The Girl With the Rose (working title)
That girl with the red, red rose? You might’ve thought that I was with her, the way we were walking down the street, talking, laughing. But I wasn’t with her, and I didn’t give her that rose.
That day, Halloween, early 1970s, high school, back in the old neighborhood, we were headed home from school. I was sixteen, she was fifteen, and we were talking about whether it was too nerdy or dorky, or whatever the word was we used in those days, to go trick-or-treating when we were sophomores or juniors, or even seniors. Most of the kids I hung out with were going to pretend to go out trick-or-treating, but really, we would just meet up in the park, hang out, maybe smoke a few joints.
That day, Halloween, a kid named Danny McGuigan had given Liz that rose. Danny McGuigan was going to come back to haunt me in a lot of ways, later on, but that afternoon, I just didn’t like him, and I didn’t like it that he had turned his attention to Liz. It wasn’t my worst nightmare, but it was the kind of thing that made my gut knot up.
Danny was the son of a building contractor, Chuck McGuigan, a man who was built like a very tall, very thick brick wall. He had a house to match. Danny wasn’t quite that much of a slab then, but he did a lot of weight lifting, and hung out with a small group of thuggish guys that I wasn’t very fond of, largely because of rumors of – and some locker room bragging about – what these days would probably be reported as gang rape, but in those days were, I suppose, for some of the participants, or all but one anyway, just good fun. Personally, I just thought it was kind of sick that anyone would want to have sex with someone right after, and in front of, his buddy. Call me a prude. But what I found especially unappealing about Danny and Ricky and Stevie (they all had those kinds of cutesy names, like they carried some aura of childlike charm) was that somehow a whole lot of the girls, at least the “good” girls (good meaning good-looking and popular) seemed to find the thuggishness and what you might (now) call predatory sexual behavior appealing, cool even.
I could handle bullies—not by beating them up, though you can bet I dreamt of it—but just by being smarter, not letting them get to me, something I wish I could say about a particular ex-wife.
Like the time I was cutting class and standing in the hallway near the smoking area at school—I shit you youngsters not, we were encouraged to smoke in those days—and Stevie comes up and pretends all nice like to strike up a conversation with me. He kept his hands behind his back, and so I figured something was coming, and it did. An apple. Slapped down hard on the top of my head. I still had hair in those days, and you can bet that the thing I most wanted in all the world was to lay Stevie out. I could even see it, the beautiful punch that would send him sprawling across the floor, except I guess I wanted just a little bit more not to see what I knew would really happen, that he would deflect the punch and beat the living shit out of me and brag for weeks.
I just looked at him. He was bouncing on the balls of his feet, waiting for me to swing, but I didn’t. I took the wet pulpy mass off my head and looked at it. What did you do that for? I said. Then I turned away and he started stammering about how it was just a joke and we were friends, right? It was only about five steps to the bathroom, and I went to wash all that sticky crap out of my hair. He came in after me, but I just looked at him like I didn’t care any more about him than I would a bug on my windshield.
There were people around, other chumps cutting class, and everybody just sort of walked away, their heads down, and Stevie just looked like a dick.
Danny was never that stupid. Never stupid at all. He was intimidating, not just because he was big and could put you through a wall, but (in my view) because he was charming, had a certain kind of Brando, sleepy-eyed look to him, and could have sold a used car to a used car salesman. And when he wasn’t getting through to you with all that charm, he’d affect a stutter. I don’t know how he did it, but he made a fairly unpleasant speech impediment (or whatever they call it) so freaking seductive that half the boys in school were doing the Danny McGuigan stutter.
So you get the picture. I didn’t like him, and I hated it that Liz was falling for that crap. There was more, too. One of Liz’s best friends, Katie—Lawrence, I think—had been pretty much going with Danny for a year or so, and I wasn’t that keen on the idea that Danny would be moving in on Liz when he had to know that she and Katie were serious friends.
