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Apr/May 2008 Fiction

A Year in Boston

by Larry Gaffney


In August of 1970, having lost the will to try another semester of college, I packed my few belongings and drove with my girlfriend Dana to New England. We had no specific destination. We just liked the idea of crisp, pine-scented air and cool summer nights. My parents subscribed to Down East, hers to Vermont Life. I had spent boyhood vacations on Maine beaches, toughening myself in the frigid surf and gorging on lobsters and seaweed-baked corn on the cob. Dana came from a family of skiers and knew the glittering pleasures of Stowe in January. We had pot-dealing friends who lived in some of the pretty college towns that dotted the territory like push-pins on a DEA map, and would visit them during our tour. We were young and in love, and ripe for adventure.

We landed in Hampton, New Hampshire, and rented a cottage two blocks from the beach. I found a job over the Massachusetts border in Amesbury, at an electroplating factory. I was up every day at six, a working-class hero. Dana spent her days prettying up the cottage and writing long letters to our friends back in Rochester.

They liked me at the factory even though I had long hair. There had been hard looks at first, and I almost blew it by requesting work gloves. My job consisted of dipping aluminum frames into vats of acid, and since the acid would splash on your hands, I asked for gloves. The foreman, a burly, sardonic fellow, leered at me and said, "Gloves? We don' need no stinkin' gloves." As he said this he pointedly scratched his cheek, displaying for my benefit a hand proudly scarred and discolored from years of acid spatterings. Everyone laughed. Me, too. If nothing else, I appreciated the cinematic reference. But after work I went to a hardware store and bought gloves. Next morning I felt the stares of my coworkers but went cheerfully about my job. By lunchtime I was one of the boys. They saw that I worked hard, that I had not whined, that I would not be intimidated.

But after a month the working-class hero bit had gotten old. For the first week I acquitted myself well. At the end of the second week I was dragging. Midway through the third week I wanted to weep. If I was not a whiner at the plant, I became one at home, telling Dana that the acid was beginning to seep through the gloves. Cravenly, I started muttering about needing time to write a novel. I was softening her up for a change of plans.

On a brisk morning in October I said to hell with work and went to the beach. A strong wind blew man o' war clouds across the sky. As I walked the hard-packed sand I came upon on a dead skate that had been washed ashore. In youthful self-pity I decided that this flat, sickly-white creature was a proper symbol for my lost soul, stranded on the shoals of ignoble, common labor. I toyed with the notion of putting the smelly thing in a box and sending it anonymously to one of my friends, but it seemed like too much trouble.

I was through with the job, at any rate.

 

Our next stop was Newburyport, where Dana took an entry-level position with an insurance firm. Since it was off-season there were cabins available on Plum Island, just across the bridge from town and known for its bird sanctuary. I bought a ream of paper and set up my typewriter on a card table in the living room. Dana bought a new jacket and shoes and settled into the world of business.

On weekends we drove through the sanctuary and spied on long-legged marsh birds. We ate bushels of fried clams and gallons of coleslaw. The salt air and sharp winds of late October made Dana glow. Beach-walking in a drizzle, looking at her gemmed auburn hair and trusting blue eyes, I would reflect on my satisfaction, my lack of need for any other girl. As autumn deepened into winter we huddled in our warm bed while the ocean roared, knowing that such a time might never come again.

By January things had gone sour. Dana hated the insurance game. Two of her associates, themselves afflicted with harsh Boston accents, cruelly mimicked her Upstate New York diphthongs. She resented driving home on icy roads to find me eating potato chips and watching TV, her novelist-boyfriend who talked about writing while producing practically nothing.

We had arguments. She cried, saying she couldn't stand her job. I agreed that my withdrawal from the world of work had been premature. Our beautiful island had become a frozen gulag of dark skies and bellowing pelagic storms. A decision was made. We would go to Boston and find jobs. We would make friends among the college students there, and live the good life of the urban hippie.

 

A realtor showed us a third-floor walk-up in Kenmore Square—one big beautiful room, a narrow kitchen, and a white-tiled spacious bathroom with a claw-foot tub and a marble sink so vast you could wash a fat baby in it. The tenant, a sleek BU coed from Manhattan, wanted to get out of her lease, and agreed to throw in the massive mahogany chest of drawers that covered half a wall if we would sign the rental agreement. We signed, but two days later when we moved in, the dresser was gone.

