“Learning how to live takes a whole life.”—Seneca
Little Denny Grabowski loved his father’s garage. It was an industrious place, immaculate, as clean as his mother’s gleaming chromium kitchen. Pegboard covered the far side wall where the implements—shovels, rakes and brooms—all hung in order, by size. The back wall formed a melange of color, the blues, the yellows and greens, the black and the gold of California license plates, dating back to the 1940s.
The near wall was the hub of Mitch Grabowski’s garage: here was the workbench he himself had built and the folding shop cabinet with slots for his many hand tools. The muscular Craftsman bandsaw he had bought on layaway at Sears loomed beside the workbench.
His two-tone Pontiac Star Chief was parked out front, or in the drive those Saturdays he washed it, but was not allowed in the garage. Denny was allowed in the garage, but with a couple caveats: he was not to disturb his father at his workbench, nor was he to go near the bandsaw.
There were the special weekends Denny and his dad worked on projects together—they might assemble a model airplane or construct a crystal radio set, winding the copper tuning coil around a Quaker oatmeal box. Late in the summer, when the winds picked up, they’d fly a kite in the field behind the ballpark.
Other weekends, Denny’s dad was just too busy. He kept his docket of tasks in a small notebook and when he finished a job he relished running a thick line through it with his carpenter’s pencil. His most recent notebook addition was a planter box he’d fix below the front bay window. Grabowski dreamed up future projects while he listened to the radio in his garage.
Denny’s sister and his mom rarely entered the garage. The Saturday after Denny’s surgery his mom positioned a lawn chair in the middle of the garage so the boy could watch his father at his workbench. She gave him his medicine and eased him into the chair, and propped his casted legs on a styrofoam cooler. Grabowski worked on the screen he’d hang outside the patio door to thwart the mosquitoes and moths. Already he could hear the sweet sounds of his screen door—the little squeak of the hinges and the slap of the door hitting its stop.
The sun was high and hot, though it was cool yet in the garage. A John Denver song played on the radio and Grabowski whistled along. His daughter and a neighbor girl kicked a soccer ball out front and Denny dozed off, curled up in his chair. Grabowski took a short break and checked his measurements, distracted by the thought of the cold beer that awaited him in another hour or so. He’d finish the door today and hang it tomorrow. Monday morning and the insurance office still seemed very far away.
The soccer ball bounded into the garage and bumped Denny’s lawn chair. The boy woke, startled, and reflexively lifted his heavy legs. His feet crashed down across the top of the styrofoam cooler and split it into several pieces. The ball rolled on toward the workbench, and Grabowski, bear-like and angry, hunched over and picked it up. “Sally!” he cried. “C’mere.”
Sally and her friend appeared at the threshold of the garage and Grabowski approached them menacingly. “If this ball gets kicked in here again, I’ll,”—he made a thrusting motion with his clenched fist—”I’ll stab it with my knife and knock ya both over the head with it.” Sally’s friend had taken a few steps back, then turned and run for home. Sally slinked across the garage and into the house.
Several minutes later Ella Grabowski came out of the house, hands on hips, shaking her head. “You can’t be like that, Mitch,” she said. “You just ruined Sally’s day and you probably scared that neighbor kid half to death.”
She turned and watched Denny working to set the pieces of the cooler back together. “Don’t bother with it, honey. It’s just—”
“Right, it’s just my goddamn fishing cooler,” Grabowski said. He picked up the pieces and heaved them into the trash can. “Another three bucks, right down the drain.”
His wife didn’t respond. She lifted Denny from the lawn chair and dragged his crutches behind her. She carried him into the house. “Dad was pretty cross with Sally,” the boy said. “He wasn’t mad at me, I don’t think.”
“No. And he had no right to be cross with Sally.”
Midway through summer, metal braces replaced the boy’s plaster casts. His crutches didn’t carry him far and he moved from his bedroom to the TV room to the garage, bored. Each time he occupied the lawn chair he pulled it closer, so that now he sat only several feet behind the workbench. “Hey, dad,” he asked, “can you tell me about the license plates again. Tell me about grandpa’s old cars, okay, dad?”
