Three kids. Three best friends who spent a large portion of their lives together, who promised each other that the three of them would always come first and the world second. It’s their college graduation day from the University of Wisconsin, and Zach, Kevin, and Mike reminisce and reflect on their past—how they navigated through childhood to adulthood.
Growing up in Milwaukee, the three recall the indestructibility of youth, their families, blind ambition, youthful indiscretions, and illegal smiles. This graduation day is to be the prelude to the rest of their lives. And their lives do change this day, but not in the way they had dreamed. Time has killed what they thought they once possessed.
In When Men Are Young, author Terry Gavin’s second novel, he continues to examine the intricacies of youth culture and its glorious innocence and recklessness.
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.44(d)|
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WHEN MEN ARE YOUNG
By TERRY GAVIN
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Terry Gavin
All right reserved.
I'm not very good with people. I wish I were, but I'm not. I'm not so good with my thoughts either. Most people take refuge in their ruminations. Many times they provide an escape, an oasis that takes them away from the toils of daily life. Wish I could. Barely twenty-two, and I know how this story will end, all for a friend. It'd be easy to blame my lineage, but that'd be the type of alibi that would piss off Kevin, and he's who this is for. Sometimes we have to sacrifice so another thrives. No one asked me to do this. I knew exactly what I was doing when I devised my plan.
Parents. Easy target, aren't they? Blame the world's troubles on chromosomes. Forget it. But their story needs to be told in order to understand why I intend to do what I must.
My mother was certifiably nuts. Well, not certifiable because she was never treated for anything, never diagnosed with anything because she never sought treatment for anything. Must have been unseemly for that generation. I don't know. I'm not even sure I care any more because today is my college graduation; I'm to share it with my two best friends who are also graduating, and I'm way, way too busy carrying out the details of my carefully constructed design. One of them, Kevin, is destined for greatness. He just doesn't know it yet, but with my help and my foolproof plan, he'll become a living icon. But first things first. Mike would insist on it. He loves lists. Loves to itemize. I'll start with mom.
My earliest memory of her was standing in my wooden play pen with a loaded diaper, arms reaching out, tears streaming down my face, begging for attention. Yes, I can remember that far back. I have an incredible memory. My Aunt Evelyn didn't believe me when I told her that I can remember back to my third birthday—and a little before that. She'd dismiss that prospect until I fed her descriptions and memories that she knew I couldn't have heard elsewhere, and that made her a believer. But back to mom. She simply stared back, cigarette in hand, smoke encircling her sad, sad eyes. Even back then I knew that I was looking at a woman who didn't possess any love for me. She wasn't this way with everyone, though. Any time my dad came home, she'd practically rip his clothes off and beg him to take her. Didn't matter if I was dozing off or wide awake. Her futile attempts for carnal attention were played out for me to see. "Not now," he'd plead, my eyes big and wide, watching while he held her wrists back as she tried to claw at his shirt, pants, belt–anything that could be removed. All happening the moment he walked through the door.
If I were lucky, she'd lift me out of the playpen, carry me like a bag of groceries, and deposit me on the changing table or my crib, leaving me for my father once he returned from work, while I cried behind the now closed bedroom door. As I got older she got worse. I used to toddle over to a lower kitchen cabinet door, yank it open, and secure a Quaker Oats container. I'd claw at the circular top until it came off, and I'd bring fistfuls of dry oatmeal to my mouth. What a mess I made. Eventually my mom would saunter into the kitchen, walk past me, sometimes walking over me, in search of a clean ashtray. Once it was located, she reenacted the performance, but this time it was like a movie being played backwards, she backtracking out of the room with her secured depository. Not a word. Not a scolding. Nothing. My dad was assigned cleanup duty.
"Zach, we don't do this," he'd say with a heartbroken voice after discovering me in a sea of oatmeal, pots and pans, Brillo Pads, and dishwashing solution, trying not to panic, trying to mask his concern for my condition and my mother's increasingly erratic behavior.
Life went on, years passed, school began, and my dad became a single parent. He was still married, but his wife had retreated further into a life of solitude that didn't allow for any communication with me. Any. All directives came through my dad, and soon she was nothing more than a specter in my house. A haunting, pathetic vision who refused all suggestions and demands for help. Just an endless parade of Merit lights, graying hair, and vacuous eyes.
On my seventh birthday, my family was driving back from church. Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass' The Lonely Bull was playing on the radio so quietly that it was hard to make it out. Didn't matter to mom. After a few moments she flew at the crappy AM radio, turned it off, yanked off the volume control knob, opened the car door, and threw it out. No one said a word; I could feel the helplessness that crippled my father. Most of the mid-March snow had already melted and what was left was covered with black soot; the roads were slippery from the gravel that was left over from the plows, yet all I could think about was what our pastor had told me when we left: I was now at the age of reason and was, according to God, responsible for any sin that I committed.