I sold my car and we lived on the money until April. Levelheaded Dana found work at Jordan Marsh. I became a pretzel vendor. Every morning I would take the trolley to Brookline, secure a cart, load up on pretzels, and pedal the length of Commonwealth Avenue downtown to a prime spot on Tremont Street. By ten-thirty I had the Sterno can going and was heating pretzels over it with a pair of tongs. It was good money, but soon the police got involved. I was issued a warning for vendoring without a license. When I asked my boss (spacey, long-hair, John Lennon glasses) how to get a license, he told me it was too much of a hassle and I should just keep moving from corner to corner, one step ahead of the law. This I tried, but sometimes the demand for pretzels was so pressing that I would forget to move. Things came to a head one day when an officious beat cop, a female Barney Fife with a hard-on for street vendors, threatened to arrest me if I sold one more pretzel. I was at that moment placing a warmed-up pretzel into a wrapper for a well-dressed man with his hand outstretched.

"Okay officer," I said, "I'm leaving."

"That means right now," she said. "Do not sell that pretzel or I will place you under arrest."

"But he already paid me," I said, displaying the man's dollar bill.

"It's true," said the man, "that's my dollar right there." He was trying to be helpful, plus he really wanted the pretzel. I gave it to him.

"That's it," said the cop, "you're under arrest." Her partner, a broad-shouldered, freckled guy in his thirties, seemed amused by the whole thing, but I knew he'd back her up.

"Fine," I said, snatching the pretzel out of the man's hand. "Here, I've taken back the damn pretzel. Here, I'm returning the dollar. See? No transaction."

I gathered my stuff, muttering that a guy couldn't even make a living around here, hoping that my evident frustration would satisfy her and she would not follow through with the arrest. She let me go. I pedaled back to Brookline and never sold pretzels again.

 

I registered with a temp agency and they found me mindless work delivering packages or filing index cards or phoning delinquent bill-payers. By August I had done my penance in the workplace, and Dana agreed that I should have another try at being a writer.

Every morning Dana would leave for work in a good mood. She liked seeing me peck away at the typewriter, a cup of steaming coffee at my side. But I usually gave up in an hour or two. I would shower, have breakfast at the cafe downstairs, and then begin walking the streets of Boston.

It was late spring, and the bums had come out of hibernation. There was one who repeated a line over and over—"Spare a quarter, sir? Spare a quarter, sir?—so that it sounded like a recorded loop. Sometimes I would drop change into his grimy hand. He would thank me and then start up again with the next person. Once I saw him reading a pornographic magazine as he sat on a stoop. He held the magazine very close to his face, and occasionally peered over it to stare at women who walked by. Another time, as Dana and I took the evening air, I heard him suddenly weave a shocking phrase into his patter: "Spare a quarter, sir? Spare a quarter, sir? How about some of your wife's pussy?" I stopped and turned, and he mumbled something and started walking away. Like most bums, weakened by poor nutrition and the rigors of street life, he was not eager for a confrontation.

Every day in Kenmore Square I would see the same intense-looking young man handing out leaflets for the Church of Scientology. I spoke to him once and regretted it. Everything he said sounded like a slogan, and when I asked why he had gotten into Scientology his eyes narrowed and his fist grew tight around his leaflets, now curled into a tube. Who had put me up to asking this question, he wanted to know. I thought it best to move on. He was there for hours every day, peppering strollers with his spiel, being ignored or laughed at. I guessed it was Scientology boot camp, a tough gig.

In the Commons there was Alice, a red-haired, placard-carrying woman who wore the same turquoise dress every day while declaiming about "French lesbian nuns" and other miscreants. There was the fat, toothless hag who directed the traffic on Charles Street, gesticulating wildly and spewing curses so creatively foul that I wanted to stand there recording them in a notebook, which I would have done had I not seen her advance menacingly at others who stopped to gawk. And there was the Saturday night in July, when Dana and I strolled Boylston Street amid other well-dressed, lively couples and groups of college students looking for a movie or a late snack. Suddenly I noticed that a few yards ahead of us people were moving to the sides, a wave-like parting in the sea of cineastes and café-hoppers. At the same time I could hear a change in the tone of the ambient chatter—now there were cries of disgust, gasps of horror, cruel laughter. Dana grabbed my arm and we dodged to the side as the cause of this avulsion lurched before us.

It was a man of indeterminate age. He had long, tangled hair and a full beard matted with filth and dripping with a clear, viscous fluid—a coalescence, perhaps, of drool and snot. His eyes were bloodshot, his face caked with the dirt of a thousand unwashed days and nights. His clothes—overcoat, t-shirt, rumpled trousers—were torn and spotted. Fully intoxicated, he could barely stumble forward, but had it in his mind to share with all who surrounded him the bottle of whisky he held aloft in his blackened fist. From the sepulcher of his chest there issued a groan of entreaty—not for help, but for someone to partake of his bounty. In demonstration of this offer he reached out with his free hand, grasping at the tanned arms and immaculate sleeves that to his clouded eye must have seemed like rabbits fleeing in the dusk.