Funny thing about Katie and Liz—I never liked Katie much—was they could have been identical twins. If you knew one or the other, then you completely knew that they weren’t even sisters, but people who didn’t know them always made the mistake. It always struck me as weird that I didn’t much like a girl who looked exactly like the girl I had been crazy about all my life. Maybe I was jealous of her and Liz, maybe I figured she was one of the reasons Liz never wanted anything to do with me romantically. I was good enough looking, I guess, but I didn’t play football or run for class president and had my own ideas about stuff that other people might have thought was oddball. Take for example school spirit. I thought it was a bunch of crap. When you get right down to it, I’d say from high atop my high horse, what was the school but a big box—and you’re going to go get all exciting about a big box? Which is to say that I probably missed out on a lot.
Anyhow, that Halloween afternoon, I was anxious as hell. Had a knot in my gut like some invisible fist had shoved inside me and taken hold of my insides. I was prone to that kind of thing. Not exactly anxiety attacks, but times when I would suddenly get anxious and not really have any idea why. Usually it was about something big that was going to happen, but something I didn’t necessarily know was going to happen. Something sometimes awful. Like when the ex asked me to leave. I was gut-wrenched for days.
Right then, when Liz and I were walking down the street and she was holding the rose, I was so wound up I could’ve run around the neighborhood 25 times and still had energy for more. But there were a lot of things aside from Liz that I had to be anxious about – my grade in chemistry for example. The dent in the fender of my dad’s yellow Pinto. Maybe I felt somewhere deep in my subconscious what was going to happen that night. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe it was just that Danny had given her the rose. Mr. Castle – more about him later – thought I might have had some of what he called the gift of sight, meaning in his case, second sight, i.e. clairvoyance, but that because I insisted on being such a skeptic about everything, and always in total control of my feelings, my feelings tended to get stuck. That’s what he said. My feelings got stuck in a whirlwind. I didn’t believe any of it, or believe in that kind of crap.
As you might guess, I fell in love with Liz the first day she turned around and looked at me on the school bus.
I was in third grade, she was in second, and she had just appeared out of nowhere. She was blond and crazy beautiful. It’s true that I had a problem with crushes, that I loved that sensation of being mesmerized by a face as pretty as Liz’s had. But Liz was different. We never ran out of things to talk about. We dreamed big dreams together, both of us certainly destined for great things. And when she looked at me with those eyes, soft and brown, I thought she could see right through to my soul. And maybe she did. See right through to my soul, I mean. Maybe she saw everything. But she never gave me any hint that I would ever have any chance at all with her romantically. She even took it upon herself, from time to time, to blurt out, Oh, my God, Hank? No, Hank and I are best friends. No. Oooh. And then she’d make a face like kissing me—really kissing me—could maybe kill her.
And then I did exactly the wrong thing. I told her why didn’t like him, the rumors, lectured her like a fool. I can get like that, too. Like a soapbox preacher, my mother would say. Get dizzy on that high horse you got there?, my ex would say. Can’t blame her.
There’s a weird thing about people – if you try to convince a girl you’re interested in that the other guy is a creep, or otherwise unworthy of her attention, he somehow becomes even more worthy of her attention. If I had been indifferent about Danny, if I’d known what my anxiety was about, maybe that Halloween would’ve turned out different, but it didn’t.
The only silver lining – if you can call it that – is that I didn’t find out what happened, even though there were rumors, until about six months ago. Unlike Liz, I got to live most of my adult life without knowing what happened.
The thing about Liz was—aside from being so pretty it hurt—she had a pretty screwed up family. I didn’t really get it at the time, because I tend to be very naïve about certain things, or did. Alcoholism ran through her family like a river. Her oldest brother, Marcus, had been in jail once for public drunkenness, and was sort of famous, or infamous, for getting drunk and passing out at high school parties, but by that time he was in his early 20s. There was some violence between her parents.
