I didn't chase her. And maybe I'm a fool but I want to call her. If only to see what could be so important to her after fifteen years and two more husbands that she still thinks of me at all.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Chapter Ten

Well, as they say, be careful what you wish for. I had no sooner written that last sentence than the tones went off and we had a dandy. Triple winner -- a wreck with passenger injuries, a vehicle fire and a fatality.

Engine companies get called to the scene of traffic accidents whether or not there is a fire, because chances are we will get there first, and there is always the possibility of a vehicle fire. Some houses have a Rescue unit with a Hurst tool and other equipment to pry people from wrecks; some have EMS units. We're a fairly small house; we have one engine apparatus and one ladder apparatus. But when there is a wreck nearby, we get the call, and we are usually on the scene at the same time as Rescue and EMS if not before. If none of the vehicles involved are on fire, we usually stay until we are sure that everything is under control per EMS and the police. If there is a fire, of course, that's our job.

The call came in just as I had turned off the laptop and was hitting the rack. We are often called to the scene of medical emergencies -- heart attacks, falls, fights, industrial injuries. This is because there are more firehouses than hospitals, so chances are we can get to the scene first. Most firefighters have some EMT training and all of us have CPR and basic first aid, so we are often called in first to take care of the situation until EMS can arrive with an ambulance. Wrecks are more frequent non-fire calls, though, and they usually involve a lot more than CPR and a little handholding. This one was sure no exception.

It was raining, and the rain was turning to sleet. A car and a minivan had collided on the on-ramp to I-490 at East 55th. Apparently the car cut off the minivan and the minivan driver didn't see it and was unable to slow down in time. The car was totaled. It looked as if a very pissed off minor deity had grabbed it up, wrung it like a washcloth and tossed it to the pavement. The front end of the mini-van was smashed in pretty thoroughly. The impact had sent the minivan fishtailing into the guardrail, where the gas tank eploded. Flames were shooting from the minivan's undercarriage and left rear.

This doesn't happen nearly as often as the movies show it; if you've seen an action movie with a car chase, you might think that every vehicle is built to explode on impact. In truth, since Ford recalled the Pintos in the mid-70's, there have been very few vehicles made that are likely to explode even on very hard impact. What generally happens is that the gas tank is punctured on impact and the accumulated fumes eventually explode as a result of friction from passing vehicles, an attempt to turn the ignition key, sparks from the vehicle's electrical system or improper attempts to pry the wreckage or other accidental sources. However, regardless of the reason or timing, it's always nasty when it happens. Best case is that all passengers have been removed from the involved vehicle and emergency personnel are well out of the way. But of course, if this was a best case, you wouldn't have a massive wreck on the freeway ramp at 2:30 in the morning.

In this case, the goddamn thing went up just as the last passenger was being removed from the minivan by Rescue. We were on the scene just as it happened, which was amazingly good timing considering how bad the rest of the situation was. Dispatch had told us there was no fire, but Dispatch forgot to say "yet".

We were off the truck and had the pumper going immediately, and we had the fire out within a few minutes. The driver of the minivan, a woman who looked to be in her mid-fifties, had been bundled into the Metro ambulance, bleeding from a head wound, but she was sitll conscious. Her passengers, a younger woman and three little kids, were put into the EMS ambulance. The younger woman was ambulatory but her dull, lifeless expression indicated she might be in shock. The kids, who all looked to be under five, were screaming and crying, but it would be hard to tell if they were hurt and how badly until they got them to the ER.

The car was another story. Rescue had the driver on a Gurney and he was covered by a sheet, waiting for transport. He wasn't going anywhere in a hurry, now or ever again.

Probably the thing that bothered me most about this is that as we were standing talking to the cops about what happened, a brightly colored object on the sleet-drenched pavement caught my eye. It was a small stuffed bear with a bright purple ribbon around its neck. And on the ground next to it was a ripped-open twelve pack of Natural Light beer and a couple of empty cans.

"This come from the van?" I asked the younger cop.

"Nah. All his," he said, indicating the body on the Gurney.

"Was there a kid in the car?"

"No. Not tonight, thank God."



No matter how many times you see it, it never loses its impact. At least, it doesn't if you are doing this job for the right reasons. As dead bodies go, this was one of the tidier ones, and he had the courtesy to be nicely covered before we got there, but I don't care how many of them you see -- it's never easy. It's part of the job, and you can't afford to emotionally process every fatality you encounter as it happens. You have a job to do. Grief and its handmaidens, Fear and Anger, don't have seats on any working apparatus. We have an obligation to the survivors and to our brother firefighters, to save lives and minimize damage. But dealing with death will definitely work on you, and sometimes, if you don't fully realize its impact at the time, you will later.

