Just Like Chicken
I was waiting. I’m good at that. Detectives spend a lot of time waiting.
And watching. I’m good at that too.
There were two hundred fifty of us crammed into barely heated cabins for the weekend, but it was still morning and the others were sleeping, or doing whatever one does at an event like this.
Me, I was waiting. Alone. In the pavilion where the “Men’s Sharing Circle” would occur in half an hour. I was early, as usual.
I was not thrilled about being part of the Men’s Sharing Circle, whatever the hell it would prove to be, but it was Michael’s wedding and he seemed to want all the guys from the team to be there. So, dammit, I was there.
As I paced and shuffled, a young woman opened the door, and with professional grace, assisted a brittle and elderly man into a green Adirondack chair.
She, not being a man and thus not invited to the circle, scooted off without saying a word. There was a Women’s Sharing Circle going on simultaneously elsewhere. Perhaps she was scooting off to that, or maybe she was just hired help.
My new companion was a skinny old dude wearing a blue Yankees cap. He just sat there, eyes closed. He must have been ninety, and I at first feared he might actually cease breathing right there on my watch. I hate it when people die on my watch. It’s happened before.
I was tired and the old fellow did not look like fun company. My eyes started to glaze over. I heard a voice. It was Yankees-cap Guy.
“Where the hell am I?”
“You’re at Michael’s wedding. Waiting for the Men’s Sharing Circle.”
“The Men’s Sharing Circle.”
“What the hell is that?”
“I have no idea.”
After a few minutes of silence, he spoke again. “Are you the priest?”
“No. Our friend Alex is doing the ceremony. There is no priest.”
“No. I mean you. Aren’t you that priest?”
“No. You’ve got me confused.”
“No, dammit. You’re that priest.”
“I was once a monk. That’s probably what you’re thinking of. I was never a priest.”
“What’s the difference?”
“It’s pretty complicated.” I did not want to get into it with this old fellow. Not here. Not now.
“Complicated?” he said. “I can handle complicated. I’m not a child. My mind still works.”
“I’m not sure mine does,” I replied. “And I’m not sure I can handle complicated. I prefer simplicity these days.”
His eyes penetrated mine from under the visor of that Yankees cap.
“You might surprise yourself,” he said. “Give it a try.”
I hesitated. He could tell I was faltering.
“Okay,” he said finally, “skip it, you damn coward. Have it your way. No point in trying to stretch yourself or take a risk, is there, you wimp.”
Trying to keep calm, I uttered the explanation I had pretty much memorized over the years for occasions like this when it became easier to respond than to obfuscate.
“A priest is ordained. He can say mass, give sacraments. A monk dedicates his life to God by withdrawing from the world into a separate community.”
“Okay. Yeah. That sounds more like you. Withdraw. Separate. Run away. Hide. Yep. Now I get it.” He stared at me some more, and then he said, “No. Okay. Wait a minute. You’re the cop. I never met you, but you were in the papers. A long time ago.”
“I was once a cop. Then I was a detective. A private detective.”
“What happened on Lavender Street? Something happened there, right? I remember hearing about that too.”
“There is no Lavender Street.”
“Not now. There was, once. Wasn’t there? Not here. Somewhere. I don’t remember. I just remember folks talking about it a long time ago. Stuff only us old guys remember.”
“I’m not an old guy.”
He laughed. “That’s a matter of opinion.”
He went on, “Well, have it your way if you want. If you don’t want to go there, you don’t want to go there. I don’t give a damn.”
I did not respond, and in my silence, the old guy apparently changed his mind about allowing me to not go there.
“So, what happened, anyway? You were a monk and now you’re not. You were a cop and now you’re not. You were a detective and now you’re not. And something happened on Lavender Street a long time ago.”
“As I said, it’s complicated and I don’t want to talk about it. And there is no Lavender Street.”
“Okay, whatever.” He chuckled. He closed his eyes again, then opened them and said, “We’re men. And here we are at the Men’s Sharing Circle. What do you want to share with Michael? He’ll be my grandson in a little while, you know.”
“You’re Angela’s grandfather? No, I didn’t know that.”
We introduced ourselves. Rather, he introduced himself. He already seemed to know me. His name was Harvey.
Then I answered his question. “I don’t know. I don’t think I have any brilliant words for Michael. I see him all the time anyway. If I think of any wisdom, I can tell him some other time. How about you?”
He thought this over, and then replied, “I’d tell him that there are light parts to marriage and dark parts, just like a chicken.”
I laughed. “Light meat, dark meat. That’s pretty good.”
“Do you like chicken?” he asked me.
“I love chicken. I love all birds.”
“Me too. I’ve been married for seventy years. I’m ninety-four years old. That’s the key to a good marriage. Understanding that it’s like a chicken.”
“You’re a smart old dude, aren’t you?”
“Got any words of wisdom to share with me? I could use some.”
“Well, what the hell are you anyway? You were once a cop but not anymore. You were once a detective but you’re not anymore. You were once a priest—”
“Whatever. Doesn’t sound like you’re anything now.”
“I’m not. I’m retired.”
“Retired from what?”
“Retired from being a monk, a cop, a detective, pretty much everything.”
“Sounds like retired from living to me.”
All I could do was look at him. He continued, “Everybody’s something, even if they’re retired.”
“Well, fuck that. You’re too young to retire anyway. If they’d let me, I’d still be out there running that damn backhoe.”
“And I’d still be a monk … if they’d let me.”
Those were the words that came out of my mouth. I immediately regretted them because I knew they were not true. I did not want to be a monk. I was plagued with too many doubts. What I wanted to be was someone who knew what he wanted to be.
