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About the Author
In his other incarnation as a human being, Larry is the father of three beautiful daughters, an accomplished woodworker and builder, an avid tennis and basketball player, and the person who walks Alice Brownstein, the wonder dog.
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The Mt. Monadnock Blues
By Larry Duberstein
The Permanent PressCopyright © 2003 Larry Duberstein
All rights reserved.
Tim Bannon made a fairly typical human error: he answered the phone. What is it that makes us optimistic when the telephone rings, or the mailman arrives? Why do we persist in believing some glad moment is at hand? For of course it was his mother.
"Mom. But I can't talk right now. Actually, I have a date."
Another mistake—and so soon! If he hoped to get away promptly, Tim ought to have known better than to reference his love life, as Anne Bannon liked to call it. Her last deep worry on earth was that her son, still single at forty, would remain single forever.
"Is this anyone special, Timmy?"
"It's a first date, Mom."
"Isn't it always. I never will understand how someone can have as many first dates as you do."
"Maybe I exaggerate sometimes. But if it turns out to be someone special, I promise you'll be the first to know."
"How is Eleanor? Is she still single?"
"She is. She made it through another week."
Ellie Stern, one of Tim's partners in the travel business, would also (in Anne's view) make him a fine wife. Anne was pro-Semitic, as she liked to tell her Carolina neighbors, not all of whom were likewise inclined.
"I'm really late, though. I'll call you tomorrow—promise—in case it's love at first sight."
Even as he labored to round her off, Tim was buttoning (or attempting to button) his shirt. In the best of times he was incapable of doing two things at once; now he saw the buttons were misaligned, the shirt accordingly lopsided, so that he looked caught in an epileptic shrug. And his hair was ridiculous.
He did not waste time over it. Now that it was thinning and had lost its wave, his hair seemed ridiculous to him no matter how he fussed. He rushed out the back door, latched the iron gate, and dropped into his green '83 Honda. Bumped up the narrow rutted mews to Columbus, then turned onto Mass. Ave., where he got lucky. The light at Symphony went green for him right in stride and Del Shannon came on Oldies 103 singing "Runaway."
This was momentum
He swept past the Berklee School, hit two more friendly lights at Tower Records and The Eliot Lounge, and bombed onto the bridge at 45, on this lovely summer night, with a run-run-run-run runaway blaring out the window. Not bad.
To Tim, growing up in 50's Carolina, the very best of life was defined by open cars, and booze, and music flowing from the radio (Del Shannon himself, many times, but to be sure Elvis and Jerry Lee, the Coasters and the Drifters and the Shirelles) and never a cop in your rearview mirror. Berline was too small a town to suffer a smalltown sheriff. Crime there was confined to the unenforceables, the sins of fun, chiefly drink and fornication.
Now on the Cambridge side of the Charles River (on Mem Drive and cresting 50) Tim sensed a car drawing alongside and feared his luck had changed. Here they did have cops. But it was only more good karma, a balding babyboomer who had the same station blaring. They glided in lockstep briefly, lane by lane and doing the run-run-run-run together (and then the falsetto) before waving when Tim hooked off toward Kendall Square.
He took a chance parking behind Dolly's and went in, barely five minutes late. (Which to Tim meant early.) And right away he spotted (back to him, seated at the bar) the long blonde ponytail he knew to look for, since this was not only a first date but a blind date as well. How refined to have a "date," Tim had laughed when he agreed to be fixed up.
Dolly's was one of his places and Robby, the bartender, was already pouring his Maker's Mark as he approached. The barstool spun around. Tim saw dark eyes, a closed narrow mouth, silver hoops in both ears.
"Eric," he said. Which Eric acknowledged with a nod. "I'm Tim. I've heard about you forever."
"I guess you're a slow worker, then."
"Slower every day," Tim confessed, blushing. Aware that a sort of inquisitive desperation had driven him to call Eric. He had heard about him, but what he heard was at best mixed. "You look like you're ready for another."
Tim caught a roughcut edge to the voice (Southie? Dorchester?) that carried faint suggestions of danger, for which Tim did have a weakness. He was no masochist, had never been beaten even in fun and did not wish to be. It was not violence that appealed, only the suggestion of it, the air of danger.
Eric kept a poker face, which naturally nudged Tim's basic insecurity into play. An insecurity which had automatically doubled, a negative bonus, on his fortieth birthday. His self-image was fairly realistic, though. However others saw him, he saw himself as a pleasant-featured man who might pass for thirty-five easily enough, five-ten and weighing a trim 150, with muscled arms and a narrow torso. Brown eyes his best feature, brown hair his worst—by its absence, increasingly noted.
Tim could not have described his own voice, a soft delivery (with the faintest trace of a drawl) set off by exclamations, sudden arias of delight in the absurd. Tell me this is a joke, he said, each and every time the visage of President Ronald Reagan appeared on the television screen. His yawp was the sound of innocence perennially surprised, or of innocence long since yielded up yet still surprised it had to go.