Anyway, I learned later, much later, that what seems normal to me and what seemed normal to Liz were entirely different things. Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike. Maybe there are happy families, I don’t know. Mine wasn’t weird, but I don’t know if I’d call it happy. I don’t know if I grew up with anyone who had a really happy family, happy enough, anyway, to be unremarkable in any way.
When we got to the corner, we said our goodbyes. I’m sure I thought we’d see each other in school tomorrow and everything would be the way it always had been. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
I watched her for a minute or two as she walked away, then turned and went home. After supper, I met up with Mike and Charlie and went to the park, and there met up with a bunch of other guys and a few girls and hung out. Even though none of us had costumes, we went and trick-or-treated at a few houses just for the candy, and then we all went home.
The next day, everything was different. Liz was Danny’s girl, and she looked different somehow. I couldn’t have explained it. I just figured it was because she’d fallen under his spell. By the time I graduated, we hardly saw or talked to one another at all.
The big news was that Katie had run away. As the weeks went on and she didn’t turn up, there were lots of rumors. She’d got pregnant and her parents had sent her off somewhere to have the baby. She’d got sucked into a cult and got brainwashed. Someone was sure they’d seen her selling flowers in an airport. She’d been murdered or committed suicide. Whatever it was, I guess I pretty much forgot about her, the same way eventually I pretty much forgot about Liz.
Then, when I was in my second year of college and home for Thanksgiving, I ran into Liz at a party. She had broken up with Danny a while back and brushed away any questions I might’ve had. We got drunk together, and for the first time she kissed me. It went a little farther than that, but not much. But I was in heaven there for about two hours before she got out of my car and walked the two blocks home. I didn’t see her again for some thirty years. I thought about her once in a while the way you do. But life intervened.
Then fast-forward to six months ago. I’m in the grocery store, and I hear, Hank? and turn around and there she is. Still pretty as hell, but in a totally different way. You remember how sexy and kittenish Beverly D’Angelo was in National Lampoon’s Vacation? in HAIR!? And then what a formidable force of nature she turned into in Entourage? That’s kind of the way Liz was. Still good looking as hell, but now hard-eyed, a queen who’s had to execute too many lovers.
She was smiley and chatty and all that, but there was a part of the way she acted, nervous, jumpy, that made me wonder what was up. I told her I’d lost my job. She said she’d just returned to the area. We agreed to have a drink. I don’t regret running into her, but I wonder, some nights, in bed alone, how different things would be now.
I started out as a newspaper journalist. I got a degree in journalism and went to work for little newspapers, and then bigger ones. I liked getting inside of peoples lives, learning about what they did, who they were, and finding the stories and the work that they did. In that way, and in that way only, I suppose, you could call me a detective. I ended up coming close to flunking that chemistry class, largely because I just couldn’t do the math, but somewhere along the line, I developed a fascination with science and technology, and the people who were doing it. I couldn’t do the math, but I could sure as hell write about it, and I got pegged as ‘the science writer.’ I didn’t mind. I felt like a kid in a candy store, there was some much going on.
Then, in the early 90s, I was interviewing a guy who was purported to be a tech visionary. He had, by that time, already started and sold two companies and was probably the richest person I had ever met. (I never knew how much Chuck McGuigan was worth.)
I got in on the ground floor of the tech revolution, got a job with a little tech publication that became a big tech publication, and thought my career was going somewhere. We hit it off pretty much instantly, Sandy and I, and he hired me to work on a tech publication he was starting.
Sandy was every bit the visionary, and for a while my career really did go places. I got married. We moved to California. We had a daughter. Sandy had a massive plan for making the whole publication digital, and was busy with a skunkworks kind of project to build a platform for other magazines to go digital, the problem was, this was the late 90s, and the tech just wasn’t there yet. Turns out that sometimes tech visionaries can get way ahead of themselves. By the time the tech bubble burst, Sandy, unbeknownst even to his family, had leveraged everything for this platform. But Web 2.0 hadn’t happened yet, the bandwidth wasn’t there yet, and there really weren’t the devices like there are now take advantage of it. By the time I got laid off, it seemed like everything around me was in flames.