“Maybe later on, son.”
“Bobby’s dad built a rocket ship. A really neat one. Can we build a rocket ship, huh, dad, can we?”
“We’ll see.” Grabowski put down his drill.
“Whach’ya building now, dad? Huh?”
“Son, please—you gotta stop with the goddamn questions—do I look like the Shell answer-man?”
Denny laughed, to let his dad know he got the joke, but after a moment asked, “Who’s the Shell answer-man, huh, dad, huh?”
Grabowski had hoped to complete his bookcase this weekend, but already it was Sunday afternoon and he still had the shelves to install—let alone the two coats of paint it would need. He pushed away from his workbench and crossed to the wall where Denny’s bike hung on hooks. He lifted the bike and set it down firmly at the mouth of the garage. “Here, Denny, go ride your bike for a while. I’ve gotta get this work done.”
Denny took his crutches and slumped toward his bike. He looked at his braces then up at his dad. “I can’t ride my bike yet,” he said.
“Don’t you have any friends you can play with?”
“They all run pretty fast, dad. I can’t keep up right now.”
“Well—then why don’t you go in the house and watch the television. Maybe there’s something good to watch.”
“Maybe I’ll see if anyone can play.” He continued around to the front door, laid down his crutches and sat on the stoop to while away a bit more of this cheerless summer. Grabowski returned to his workbench, and Denny watched the neighborhood till his mom called him in for supper.
He joined the Cub Scouts, and in the fall he received his kit for the Pinewood Derby. When Friday night finally came, and Denny and his dad, their drinks in hand, set out for the garage to build their winning entry, Denny tripped on the outside step and the bottle of root beer fell from his hand and shattered on the concrete floor. Grabowski grumbled and cursed, and all the anticipation of the night seemed to spill away into the puddle of root beer and broken glass on the garage floor.
In his high school years Denny would still visit his dad in the garage, but with humbled expectations: if the old man looked busy or preoccupied, or wicked with beer, Denny simply moved on. He wasn’t sure what still drew him to the garage—maybe some idealized memories of time with his dad as a youth, or maybe it was pity. His dad seemed less a hero in his garage now, more a loner, and increasingly remote from the family.
His mom referred to her husband as Grumpy Grabowski; later this sobriquet was shortened to “the Grump.” The awful intuition that his parents would not stay together struck the boy, and the thought fixed in his mind. He feared the changes the divorce would impose, and he knew he’d be asked to make a choice. He recognized that both his and his sister’s allegiance would be with their mother, and he worried what would happen to his dad. He dreaded the day he’d come home to find his dad no longer lived there.
In his sophomore year psych class Denny learned about mental illness and insanity. One day in class it struck Denny that his father might be insane. After the initial panic subsided, this fear also lodged and festered in his head. The telltale signs of his dad’s madness now seemed unmistakable: the hair-trigger temper and the obsessive order of his garage; the creeping paranoia and the beer, good God, the beer! The textbook said that drinking was the drinker’s manner of self-medication, that it offered the illusion of relief from his suffering. Denny fretted that his dad’s relief was only an illusion.
It had been some time since Grabowski’s last project, yet he still spent most of his free time in the garage. He fidgeted with his Citizens Band radio or sat hunched over graph paper at his workbench. He told Denny he was working on his Magnum Opus. The magnum opus was several years now in incubation, and though Grabowski withheld the nature of his project, Denny, his sister and his mom all knew he was designing a deck–a deck Mrs. Grabowski hoped never got built. She thought their tidy brick patio was just fine.
Grabowski loathed the nothings of genial conversation, so Denny learned to come armed with a topic, something to talk about, when he visited his dad in the garage. Their sports talk had faltered and politics was just another dead end: Grabowski might rant about a current stupidity, or he’d damn all politicians with a disdainful wave—”those goons in DC can all go shit in their hat, as far as I’m concerned. Don’t even get me started.”