"Another of whatever, for Eric," he told Robby, "and I'll have another, too."
"That's not slow," said Eric.
"Nerves. But I'll stop there. Two is what I tend to have."
"For the nerves."
"Right," said Tim, taking a smooth skim of bourbon off the top. He was almost done with blushing.
Tim was glad to get home—and if that wasn't middle-aged, what the hell was? But the days when he would venture out after midnight, to the Fens to seek love in the weeds, were done. If he found himself awake at midnight now, most likely he was watching the end of a rented video, which back then he dismissed as a "warped little midget movie in a plastic box."
Eric Schuyler? Early Clint Eastwood, basically—or gay Clint, with precious few words and the one facial expression. Eric was a little weird, and yet how many times had Tim and his friends laughingly acknowledged their own weirdness and the weirdness of all sentient creatures, gender notwithstanding. It was what it was. They had struggled with the talking, did much better with dancing (through two more rounds of liquor), and ended up in Eric's car. At forty, no less. In the car.
So the drive home was different in tenor from the glorious voyage out, and yet such contrast was perfectly familiar, was the very essence of gay life—perhaps of all life, if that was any consolation. Mood swings? Well sure.
In the shower, Tim stood face up and eyes closed to the stream of hot water. He towelled dry and slipped straight into bed. The red message light was blinking, but weariness beat out curiosity (and the reflex of optimism) like scissors/paper/stone. It was the usual suspects, most likely: Anne, Ellie, Karl Trickett, the Peters. Possibly a telemarketer who had failed to hang up in time to void the bips.
Tim's drifting thoughts were mundane. Best he could hope for was four hours of sleep ... which used to be enough ... so hard being forty ... hard to be losing hair ... the Mastronardes' cat screeching in the mews....
He used to wake like chickens, on instinct and at the earliest hint of daylight. Today, though, he might have gone on sleeping through dawn and breakfast, through lunch and dinner. It was not mere fatigue, it was a mild depression that had been gaining a purchase on Tim in recent weeks. Which was no big deal. What justification was there, Tim would point out cynically, for not being depressed?
He did wake, however, to a loud pounding that registered at first like a reverie of distant drums, and then the fearful dream of fascists coming for him in the night, smashing glass and kicking down doors. The recurring bad dream of a kristallnacht for the homos.
"Hang on," he called, wrenching himself upright, nerves on edge as he fumbled for his robe. "I hear you."
And there they were, fascists for real, two of them in the doorway in Smokey hats, motorcycle jodhpurs, and glossy black boots. A dream after all, until he saw in the interstices, in the shadowy recesses between those jackbooted jodhpurred legs, his niece and nephew. Two New Hampshire state cops, these were—plus Billy and Cindy? What the fuck was this?
As his brain came unclotted, as the taller cop began to speak (and as he saw Billy's look of blank white confusion, Cindy's red-rimmed eyes), Tim felt a long visceral shiver down the back of his neck. Something terrible had happened.
"Hergies!" he found the presence of mind to say, lowering himself into the forest of jodhpurs to extract them.
"My Hergies are here."
The children pushed forward into Tim's arms and he locked them there. Looked up past their feathery heads, waiting for the cops to tell him what terrible thing had happened to his sister.
"I'm Moss," said the tall one. "Lieutenant Jeffrey Moss. Maybe the kids would like to watch some TV."
Like the test patterns? (Did they still have test patterns?) But Tim grasped that Moss was simply clearing the decks. He suffered one brief flareup of paranoia (they were going to accuse him of something, of child molestation) but the back of his neck still told him it was Jilly.
"Do your thing, guys. The maps, the drawers, the closet—TV, if you want. We'll be right here."
Shyly, reluctantly, they went.
"They were both killed, Mr. Bannon," said Moss, stepping into the foyer. "Mr. and Mrs. Hergesheimer. It happened early this morning on Route 202. I'm terribly sorry to have to tell you."
"An accident? This morning?"
"Yes, sir, around 12:40 a.m. at the intersection of Routes 202 and 119 in Rindge. They were on their way home from a party, according to the babysitter."
"That's correct, sir, Judy. I gather she is the regular sitter. The children seemed very attached to her."
"But this is—" Tim trailed off. What this was he could scarcely begin to calculate. At the moment, the very idea of a world without his older sister, the one member of his family in whom he had ever confided, was far too radical.
And Monty. He could register the accident only as a sentence, not as a reality.
Trying to picture the two of them in a tangle of limbs and injuries, trapped inside the crumpled Subaru, all he could see was their lively faces on Memorial Day, a few short weeks ago.
"I'm just stunned by this. Amazed, to see you here."
"It was an emergency detail, sir. Normally we would involve the Massachusetts forces."
"Oh God, I don't mean that."