I remember thinking, as we moved quickly out of his reach, that this bum might be the most wretched specimen of humanity I had ever seen. I thought also of the police who would find him sooner or later, and of their unenviable task—assisting him into the back of their paddy wagon. He was not a man you could easily forget, and a few days later, when Dana was idly wondering if we might ever get married and have children (a friend had sent pictures of a new baby), I said, after a reflective pause, "Imagine having your baby grow up to be like that bum."

Her soft expression turned to shock. "What are you talking about?"

"You remember," I said, "the one we just saw on Boylston. He was a baby once, with skin like cream and smelling of talcum. You never know how your kids'll turn out."

For the first time in our three years together, I saw in Dana's eyes something almost like hatred. "That's a terrible thing to say."

I shrugged. "I didn't mean our kids would end up like that. Can't a guy be philosophical?"

She wouldn't answer me, and I had to endure a two-day sulk before things were right between us again.

 

But life was pretty good, and we seldom fought. During the week I would meet Dana for lunch, and we would go to our favorite spot, a hole-in-the-wall called "Steve's." There was no sign outside, just a hand-lettered piece of cardboard on the wall behind the counter. The menu was a chalkboard. Steve's was dingy and not very clean, but the place was always packed with businessmen who knew you couldn't get better food for better prices anywhere else. They always had a roasted turkey on hand for the building of gigantic sandwiches. There was potato salad and soup, and fresh pie and cake for dessert. If you wanted take-out, they gave it to you in "vomit bags," a promotional gimmick left over from the film Mark of the Devil. Somebody's cousin was probably in distribution.

From our Apartment you could see the lights of Fenway Park, and sometimes I would walk to an afternoon game. Once I was accosted by an old black man—a bum, but higher class than most—who said he was recruiting for the post-game cleanup crew. For free admission all I had to do was stay after and pick up the trash under the bleachers. When I hesitated he tried a little salesmanship. "You can keep whatever you find under there. Me, I find all kindsa stuff, hunnid dolla bills, diamond rings, heroin…" I took his free ticket and did the job after the game, but found no treasures.

 

In late summer we rented a car for a weekend and drove north to Maine, to a cabin on the rocky shore. Even in August the night was cool. We made love while waves sighed in the distance, and afterward Dana said she would like to get married someday in a town by the sea.

I should have proposed to her, but something was holding me back, a restless feeling that I was too young and unformed to settle into anything permanent. As summer ended, there was an unspoken sadness between us.

 

One of my favorite things to do of an afternoon (when I was supposed to be writing) was to grab a take-out burger and go to the 733 Cinema on Boylston. For a buck you could see terrific double features, like Barbarella and Midnight Cowboy. But you didn't want to sit too close to the wall, where roaches crawled in the flickering movie-light.

On a hot day in September I emerged from 733's darkness, overwhelmed now by the sound and brightness of the street, and immediately saw a pretty girl coming toward me. Pretty girls were everywhere in that city, but this one was looking right into my eyes as she walked. She had a welcoming smile, and I had no doubt that she would stop if I addressed her. I could comment on the weather, tell her I liked her hair, that her eyes were beautiful. She would laugh, and we would talk. But I let her walk on. I had someone at home.

 

In October I asked Dana to marry me. She wore a blue and white checkered dress at the ceremony, performed by a JP in Ipswich, and we honeymooned in Maine, as she had wanted. Tired of our dead-end jobs, we moved back to Rochester so I could get my degree and enroll in graduate school.

Six years later we were done with each other. There were no children. I gave her the house but took the dog with me to Georgia, where a teaching job awaited. When I remarried I lost touch with Dana, and it was only through the alumnae magazine that I learned she had died of cancer at too young an age.

Last year I attended a conference in Boston. Strolling the familiar streets, I felt pangs of memory. While my wife explored the shops of Back Bay, I walked with my young son to the Commons.

Another autumn day in my life, another flawless blue sky. I sat on a bench and watched my son feed broken cookie bits to the pigeons. My heart swelled with love and anxiety in equal measure. I was a dutiful parent, but what could I do, really, to ensure that he would never become a staggering bum on Boylston Street, or on some other street in some other city?

But today he was laughing as pigeons flocked at his feet, and one boldly flew up to perch on his arm. He wanted to ride the Swan Boats at the pond, and this we would do when his mother joined us. There would be dinner, ice cream, perhaps a movie. A full and satisfying day for the young master.

Tonight he would sleep soundly in the hotel bed, and I would stand over him for a moment, resigned to be a watcher of the long pageant of his life, of its adventures, discoveries, heartbreaks.

 

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