Through trial and error Denny discovered a handful of havens he could broach with his dad. He noticed the old man’s smile when he talked about his boyhood in Jackson, Michigan, and Denny liked to hear the stories. “Y’see, son, in those days the circus would come to town and my dad would buy me a five-cent permit that entitled the holder to kiss the big elephant’s ass.”
Or he’d talk about the hut near the train station that sold the Coney Dogs he and his dad devoured Sunday afternoons in summer. “Foot-long jobbers, see, on steamed buns with all-meat chili and onions. And real mustard, son—not the watered-down runny shit you get today.” The names of the kids came rushing back to him when he told stories about the pack he ran with and their exploits—swinging over the river on vines and hunting arrowheads, or games of kick the can until dusk and catching fireflies at dark till they were all called home.
“Why’d you ever leave Michigan?”
“Your grandpa took a promotion with the railroad. Grandma never wanted to leave. Then the job pretty much killed him.”
“I see all those old pictures of grandpa playing the piano.”
“The man was a natural. Played beautifully. The goddamnedest thing—he wanted to teach me, but I was always too busy. So I can talk actuarial tables or build a goddam cabinet, but I can’t play the piano.”
“Why not take lessons now?”
“Get serious—we don’t even have a piano. No, I blew my chance, son.”
Denny was not about to blow his chance. Grandpa’s musical gift might’ve bypassed his father, but the gene hadn’t skipped him; he could tell, by the way he responded to music. Each week he went down to the music store to look at the blonde acoustic guitar with the red tortoiseshell pickguard he was saving his money to buy. He wouldn’t mention it to his mom or dad; no, he’d surprise them when he brought it home. Similarly, he didn’t mention his tryout for the school musical. Better to impress them with his good news.
When conversation in the garage stalled, they listened to the songs that played on the radio; Grabowski whistled and Denny sang along. Grabowski most enjoyed the songs by the artists he saw on The Tonight Show, like the Carpenters and John Denver. “Fella I’d like to see Johnny get on his show is this Neil Diamond. Now there’s a guy who can belt out a tune. He sings with so much emotion you can hear his goddam voice crackin’. Cracklin’—hah!”
“I like the one he’s got out now—I Am I Said.”
“Right, see, that’s another good one. Man’s a non-stop hit machine, OK?” Grabowski nodded while Denny sang the refrain. “Another singer Johnny’s people oughta call is that Olivia Newton-John—oh, she’s a looker, son. Know what I mean?”
It was early afternoon and the old man appeared to be unagitated and sober. His animation took Denny back years, to the time he felt safe in the garage, back when the stars lined up and the night sky twinkled. Denny chastised himself for his caution with his dad. “OK,” he deadpanned. “So when you talk to Johnny you’ll tell him less Tiny Tim and more of the beautiful female singers?”
As a rule, mention of Tiny Tim provoked a foul screed from Grabowski, a rave on Tiny’s (“ridiculous”) ukelele, his long (“greasy”) curls, or his child-bride. He leaned forward, then relaxed back into his chair. “I don’t know what’s wrong with that boy,” he said. “Maybe he’s just puttin’ us all on.”
Grabowski lost interest and turned back to his workbench. He increased the volume on his CB radio and adjusted the squelch to reduce the static. A trucker out on State Route 99 was lamenting the world, “manipulated by scum and run by a band a’ fuckin’ crooks.” Grabowski looked over at Denny—”There’s a man after me own heart,” he said.
“I didn’t catch what he said. But it seems you get a kick out of your CB.”
“I have some fun with it. What I don’t like are these cats that hide behind their handle. They think being anonymous gives them license to be complete assholes. Oh, they’re bigshots alright, when nobody knows who they are.”
Denny pictured his dad behind the wheel of a big rig, sitting up high, hauling east on Route 66, happiest, he imagined, rolling through some desolate town at two in the morning, aware of only the road and the jabber on his CB radio. Odd, he thought, that this image came to him so much more clearly than the unfocused mental picture he had of his dad at the insurance office.
The following Friday Denny sought his dad to show him his new guitar. He took it out of its case and strapped it round his shoulder. “Pretty sharp, huh?”
“Yeah—that’s real nice, son. You gonna become a recording star?”