Sin. I'm not a huge believer now, and I wasn't after that day either, but at the moment I certainly was; however, the very idea of birthday bounty far outweighed all matters of religious doctrine. My aunts were always good for a lot of cool toys, and I knew that my dad would overcompensate for my mom's distance and shower me with presents, hoping it'd distract me from my daily life. It didn't, but I certainly dug the gifts. So after a half mile or so, I thought it was safe enough to venture a few words.
"I hope I get lots of stuff today."
Bad move. Before I could get out my next sentence, my mom, quite out of character, actually said something to me. Well, more like screamed.
"I'm sick of you being so selfish. You stop that, or I'll tell everybody not to come and cancel everything."
I shook. I was a kid. A little kid who wanted lots of gifts. A pervasive, soul-penetrating chill followed us all the way home with me trying not to cry, staring at the blackened snow. When we finally got there, we exited the car, not a word between any of us, and I trailed my parents to the front door. My dad was the first one in, followed by my mom. And what did she do? She shut the door in my face. Twenty minutes after being told that I was responsible for my sins, what did my seven-year-old self do? Engage a sin so severe that it elicited this kind of response, although I wasn't quite sure what the actual sin was. I was too scared to let myself in, so I cried. I stood there and cried for what seemed like an eternity. And when I got the nerve to let myself in, I found my dad sitting on the kitchen floor rocking back and forth, his face buried in his hands. He was crying; I was terrified yet drawn to the opened basement door that he sat by. As I crept towards him I started to cry, and once I made it to the door, that's when I saw her at the bottom of the steps with my birthday cake surrounding her head, looking much like a broken halo, and the butcher knife sticking out of her chest. And I'll never forget this: my dad pulled me to him and hugged me so tightly that I cried harder because it hurt so much, but he held on and kept saying, "It's not your fault. It's not."
Months later, while searching through my father's dresser for an oversized T-Shirt, I ran across a letter my mom had written him. I have no idea when it was composed. But what struck me more than anything else was that it didn't seem like the same woman I knew. Who was she? Who was this loving, kind, wildly off kilter woman who expressed the type of unrequited love that I had always coveted but never received? So I took it, hid it in my junk drawer underneath a stash of baseball cards, most of them collectable, courtesy of my dad, and read it nightly, month after month, year after year, until firmly committed to memory:
My Dearest, Nothing could be harder for me to do than write this letter to you. The dreams and ambitions we have created are as real and beautiful now as the days we dreamed them. Keep them close to your heart. Never allow the flame of purpose to expire. Without your guidance, without you, I never would have discovered the peace that lay dormant in my soul for so long. Your key to my heart freed me. Your chest has been my foundation, your will my rock from which a holy life was created and will live in trust. Life prevents us from going beyond, and we know it long before we are born. HE has planned this since the first sands of the desert created an oasis where the thirsty were satisfied and hunger was measured in exalted whispers, uttered by the hearts of blessed light here and now. Winds of change have never been. Existence is a lie that the weak dissect in their efforts to explain the emptiness of their souls. They are not free. Know this and you can be free and fly like the birds that soar high above the ruins of time. The daisies are still in bloom, and the cardinals still nest next to our window all year long. Do you recall the summer that you took me to the State Fair eleven times? How we danced in the Grandstand and saw the cotton candy machines that spun the pink sweetness that colored our faces the same way a sunset does the earth. How those bright lights of neon green sailed through the air as cries filled the magic night holding us captive. How tragically cursed I am because it is me who is not able to live the type of life that is expected. What kind of wife will centuries record me as when compared to other women who live through the passages of time? What awaits someone like me? The lasting sign that I have recently found will guide me through my chosen path. My final act. There is no need to ask for forgiveness because I have risen from the cinders and await the eternal search that He has promised. Do not fear. Do not cry. I have lived. I have seen. My love, do not think negatively as you are prone to do. Do not despair. You will one day find what I have, and at that point we will be rejoined. Know that. Know Him. Know yourself because we are one. Your loving wife, Angela
Don't be fooled by the religious overtones. During her manic days, everything was painted in apostolic hues, but when she got dark, salvation was nowhere to be found. Hell, on the other hand, was always nearby. As for the painted language, her sister, my Aunt Beverly, once described my mom as a frustrated artist who fancied herself an intellectual, a wordsmith, but dropped out of college her first semester after suffering the indignities of uncaring academics. Guess she never recovered.