I got lucky.
My then-wife had gone to work for a defense contractor in California and she knew somebody who knew somebody, and I slid right into a great job with a big defense-related firm, writing marketing copy and doing other communications work. It was right at the edge of the run-up to the second Gulf War, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and the government couldn’t open the cash fire hoses fast enough or wide enough. I got a security clearance, and when my ex asked me to leave, I came back East and worked at the firm’s DC-area branch. I bought a house a few miles from the old neighborhood, and for a few years, everything was great.
And then, the Great Recession happened. Cost-cutting started. I got laid off. There I was, a year or so ago, sitting in an office with my boss, the person from HR—a kid, really. The New Model. There were kids all over the company now. They were getting rid of excellence and going for ‘lowest cost, technically acceptable’—the new DC buzzwords.
He read me all the prepared crap that HR people read you when it’s time for you to go. And so I took my severance and started looking for a new job, but the job market wasn’t good. I had a clearance, and I figured I could get something pretty quick. I knew a lot of people. I had some investments. I had a few dollars in the bank—at least enough not to panic.
But being middle-aged, now, my coach – who was hired to help me by the firm to help me told me that he didn’t think it was likely that he or I would ever have a regular W-2 form sort of job ever again.
I did a little freelance work here and there. I promised myself I was born how to play guitar. That didn’t go very far, but I still have the guitar. I promised myself a lot of things: I was going to teach myself how to do software programming. I was going to keep a blog. Mostly what I did was cook – I’m a good cook – and look around for stories to write. I sent out dozens of pitch letters.
By the time I ran into Liz, my money was running low, and I was at a point of loneliness. Not just romantic loneliness. But a kind of existential loneliness.
The weird thing was, once I ran into Liz, I started running into all kinds of people I knew from back in the old days. Mike Jones, I saw him in Home Depot with his son. He still had that red hair, but it was now full of gray, but his son had to hear that Mike used to have. And then it was Mr. Castle.
My dad was handy and he passed that along to me, and now and then he got me jobs. Back in college, I used to do some handyman-type work for Mr. Castle. He was somebody my dad had known. Mr. Castle was a Vietnam vet, about 15 years older than me, and a big reader, and he hired me to build and some bookshelves, and do some painting. Every time I was back at home, there was a new job. Sometimes I used to wonder if he hired me just because he was lonely. But he was a nice guy, and would even pay me for the time I spent just sitting in his neat living room, talking or listening to him talk.
He had a million and a half books, and they all had handwritten notes throughout the margins. It seemed like every page. Maybe it was because of his involvement with the war, but Mr. Castle was obsessed with history. Unlike me, Mr. Castle didn’t have a single book on a shelf that he hadn’t read. I built him floor-to-ceiling shelves, and I used to joke that his house didn’t need insulation because of the books. And then I built him some swinging shelves, because he still had more books.
Mr. Castle was obsessed with history. He read constantly. He didn’t just read history, but history was the thing that interested him most.
He had a funny way of emphasizing points in conversation, following every statement with “don’t you know,” the same way some British people will often follow statements with “isn’t it?” Except his don’t-you-knows were never questions, and he said so it so fast that it all ran together.
Like I said, he was a nice guy, Mr. Castle. But I thought he was a little nuts. I didn’t know about the injury then. In addition to his obsession with history, he had an obsession with magic. I don’t mean black arts type magic, I mean magic tricks – you know, card tricks, making stuff disappear, pulling stuff out from behind your ear, sleight-of-hand type stuff. Maybe that was a loneliness thing, too. But it was a little weirder than that—he had this idea that he could see into the future. I don’t know whether he was just kidding me—he would always say it like it was a joke, I can see into the future, in a silly, Johnny Carson, woo-woo voice. More than once he read my palm. The first time, I have to say it sort of freaked me out—