“We’ll see,” Denny said, though that’s exactly what he hoped to be. “First I have to learn how to play it.”
Grabowski pointed at the strap, a Navajo mosaic in turquoise and pink. “That a goddam, uh, hippie strap?” he asked.
Denny flinched, he feared the old man was already deep into his beer. “It’s like one I saw John Denver wear,” he said. He set the guitar back in its case. “I wanted to treat myself today. I tried out for the school play—and today I learned that I didn’t make the cut.”
“Oh, the school’s putting on The Music Man and a couple weeks ago I auditioned for a singing part. Today they offered me a place on the stage crew instead.”
“That’s bullshit, son.” Grabowski took a long swallow of beer. “That’s the old bait-and-switch. The oldest trick in the book. Those sonsabitches.”
“It’s alright, dad. Maybe I was too nervous at the tryout. I think I missed a few notes.”
“It’s a goddam clique—the in-crowd, see?” Grabowski tossed his can onto the pile of empties at the foot of his workbench and went to the refrigerator beside the bandsaw for a fresh one. “Just like that goddam Cub Scout clique. The Pinewood Derby—’member that? All those in-the-know bastards—cheats—weighting their cars with lead. Of course they’re gonna win!”
“That was a long time ago, dad.”
“I don’t give a fuck how long ago it was. Y’can’t fuckin’ cheat like that, alright?”
Denny picked up his guitar case; it was time to move along. “You’re right, dad,” he said. “You can’t cheat like that.”
His sister had left home for an office job up in Fresno and she wrote Denny to tell him how liberating it was to be away from home and living on her own. His dad moved back to Michigan after the divorce, and his mom told Denny she’d sell the house and take a small apartment; she asked him where he thought he’d go, and she said there was a good community college down in San Marcos.
Denny hadn’t thought much about where he’d go, but he imagined San Marcos was as good a place as any. He found a furnished apartment near the school and took a job at the auto parts store in town. He hoped to apply for classes, but each time he gained a small balance in his checking account, he faced another setback—the brakes on his car gave out and a toothache demanded a dentist’s attention.
Scraping together each month’s rent had become an ordeal, so he added weekend work with the caterer out on Palomar Airport Road. Life’s possibilities appeared to be narrowing and he glumly pondered an existence of stocking shelves and setting up weekend parties. He still hadn’t set foot on the community college campus.
He caught the notice for the Rehabilitation Restaurant while flipping through the local paper at the counter of the auto parts store; he tugged that page from the paper and slipped it into his back pocket. The balance of the workday he vacillated between elation at having found a way out, and the saddening knowledge that he would never be chosen for one of the Restaurant’s twenty-five positions.
He sensed that the County was looking for the truly down-and-out foodservice workers to staff the Rehabilitation Restaurant; to enhance his chances he rode out to the caterer and asked Flanagan, the manager, to fire him. Flanagan cocked his head and gave Denny a disbelieving stare. “What, you want me to fire you? I got time to fuck around with dipshits like you? Alright, fuck you, you’re fired. You’re done. Now get the fuck outta here.”
Denny froze. He had not anticipated Flanagan’s reaction and thought for a moment the manager was teasing him—but he read the expression of the others looking on and knew something had gone wrong: had Flanagan taken his request as a challenge? He was shouting again and jabbing a manic finger toward the door. Denny didn’t hear the words, his head was flushed with an oceanic, rushing noise; he turned and stumbled out the door and ran for his car. He knew he had forsaken his final paycheck.
Now he worried he’d botch his interview with Miss Maggie at the Restaurant. The morning of his appointment he considered calling his dad for guidance, but he couldn’t afford the long-distance call, and anyway, depending on the old man’s mood, he might just say it was a jerk-off idea, you have no right to take the County’s charity, what the hell’s wrong with you? He could call his mom but she’d say what she always said: “Be good, be yourself, it’ll all work out.”
He had ironed his dress slacks and his best button-down shirt, but in hopes of exploiting his surgical scars, chose instead to wear shorts and sneakers. He climbed the steps to the lobby of the great Restaurant and grasped his blunder at once: the others awaiting the chance to tell Miss Maggie their story had dressed properly for an interview. The men wore oxford shirts and creased trousers—several wore jacket and tie—and the women wore sensible skirts and blouses.