Which surely he did not. Would Massachusetts state troopers look or act differently? Tim meant that it had never crossed his mind that Jill might die before him. Or that he (not Anne, not Erica, not Jilly's friends in Jaffrey) would pop up first on anyone's screen when the children needed caring for. He could only shrug by way of conveying (or not conveying) that he was a single gay male with a receding hairline and how did that get him onto anyone's screen at a time of crisis?
"At the house," Moss was saying as his gaze travelled the room with waxing discomfort at the decor (a handful of almost tasteful el flamo details, like the Nureyev poster and the Mae West lamp), "we debriefed the sitter, Ms. Heikala, took down phone numbers and so forth. We did attempt to reach your other sister first—"
"Sure," said Tim, because Moss seemed to need a verbalized forgiveness for attempting him second or third.
"—from being located close by, in state."
"But there was no answer, and no sign of life at their place. We did send a man by there."
"They go on the road at this time of year."
"RV enthusiasts, I gather. Which explains the house looking the way it did. We were struck by it at first."
"They go on the road for a couple of months," said Tim, his amazement undiminished as this bizarrely casual chat proceeded.
"Ms. Heikala related to us how close the children were to you, sir, so we next attempted to reach you here. No answer, but it's the night, so we took a shot. Figured it's worth the mileage if we can avoid putting them into the system."
"Thank you for that, Lieutenant. They hardly need to be in any system at this point. It's great they're here, whatever needs to happen next."
"Well yes, sir, there is a fair amount that does need to happen, as I'm sure you understand. Formal I.D., further notifications, insurance claims, funeral arrangements...."
Moss' voice softened in diminuendo, as if someone was turning the volume down one notch with each awful chore he listed. When Tim had no response to the list, Moss went on. "We found no record of an attorney's name. You don't by any chance know—"
"Not really. I mean, they didn't have a lot of legal issues. I suppose someone must have handled their real estate closing."
"We'll learn what we can, sir. In the meantime—"
Moss offered his hand, then he and his silent counterpart had vanished, leaving Tim alone with two orphans. Two children he dearly loved, yet had not the faintest notion what to do with.
Though this was not strictly true. In a larger sense (school, church, home) he hadn't a clue. Why should he? In a more immediate sense, though, what to do at a given moment, his guess had to be better than most. Tim liked kids; he loved these two kids, and while he believed there was nothing in the world he was particularly "good at," the truth was he had always been a good uncle.
But that was just fluff and fun, this was all too real, and the image of Jill, smiling, suddenly disabled him. He could barely breathe, could not swallow. Tim never could swallow when emotional (indeed, with all his clever defenses, it was the best way he could know he was emotional) and for a moment going to Billy and Cindy, walking ten steps to the living room, seemed literally impossible.
As usual, it was Calvin Coolidge who saved him. Coolidge, the Thirtieth President, had not done much, but he was Tim's inspiration on the basis of a single pronouncement, a soft fortune-cookie thunderclap of wisdom that Tim had blown up, framed, and hung on the wall above his desk. YOU CAN'T DO EVERYTHING AT ONCE, BUT YOU CAN DO SOMETHING AT ONCE.
Here was nothing less than the key to unlocking all human action. Faced with a list of fifteen calls (faced, therefore, with paralysis), Tim would think of Silent Cal, reach for the phone, and make one call. Not fifteen. Which always worked; things started getting done after that.
Blinking Jill away, he went to the kitchen, dug out the buckwheat flour, found the whisk. What he could do was make pancakes. "No one's hungry?" he called down the hallway, just as though life was ongoing. "Can we have unhungry Hergies?" And there they were, red-eyed yet clambering onto stools with a look of clear relief. Maybe they felt, on some kid level of credulity, that once the messengers left the message was erased. Or that their Uncle Tim would know the cure for dead parents.
What had they been told? Tim should have asked—or no, Moss should have said. Instead, Moss had behaved like the United Parcel man: sign here and have a nice day.
"Eat first or talk first?" said Tim.
"Eat," said Cindy. First word from her.
"Where do they have our parents, Unk?" said Billy.
"I'm not sure. What did they tell you, those men?"
"That something really awful happened. A car crash."
"The lady said they were hurt. And they might die."
"Oh boy. Hang on, Cindy, I'll get some kleenex."
"I'm not Cindy," the little girl sniffed.
"You were Cindy," Tim smiled gently, prepared to be astonished if this was a joke of some sort.
"Well, that's true. I can do that, sweetheart."
"Do you think they'll die, Unk?" said Billy.
There had to be a correct way of doing this, the one approach that experts on child psychology would take. All Tim had was his own conviction that it was generally best to treat kids as intelligent humans from our own galaxy and tell them a version of the truth. "This lady, was she the police too? Or some kind of expert on children?"
"She was a shrink. You can call her. She said her name is Olivia, and she gave us these cards."
"I will call her. But first, maybe we'd better have a three-way. Come."
Excerpted from The Mt. Monadnock Blues by Larry Duberstein. Copyright © 2003 Larry Duberstein. Excerpted by permission of The Permanent Press.
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