There is, of course, a lot of black humor involved. We find nothing funny about the fact that someone was killed, but we definitely joke about the circumstances in which we find them and find ourselves. What passes for humor among the brothers might not be considered amusing or appropriate to the outside world, but believe me when I tell you, we grieve your loss too. Some of the jokes we tell are just coping mechanisms for enduring the pain of loss we feel too. Our loss is in no way as great as yours, but our loss is compounded by the pain of failure. Whether or not it is right, any fire in which there are fatalities makes us question whether there's something more we could have done, something we neglected, overlooked or failed to consider. We are taught to solve problems as well as save lives, and when we feel we have failed to do so, we blame ourselves.

So our humor is a method of surviving what would otherwise be an unbearable burden. You need us at maximum usefulness, so we need to avoid crippling emotions such as grief, self-doubt and bitterness. One of the ways we do this is by joking. Never at the scene, never within earshot of any of the victims, but things can get pretty raw sometimes back at the house. It's our way, and it may sound odd to say, but it's humor born out of love for the people we serve. An outsider might be shocked at some of the things we consider funny, but it's all a way of "keeping our heads from killing our bodies," as my Uncle Owen used to say. So my remark about the fatality having had the decency to be covered with a sheet is not intended to be disrespectful to the guy who was killed. It's more a way of keeping the living on an even keel.

Anyway, back at the house, there was a little winding down before we all got back in the rack, but the atmosphere wasn't as charged as it would be after, say, a multiple-alarm fire involving a residential block. As wrecks go, it was nasty, but it was pretty standard fare. There were a few mutters about the driver who caused the wreck. Derrico had learned from one of the cops at the scene that the diver had a record of multiple DUI's, something like four in the last three years. "Yeah, well, just think of all the time they'll save in Traffic Court" said Derrico. "The cops ought to like that. The downside is his bartender probably won't be able to buy a boat until next year." Black, bleak humor, but sometimes that's how we are.

But when I turned in, as I lay there in the rack, a single image kept coming back to me. There, face down on the pavement in the sleet, had been that little teddy bear. Somebody's toy. Somebody's daddy. Alcohol removed a lot more than a drunken driver from the road this night. It also took away a big part of some child's life.

I've been drinking a lot lately. Part of it I've been blaming on the Grace thing, part of it is blowing off stress after work. It might be a good time to look at that. On the one hand, I'm not somebody's father or husband or.....

On the other hand, there's a life involved here too. Mine.

I'm too tired to process all this right now. The hell with it, and we'll see what happens in the morning. Unlike that poor guy, I'll have another day to think it all over. Believe it or not, for that I'm truly grateful.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Chapter Nine

I can't stop thinking about Grace.

I knew when I saw her a few weeks back that it would set off some pretty difficult reactions.

Derrico asked about her just the other day. I of course told him that I didn't know, hadn't heard from her in awhile, had no idea what she was up to.

Why is is that when you shouldn't think about somebody, you can't stop? I know at least half a dozen women who periodically bug the shit out of me about staying in touch. Oh, some of them go at it kiddingly, leaving me phone messages that I'm sure are intended to be light and airy and funny, stuff like, "John, this is Jenny; just checking to see if you're still among the living. Give me a call some time! Catch ya later!" One of my favorites was from a girl who's really more a friend than a girlfriend: "Hey. Sully. If I was a goldfish I 'd be dead by now. Call me." But the underlying message is still the same: "You shithead. You never call. What do I, have to show up naked for you to be glad to see me?"

The honest answer to that, sadly, is, "Pretty much. " It's not that I don't like the women I date, or that I don't care how they feel. But I just don't get seriously involved if I can avoid it. Like most guys, I have been hurt pretty badly a few times, and like most guys, I don't lay all my cards on the table at once. Also, like most guys, I probably say a lot of stuff I shouldn't in order to get laid. Funny how a phrase like "You're amazing," which I considered to be fairly safe and noncommittal, can come back to bite you in the ass months after the fact. I had one of my "one-week stands" come up to me at a bar where Derrico and I were downing beers and watching babes, dump a beer on me and say, "How amazing am I now, asshole?"

Look. It's not like I told her I loved her. It's not like I promised her anything. It's not even like we dated for a long time, or that I left her without goodbye. In fact, she left me. This might have had something to do with the fact that I didn't call her for two weeks after our last round in the sack, but it's not like I did anything evil or mean, like calling her best friend instead.

In fact, most of the trouble I get into with women seems to be directly related to things I don't do. "You don't call me enough, you never want to take me shopping, you didn't remember our one-month anniversary, you never tell me I'm beautiful, you never send me cards..."