He slouched into a claw-footed chair just inside the door and offered a meek wave to those who looked up and acknowledged him. He scanned the faces of those around him and saw that many in the lobby suffered maladies much more grave than his: the round-faced boy, maybe his age, whose neck was marred with burned and contracted skin; the black kid with the violet scar that ran the width of his forehead; and the young man who sat on the bench across from him, who dabbed at a weeping eye with a handkerchief—that side of his face seemed immobile, and his lips turned down at the corner of his mouth in what looked like a fixed slur.
Now he couldn’t fathom the chain of thinking that led him to wear shorts to an interview, nor could he imagine how he’d explain himself. The hands of the lobby clock moved slowly. One applicant and then another was called to the small office in the kitchen, across the dining room’s ballroom floor. An hour passed and Denny realized he could have gone home, changed clothes and come back. One of his father’s maxims unspooled in his mind—”Dress like a jerk and you’ll act like a jerk.” He knew he had to clear the old man’s voice from his head.
Denny’s name was finally called. Several of the newcomers glanced up at him, and he did what he had hoped he wouldn’t do—he made the long walk from the lobby to the office on the sides of his feet. The old man was right—dress like a jerk and you’ll act like a jerk.
Maggie greeted him at the kitchen door and led him into the office. She glanced at her notes, folded her hands and gazed across the desk at him. “You always walk like that?” she asked. The light in her eyes begged the truth.
“No.” Denny shook his head. “I walked like that when I was a kid, before I had the surgery for my club feet.”
“And—fair to assume you have nicer clothes to wear?”
Denny looked down at his wrinkled shorts and dirty sneakers. “I don’t know what I was thinking this morning,” he said.
“Maybe we should take a step back. Why not just tell me why you’re here?”
He told Miss Maggie many things, and he stopped several times to hold back his tears. She interrupted only once, to ask if he worked at a restaurant. “Not exactly a restaurant,” he said. “I worked for Palomar Catering—kinda like restaurant work. They fired me last week.”
Maggie looked out the office window to watch a hummingbird hover at the feeder. She focused on Denny for a moment and jotted a few notes on a card in the file.
“I asked them to fire me,” Denny added. “I thought it would help my chances here.”
“And what’ll you do if you don’t get on here?”
“I don’t really know. I could talk with my dad and see if I can go live with him in Michigan.”
An envelope from the County Board of Supervisor’s-District 5 came a week later: Denny didn’t trust the envelope, it looked far too official, and he worried that he had another outstanding parking ticket. Eventually he opened it and Maggie’s signature jumped off the page at him; she reported only good news.
Denny considered himself a background player and in those early days at the Rehabilitation Restaurant he kept to himself, more from diffidence than choice. On Tuesdays, the day the Restaurant closed, he walked into town for his lessons at String Theory Guitar; he’d dawdle his way back, wandering the village streets and looking into shop windows.
He practiced guitar each day in his room, and when his fingers tired he picked up his notebook and scrabbled rhymes and phrases for songs he would write. He shed his aloneness most afternoons at four, when he crossed the parking lot to the Restaurant to work the dinner shift. He’d been assigned Station-Five, as Bert’s busboy, and there was little affinity between them: Bert felt he’d been dealt the short straw while Denny considered his waiter moody and self-absorbed. Denny had heard that Bert was unhappy at the Restaurant—maybe if he left it would clear a path for him to be elevated to waiter? He anticipated the day he would molt out of the busboy’s short-sleeved shirt and skinny bowtie, for the full bowtie and the long-sleeved white shirt of the waiter—and the arm garters, cummerbund and the burgundy vest.
There were two waiters Denny looked up to, Olin and Jude. At the end of the night, while waiting for the final parties to cash out, he’d fold napkins at the long table and listen to their stories. They impressed him as confident, almost fearless, playful and funny—attributes he felt he lacked. One night Rickey joined them at the table, troubled that their time at the Restaurant would mark them forever with a black stain. “It’s like doing time at the nuthouse,” he said. “It ain’t gonna look great on a resume.”