Well, that's my mom's story. Here's my dad's: My father slits cow's throats. At least he used to. Two years ago the honchos at Hormel forced him to retire after his arthritic hands could no longer control the tools of the slaughter trade. Hard to believe that this man who devoted himself to me so thoroughly through my life once ushered underfed cattle through splintered hallways of barn wood, only to have their heads bashed in. He once told me when I started first grade how easy it was to miss the skull and hit an ear, screams echoing throughout the meat factory; how, when presented with an especially stubborn creature that refused to die, he relied on an old razor that his father had given him for his First Holy Communion; how two brown, frightened eyes stared at him before he sliced through the animal's throat and grazed the lower neck bone as tobacco juice slid out of his mouth and mixed with the gushing blood that flowed through his fingers.
And I remember how my dad, moved with pride, once boasted to my terrified eight-year-old self, "Zach, no one's as efficient as me."
Okay, so it's not as long as my mom's bio, but it still packs a punch, eh?
But remember, I don't blame my parents for anything. Anything. I know my mission in life is to propel Kevin to succeed beyond his wildest imagination, and sometimes drastic steps need to be taken to produce stratospheric achievement. It's not frightening. It's not incapacitating. It's how I know my life is to unfold because once the mystery of it is revealed the plot's easy. Tennessee Williams once said life's a fairly good three act play with a lousy ending. Cool.
And where do I find solace, besides being with Kevin and Mike? The Valley. The place where my father once worked. My life story would not be complete without first examining this section of Milwaukee. It's a large area that borders I-94 and the South Side. At one time it was a booming center for tankers and yeast manufacturers, but no longer. Neglected neighborhoods, once built by workers who wanted to be near their place of employment, now decay in front of my eyes, and I wonder what causes such neglect. There's probably close to a dozen boarded up taverns that were erected for wayward seamen and factory hands; these bars once stood beside mammoth piles of salt and coal, and I always pictured children from decades past scaling them, only to be disciplined by stern mothers whose sole responsibility was domestic order. No doubt each kid was bounced off each parent in search of comfort and when none was provided, they turned to older brothers. If they weren't available or nonexistent, I knew what came next: despair.
And what attracted people to this god forsaken section of the city? Money. An enterprising meat packer got a lucrative land deal out of the mayor's office, and one of many slaughterhouses was erected. And what landmark still stands and brings me endless joy? Clint's Place. It was built in 1921 to accommodate the Valley's expanding workforce. With a huge oak arch above the entrance, the bar welcomed the thirsty immigrants and tried to recreate an atmosphere that would remind patrons of Mother Russia, a humiliated Germany, or a starving Poland. The Irish were typically turned away, as were the underfed Jews whom everyone presumed owned the lease. Max Von Heidenberg was the proprietor. A recently ordained American, he decided that the best way to assimilate into the New World was to drop his initial choice for the tavern's name, the Von Haus, and Anglicize it. How do I know this? Research, research, research. If I weren't such a fuck up, I'd pursue a career that capitalized on this skill.
So what else did I discover?
Max's establishment was no place for anyone who didn't like warm beer, steaming sauerkraut, and anti-Semitism. An early advertisement personally created by Max invited those who worked Where coal is piled, salt swept, and cattle slit.
Prohibition was initially ignored during the Nation's darkened years because beer made Milwaukee, and the city made money, a lot of money. Always quick with a joke, Max filled the bar with his roar and sported an expanding mouth lined with yellow, rotting teeth. I found a picture of him in the Milwaukee Journal's archives, and the guy had a long mustache that reached far beyond his face, while bushy brows formed bangs above his eyes. A shiny bald head and a gut to match: he was a man's man who had a penchant for kielbasa and 12-year-old twins, or so legend has it. The Police loved him, the tax collector hit on him—so I occasionally take creative license. Deal with it—and the Valley grew; in fact, money was as omnipresent as an animal's distant moan, emanating from a nearby slaughterhouse.
Life was beautiful.
During the winter of '29, Max was in a world all his own, enamored with his sizable bank coffers, scoffing at the same Depression that his now dwindling patrons feared, for even as the Valley's numerous salt mines and pork farms all but disappeared, the entrepreneur was oblivious to anything that did not directly affect him—but not for long. It was at this time that a recently elected mayor decided that reform was in order, and the taverns were the first to experience City Hall fundamentalism.
I always pictured Max offering the following edict after learning of prohibition: "Ve vill not be moved. You tell Mr. Mayor this to be sure. You tell him that."
The mayor probably laughed, while the D.A. jacked off.
Hey, it could have happened.
Yet scraps tend to be thrown to those awaiting the slaughter and in keeping with this tradition, the Milwaukee Common Council voted to honor Max for his contributions to the city's German heritage, just after they decided to castrate his self-worth and strip the man of his license. The civic-based honorarium was probably rationalized as a token of appreciation, but they knew that this was nothing more than a vain attempt to placate a man who was about to lose everything.
Excerpted from WHEN MEN ARE YOUNG by TERRY GAVIN Copyright © 2011 by Terry Gavin. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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