My God. I don't keep lists, I don't do anniversaries, and if you want cards with kittens on them, call your Aunt Rose. If I am with you, I think you're beautiful. I don't mind fixing your front porch railing, changing your oil, picking up your kid from preschool in a blinding snowstorm or replacing the batteries in your smoke alarm. But for Christ's sake, don't expect me to dance like Astaire, feed you all the best lines or help you choose new outfits. If you want a guy who'll do all that, I hope you have male pals who are gay, because I'll tell you the truth -- most straight guys who will even think about doing that sort of stuff will only do it for about a week. After that, they're looking to get laid somewhere else.

Sometimes women get the mistaken impression I am a sensitive guy because I love roses. I really don't think so. Roses are real. They have genus and species, specific characteristics, history, growth habits, all sorts of interesting stuff. Some, like the tea roses, are very fussy and take a real expert to grow successfully. Some, like the floribundas, practically grow on their own, but you have to know what type of environment they like: soil acidity, climate and so forth. There are old garden roses, "collector" hybrids and species, and lots of different varieties even within the same group. They're interesting, they can be expensive, and it's necessary to know what you are doing.

In that way, I don't see how being a rose hobbyist is fundamentally different from having an enthusiasm for, say, sports cars or wild birds or horses or antique guns or woodworking. They do involve the care of a living thing, so I suppose you could call that a nurturing thing, but I don't see how my fondness for roses is romantic. But you can't tell women that. You can't tell the guys at the firehouse that either. If you're smart, you won't try.

I suppose the romance connection is obvious; it's the long association with roses as the flower of love. The standard American Beauty long stemmed thornless rose, deep red and in tight-budded perfection is a lovely thing, of course. But I have never thought of it as particularly romantic. McCann, one of the guys on B-shift, calls them "Get Out Of The Doghouse Tokens" and rates his adventures by the numbers -- "that was a six-token job," "that was a genuine twenty-four-token bitch-up", etc . Roses, at least the kind I like, are a lot more interesting than that, and I don't count many red varieties among my favorites.

Well, anyway. Like most things I have thought about this week, thinking about roses brings me right back around to Grace. She used to have quite a garden full of them that she took over when Uncle Eamonn died. Her mother remarried after a few years and eventually moved out of state, so when Grace returned to Cleveland after her divorce, she and her son, Sean, lived in the old house. Grace had always had an enthusiasm for plants and animals, and under her loving care the garden soon was overflowing with new and revivified old life.

I would come by some mornings after my shift and do a little pruning, sneak a new variety into the plot, add some bone meal to the soil. Even though Grace was at work and Seanny was at daycare, Grace's presence was somehow still there in the garden, and I don't think I ever felt as close to her as when I was alone planting roses in her garden, listening to a cardinal's song and the hum of traffic from the freeway nearby and enjoying some music on the little portable radio she always left out on the back porch for me. I didn't have a key and I didn't want a key. Grace was very independent and if the time came for me to have a key, I guess that's how it would have been, but I never pushed her for it. With a girl like Grace, it was always better not to push.

We would sit drinking beer on her sandstone back steps long after Seanny was in bed. We'd listen to the Indians on the radio and smell the amazing perfume of some of the night-blooming white roses, and we wouldn't say much. We'd maybe comment on an occasional play: "My God, is he actually going to pull Candiotti when he's ahead in the count? Christ!" We'd slap a mosquito or two sometimes we'd get a citronella candle going if they were particularly hungry. After the game, we'd turn off the radio, cuddle together on the big wooden porch swing and listen to the gentle patter of the lawn sprinkler as its jets made an arc through the tree leaves overhead. Generally, the thing I liked most about those summer evenings was the sense of deep peace. I don't think I've ever found that kind of peace before or since. There are lots of women who are easy to talk to. Grace was a woman with whom it's easy to be silent.

After awhile, we'd bundle up our empties, toss out the invitable Subway wrappers and maybe a Happy Meal box left from Seanny, and go into the house and up to bed. We'd make passionate, slow love. We never said much then either. We made the usual noises humans make when they are ecstatically happy, accompanied by very few words. We seemed to have in common that the happier we were during sex, the less we had to say during or afterward. I would always tell her I loved her right before we fell asleep, but I can't say that she always answered me, either.

Strange. You'd think that detail would have been important, and yet I can't recall it. Maybe I don't want to remember it. One thing is very certain at times like today, and that's that I wish I didn't remember anything about Grace at all. And yet such a part of my life would be missing if I didn't.

This is too much thinking. I almost wish the tones would go off and we'd get a working fire. Not that I want anyone in harm's way or that I want to see a building burn. But feeling useful right now, feeling needed and good and helpful and that I am fighting on the side of right, would go a long way toward getting my mind off things I have no right to think about.

Wherever Grace is, I hope she is well.