Peter Tries To Get Lost

"Is It Always A Love Story?" Chapter 7

David Stone
In Chapter 7 from Is It Always A Love Story?, Peter moves out o
f town to join his war buddy Cal in Buffalo, passionate about escaping, if not losing himself entirely. 


Chapter Seven


 

Less than a month after Tim picked me up me up at the airport, smiling when he spotted me turning the corner into the small concourse, I packed up again. Cal found a job for me in Buffalo, his hometown, and I took it. I grabbed my first offer to get out of town.

“You’re leaving Binghamton,” Tim asked, disappointed, “maybe for good…?”

“Maybe I’m running away again,” I thought out loud.

“I hope it works better than the last time.”

“You’re always welcome to come back,” Marge added. “You’ll have a place to land.”

She nodded toward the door to their basement from which she saw me emerge each morning.

This struck me as a conversation in which nothing got said, and since I saw no chance of its filling out, I made super quick with my move.

“It’s not much of a job,” Cal cautioned over the phone. “You’ll just be pushing a broom around all day, like us dark-skinned guys are privileged to do, but it’s union. It pays.”

Why did he think pushing a broom would bother me, having baked in the miserable sun and sat in the same mud together, having heard the story of my totally fucked up life in random chapters, a phrase, by the way, that served as the working title for my first grownup, successful novel?

“It’s different,” he explained, “when menial jobs are all you’re considered fit for. Whitey gets to decide.”

After parking illegally on the street in front of the Greyhound station, waving frantically to get my attention before a city cop ambled over, Cal drove me on a tour of Buffalo’s busy downtown, then out past an impressive row of mansions to North Buffalo where I paid and grabbed a key for a room at the YMCA. I’d stay there until I started working, got some cash for rent and found an apartment. A #25 bus went south on Delaware to Amherst Street where I transferred to a crosstown that left me off within walking distance of the Trico plant on Main.

“Sure as shit,” Cal said, as soon as I threw my bag on the bed, “you won’t be dining alone tonight. My mother’s got a home cooked meal planned. You can meet my dad, too, and he can tell you about the job.”

“Does he sweep floors too?”

“He’s going to be your supervisor, boy. You’re going to work for a colored man.”

“What’s his position on revenge?”

“You’ll be happy to know that Calvin T. Hill, Senior, is a whole lot nicer than Junior.”

“He’d have to be, wouldn’t he?”

“Come on, cowboy,” Cal said. “Ditch your duffel and let's get the hell out of this Young Man’s Fucking Christian Association. You better find yourself a place soon. This place is cold. No nooky here whatsoever…”

Turning back into Delaware Avenue, Cal asked, “You ever eat muskrat?”

“No, I’m pretty sure I’d remember that. Why?”

“That’s what Mom’s got on the menu, plus pig fat mashed potatoes. If Dad gets lucky out in Delaware Park, you’re in for a real treat. Squirrel tastes just like chicken. You’re gonna love it, if he got one with his twenty-two.”

Because Binghamton was much smaller and home to so few blacks, the segregation I grew up with mumbled relative to the way it spoke up in Buffalo. You could just about draw a line with a felt-tip marker, straight down Main Street in the heart of the city, and color one side black, the other beige. 

“Hey, Cal, back home, they told me not to cross Main Street in Buffalo. Bad asses on the one side are killing each other and any white people stupid enough to wander in.”

“You are crossing, man, going deep inside. You are going to visit what we call ‘The Fruit Belt.’”

“No shit? The Fruit Belt?”

“I told you about The Fruit Belt,” Cal objected, “back there.”

“I thought you were fucking kidding me.”

“No joke, man. I grew up on Lemon Street. All the fruits on the vine here, and all of them with negroes dangling like monkeys from the trees. By the way, you’re already on the wrong side of Main Street. This is Michigan, our main street. That there is the Old Rockpile, where Orenthal James Simpson runs like crazy.”

“O. J…”

“They’re going to tear it down, though. They can’t get enough white people to drive in here to see the games. Something’s going to go up downtown.”

“I’ve never lived in a town with a big league team. This should be interesting. Are the Bills any good?”

“No, sir, they are not, but most certainly better than the Binghamton Bloomers or whoever you followed back home.”

“We followed the Giants. You know, Charley Conerly, Frank Gifford, then Y. A. Titties…”

“I believe you’re speaking of Y. A. Tittle, long retired now, five, six years…”

“I lost track, being a hippie poet and all. Who’s the Bill’s quarterback?”

“The position is currently vacant or should be. Okay, Pete, we’re turning on Lemon Street now. Clean up your language, and you don’t have to say nothing about Nam, okay? No matter what, don’t tell them the truth. They don’t need to know the details.”

“It was like an afternoon at The Boys Club,” I said.

“For two glorious years…”

“For two years…”

Recalling how great it was to see Cal, back home, in civvies, driving around an unfamiliar city, calling other drivers “assholes” through closed windows, I regret that our friendship did not break out from there. Everything we had in common as soldiers diminished back home. Cal had already enrolled at Buff State, determined to “beat their game” by getting a degree, make something of himself, as the hardy cliche used to roll, and I was determined to stay as much outside as possible while still able to breathe, even when it meant intermittent disappearances. Both of us succeeded, but in ways that widened a peaceful divide unavoidably.