“Now tell me something, Rickey—who gives a fuck about a resume?” Olin asked.
Jude wagged a finger: “Who said anything about a Rehabilitation Restaurant, anyway? Can’t we call it the Culinary Institute of California?”
Rickey held his ground. “Probably not—not with the 2 Rs on the sign out front.”
“I had an older couple ask me last night what the Rs stood for,” Jude said. “I told them the Restaurant’s real name is the Rue Royale—that we’re based on a world-class bistro on the rue Royale, in Paris.”
“Right,” said Rickey. “And then you told them that our house specialty is Southern-style pan-fried chicken…with hushpuppies.”
“Your lack of imagination is a travesty, Rickey. A complete travesty. C’est poulet, prepared southern France style. Avec beignet de mais. Then you point out the tournedos of boeuf on the menu.” Jude winked at Olin. “Tell ’em a story—people love a story. Earn your goddam tip!”
“Point is,” Olin said “you can be an uptight prick—or you can have some fun. C’mon, man this is fuckin’ Candyland! No rent—good food—pretty girls. Poor mouth this place all you want—I ain’t listenin’.”
Denny reflected on Olin’s words and suspected they applied to him as well. He wrote the phrase “Friendless in Candyland” in his notebook, then turned the page so he wouldn’t have to look at it. Later that week he received a letter from his sister and she took him to task for his reticence: That bashfulness was cute when you were a kid, she wrote, but now you’ve got a life to live. So get over it. Get out there, live a little. These are the best years of our lives.
Denny had an idea, and he asked his instructor at String Theory if he thought he was ready to play for an audience. “Well, yeah, I mean you’re getting there,” his instructor said. That afternoon he wrote an announcement for a performance he’d put on in the dining hall the following Tuesday, after lunch. He posted his notice on the corkboard above the employee table in the kitchen, and Willie agreed to open the bar for lunch that day.
The Restaurant crew slept in on their day off, so Cid fixed breakfast at lunchtime: crisp bacon, platters of eggs, hash browns, biscuits and corn fritters. It was Denny’s favorite meal of the week but on this Tuesday he had no appetite. His stomach was doing nervous flips and he hoped his mouth was not too dry to sing. He stood at the bar window and drank a glass of water while Willie served up generous Bloody Marys and screwdrivers and mugs of Anchor Steam. The crew had congregated at a couple of tables in Gunner’s station and as they pushed their empty plates and platters toward the middle of the table, they began clinking their glasses. “Looks like you’re on, my man,” Willie said. “Break a leg.”
He felt a slight lightheadedness as he strode out to the middle of the dance floor; the fear that he might fall down made him count his steps. His scalp itched and a cold sweat formed under his arms. The fifteen or so expectant faces, huddled at those two tables, manifested to Denny as fifteen hundred in a crowded auditorium. He felt a rush, like the first time he stood, shivering, at the edge of the high dive, unsure which was more dangerous—jumping, or navigating the narrow board back to the ladder. He began:
Talkin’ to myself and feelin’ old
Sometimes I’d like to quit
Nothin’ ever seems to fit…
Olin narrowed his eyes and turned to those at his table: “He’s strummin’ that thing a little hard, isn’t he?”
Faye sat behind Olin and rapped him on the shoulder with the butt of her hand: “Tell me he’s not playing a Carpenters song.”
Lillian nudged Faye: “Hey—don’t knock the Carpenters. They’ve done some decent songs.”
Seth leaned across the table and spoke in a whisper: “It might be that Denny’s just not the best interpreter of the Carpenters’ fine music.”
Rickey and Wusserman laughed. Tawkee spoke up from the table opposite: “Quiet over there! Give the guy a chance, for chrissake.”
Denny thrummed on and Gunner squinted down the table toward Tawkee: “I just came over for f-f-food. Don’t need no goddamn h-hoot-enanny.”
Bert sat alone at a two-top behind Olin’s table. He began calling out, “hoot-hoot-hoot,” like an owl.