Because my janitor job at Trico started at 3:00 in the afternoon, I didn’t work for Cal’s father, after all. Senior was a small man, like Cal, but thicker, more muscular. Also unlike his wiry son, Cal, Sr., was cautious about putting what was on his mind into words, sometimes looking blankly into space while the mental machine seemed to whirl on without external production. His dark eyes had a liquid quality suggesting emotions not hardened behind them.

Our shifts overlapped by an hour, and on my first day, he showed me the ropes, the very few ropes. Cal, Sr., was one of those steady guys that defined his generation, the greatest, according to Tom Brokaw, hardly so in my mind, but they had a distinct advantage in knowing who they were, what they were doing and why. My generation lost that, largely. I could get nostalgic about it, but I didn’t really want it.

“Have you ever worked in a plant like this one?” he asked.

“Not really. My last job was working in a duplicating department, running Ozalid machines mainly, in a plant that made airplane trainers.”

Cal, Sr., looked puzzled, but did not ask.

“Yeah, they built these huge front ends of jets for pilots to train on, simulators. You’d never see anything like it, unless you were on the floor. Anyway, no parts assembly like this. It must be hell to keep track of all this going on.”

“Fortunately, we don’t have to. We just have to keep the trash from piling up and the conditions sanitary. We have a crew that specializes in cleaning the toilets. Cal said you’d never do that. So, I arranged for you to own this broom of your very own…” His smile broadened. “Your new weapon. Over here are the trash wagons. You’ll need to steer one, but no license required.”

The job was as simple as that. I soon learned that a few coworkers were special ed graduates recruited from a nearby vocational training center, valued because they were happy to have jobs, a trait not common among Americans, weren’t easily bored by repetition and never called in sick. This helped make me, pretty much, the odd man out, which I liked. I liked the repetition, too, but for completely different reasons.

I worked my Trico janitor job for five years. I never felt the resentment other guys in the union seemed to because I never wanted it to be anything more than it was. I wanted to sweep floors, dump trash and stay out of the way and was successful beyond my wildest dreams. I made people forget about me.

In the meantime, Binghamton dimmed like a city in your rearview mirror when you drive long distances at night. Both the sight and its hold shrank in unison. I broke a promise and did not go home for the first Christmas or the second. But Tim and Marge drove up with the kids on their way to Niagara Falls and surprised me on a Sunday, just as I was leaving for Delaware Park. I’d been in Buffalo for something like a year and a half, by then.

“Got time for lunch?” Tim asked when I answered his knock at the door.

True to his style, he was pleased at having surprised me.

“I’m a working man, Tim. It’s Sunday. I’ve got time for anything you want. Nice to see you. What brings you to the snow capital of the United States?”

Casual and at ease was the easiest way I knew to keep my secrets to myself. Keeping my life unknown to everyone back home was how I blocked any connection that might tug me back from being plugged in.

“Maureen’s married now,” Marge told me while we grabbed lunch at Burger King, “in case you’re wondering.”

“Any kids yet?”

“I don’t know. I just asked around because I thought you might ask.”

“I don’t mind knowing,” I said. “Looks like I missed my chance with her. How’s Dad? We write, you know, but he’s like all facts and reporting…”

“What?” Tim interrupted. “Were you thinking he might have opened up while you were away?”

“That would have been a bigger surprise than seeing you guys at my door,” I conceded.

“I know he’d like to see you. If you come for Christmas, you don’t have to stay with him, that little place. You can stay with us. You know we have a house we bought over in Vestal now…”

“I did know that.”

Small talk kept us circulating around the core like synchronized moons around a decent, Earth-like planet. Nobody had to parachute down.

Tim’s thinking that my not coming home for Christmas had something to do with not wanting to stay at Dad’s apartment in Binghamton, sleeping on his couch, nudged me toward a kind of discomfort zone, one I could only get out of by explaining. I decided to dodge it entirely.

“I will definitely come this Christmas. For sure. I’d like to see Bobby and Sally, too, assuming they’ll be in town, maybe even Mark.”

“They might be,” Marge speculated. “It’s not easy for Sally with the baby and Arnie will probably not be on leave, but she always tries. She knows how important it is to your father.”

The wind stirred, family connections churning as differing temperatures did what nature designed them to do. I immediately regretted my promise to come home. Handling that healthy was not something I felt confident about. 

Salvage, out of the wreck of our lives, I was thinking, and the guy recumbent in the back of my head made a note: this could be the title of a story.

More rattled than I expected after watching Tim and Marge head off to the falls, the kids waving out the back window, I walked up Elmwood, resisting the excitement running in me like carbonated seltzer, out of the bottle, to get back to myself. The yap of sorrow that bit me after being told about Maureen startled me, right when being with Tim, Marge and the kids already had me halfway tipsy. I might have to cut myself off completely to make it. I might have to go somewhere they could never find me. Broken, unrepairable love was not what I wanted in my life, ever again. No emotional Rube Goldbergs for me, thank you.

By the time I walked under Larry Griffith’s frozen birds in the circle on the parkway, my emotions had settled enough that the most radical options were phasing out of consideration. But I still didn’t know how to keep my love for them from making me crazy, except by avoiding it whenever possible.

I crossed Forest and spotted my friends, mostly unreconstructed hippies, at the volleyball net. I was a stranger to them, and they didn’t mind. All summer, I was addicted to this refresher and missed it when winter and Buffalo’s legendary snows pushed us out of Delaware Park and the best I could still do was to wish for spring.

 

A complete chapter list can be found here.

Find Is It Always A Love Story and all of my other books on my Amazon Author Page.

 
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