Jude reached across the table and put a hand over Gunner’s arm: “You are now trapped in the hootenanny vortex, Gunner. There is no escaping it.” He leaned in, earnest and conspiratorial: “But I heard he’s only gonna play for three hours.”
Denny finished his song to polite applause. Not bad, he told himself, not bad at all. He segued into his favorite John Denver song with fresh confidence:
Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River…
Bert stood and circled back behind the tables, still calling hoot-hoot-hoot, and shouldered through the swinging door into the kitchen, and out the back door.
“That was kinda rude, wasn’t it?” Frannie asked.
Gunner turned toward Frannie, then glared down the length of the table: “Y-you’re all l-l-looney if y-you think I’m s-sitting here for three m-more hours!”
Frannie: “Who said anything about three more hours?”
Gunner pointed a crooked finger at Jude and Jude was quick to change the subject: “Y’know—if Denny was just a little bit more flat, he’d be almost right on key.” Emma and Frannie frowned at him, presently the wellspring of all trouble.
Tawkee piped up from the back of the table: “Alright! You’ve had your chance. Enough a’ this crap. Now I wanna hear somethin’ I like—play ‘Cripple Creek Ferry’.”
Denny stopped playing and the hall became as soundless as the smoke rising from Bolesy’s cigarette. Many of the women grimaced and eyes shifted from Denny to Tawkee. He began to shout-sing his song:
Hey, Hey Cripple Creek Ferry
Butting through the overhanging trees…
Those who knew the words joined in, and Jude and Tawkee sang the second verse. Many voices came together for the refrain. Faces turned to each other, there was genuine wonder at how tuneful they sounded. Jude led the ovation: “Let’s hear it for the Rue Royale urchin street-choir!” He called across the tables: “And whose beautiful lilting voice was that? Was that you, Lillian?”
Lillian tapped her lips and smiled.
Jude swung around in his seat to face Denny: “Whaddya say, champ? One more?”
The hall shifted slightly, a shudder of relief at Jude’s suggestion. Even Denny unwound; the strain in his shoulders and neck seemed to melt at his feet. He wiped the dried spittle from the corners of his mouth and strummed a few chords while he weighed his best song to finish with. He settled on Neil Diamond:
L.A.’s fine, the sun shines most the time
And the feeling is “lay back”…
Olin cupped his hands around his mouth: “I think he’s got the wrong Neil, Tawkee—”
If Denny heard Olin’s remark, he didn’t let on. He pushed on, warming to the song’s opaque chorus:
“I am”…I said
To no one there…
Gunner stood: “He k-keeps that up, w-won’t no one be h-here, either.” He cackled and drifted away, out through the kitchen door.
Denny persevered. He rushed the song to its conclusion—some sensed that he wanted his performance to end more than anyone in the hall. He sang the final “I am”… I said and strummed the C chord again for good measure, then folded his hand over the strings to silence his guitar. He looked up to see them all clapping—waves of applause—and they stood and clapped even louder. The ovation made him smile.
He sat in Gunner’s empty seat, across from Jude, and did not hear Olin’s comment: “OK, let’s not overdo it—the applause is fine, but we don’t need a fuckin’ encore.”
Several busboys began clearing the tables and others filed out. Denny turned to Jude: “That was pretty bad, wasn’t it?”
Jude reflected for a moment: “Hey, we all gotta start somewhere.” Jude poured half his beer into an empty water glass for Denny. “You’ll wanna hone your repertoire a little. You know—right songs for the right group. But you’ll get that.” Denny nodded, happy that he had someone to talk to.
Michael J. Martin is a graduate of UCSD, where he studied Creative Writing. He has worked in journalism and at many restaurants and bars. He has mopped hospital floors and mown many lawns. He drove the news truck. He has worked the auto trade and sold space on steamships. He has coached kids’ baseball and basketball. He most enjoys writing fiction. The family formerly lived in a rehabbed chicken coop which sank, and now lives in an exurb of Chicago. He’ll take a deep breath and begin the next chapter of his novel-in-progress.