I did not correct my words. I let them hang there for Harvey, a man who had complete certainty about what he wanted to be. I wished I were more like him. That’s why untrue words passed my lips.
“Well, screw ’em,” he said. “Screw the bastards, all of them. Be a damn detective. Be a damn monk. Be whatever the hell you want. Screw ’em. Screw ’em all.”
I held up my fingers in the peace sign, and Harvey said “Peace and love, man.” I could not tell if he was speaking ironically. In any case, we both laughed.
“Okay, now I know what you are,” he said. “You’re a damn hippie. I always hated hippies. But at least you’re something.”
“Hippies believe in love,” I replied. “You don’t disagree with that, do you?”
He chuckled. “If you put it that way, I guess not.”
“Love is what it’s all about,” I said un-ironically. “That’s the very core of my belief.”
Harvey laughed at my words. “You talk funny. Kind of like a priest.”
Did he wink at me? Maybe he did.
“But basically, you’re right,” he went on. Then he added, “Screw Lavender Street too. Whatever the hell happened there.”
About then, the rest of the guys started to dribble in, a few at a time. I started chatting with them and Harvey’s eyes closed again. Once again he dozed off.
The Men’s Sharing Circle proved to be even less inspiring than its name implied. We all did our sharing, and Harvey did indeed pass on his chicken wisdom to Michael, and in an hour it was blessedly over and we all moved on.
Michael and Angela got married. Coincidentally or not, chicken was served at the dinner.
And that was that.
But I couldn’t stop thinking about Harvey. The sonofabitch had been married, to the same woman, for seventy years, had four kids, seven grandkids, and was here with untold dozens, maybe hundreds, of loving family members.
And me? Well, I lived alone with a large dog in a small house.
Who was I to talk of love to the likes of Harvey? What did I know of love?
Nothing. Despite my empty words, I was afraid. I was afraid, not only of love, but of life, or at least a few important parts of life. And Lavender Street? I hadn’t thought about that for thirty years and never wanted to again. That’s why I was retired. Retired from pretty much everything. Retired from feeling. Retired from life. That’s why I was nothing.
I was scared of feeling. Scared of life. I was scared to death.
I was chicken.
Screw ’Em All
Sunday morning, after an early breakfast, the gathering began un-gathering. Those who had the farthest to travel left first. Michael and Angela were foisting half-consumed bottles of wine, with improvised corks, onto the departing guests with admonitions to not drink them on the drive home.
Home for me was only about four miles away, and I hitched a ride back to town with Charlie, who admirably restrained himself from sipping the merlot and left me on my front porch.
“Enjoy the day,” he instructed. “Looks like a nice one.”
“I enjoy every day. Every day’s a nice one.”
“You always say stuff like that,” he replied as I was getting out of the car, clutching my bag, “and yet, when I look at you, you look like crap. You look lost.”
I slammed the door and said, “I’m not lost,” but the door had been shut and he didn’t hear and I didn’t really care.
The house seemed even smaller and emptier than usual, with no dog to jump up on me in greeting. Marlowe was still in the kennel, where I couldn’t pick him up until tomorrow. I saw no reason to stay in alone. It was a quick, five-minute walk into the center of town, and that’s where the people were. Despite a weekend full of people, I uncharacteristically yearned for more and went in search of some.
It was a Sunday in April, but winter’s chill was still in the air. It was the time of year that could not make up its mind what it wanted to be. The calendar said spring but the cold hung around like a lover who has already left you in her heart. A metallic chideep-chideep echoed around my ears out on my lawn—a barn swallow. I took out my “smartphone” and recorded a few seconds of it. My phone may be smart, but me—not so much. It has infinite capabilities, but all I can make the damn thing do is be a tape recorder, almost exclusively for bird songs, and once or twice maybe, a phone.
I like birds and love to listen to their songs, and I like to keep them available for me to listen to late at night. They help me sleep.
I was in the center of the village of Shelburne Falls. It has a Bridge of Flowers, which is kind of self-explanatory—a bridge filled with flowers. And there’s a lovely spot where the Deerfield River flows over a dam, creating whirlpools and waterfalls that swirl over rocks—the Glacial Potholes. And its main street is classic small-town, circa 1950s—Bridge Street. It’s a delightful place to stroll.
People were out on this day. I’m quiet and shy, but everybody knows me here and for me, walking through Shelburne Falls is like schmoozing at a cocktail party—if I went to cocktail parties. Everyone stops to chat, whether I want them to or not. And that’s what I was doing—strolling and schmoozing, sauntering as if I were sipping on a martini, talking with whomever corralled me about movies, the weather, music, the Red Sox’s chances, existential angst, ironic detachment, the nature of God … all that light, superficial stuff.
The usual suspects were around, but there were others too. There are always a few tourists, but today I saw strangers of a more exotic stripe than I was used to—ten of them maybe, men and women, all in a group, dressed mostly in black, many with tablets, some furiously jotting down notes on yellow-lined pads. Their leader was a bright-eyed, scraggly bearded hipster wearing a black-wool watch cap stretched down over his ears.
This young fellow was clearly someone special, someone important. He had long, blond Dutch-boy hair falling out under his hat and tied in a ponytail in the back. Very tall—at least six feet seven—almost alarmingly skinny, with a not-quite-successful attempt at a beard on his innocent, cherubic face. He was looking at everything, seeing everything, stopping and staring, often seemingly at nothing, but you had to believe he was seeing something where others saw nothing.
He would take out his cellphone and snap a picture of each curiosity he encountered—a twisted limb on a tree or an oddly shaped stone. He spoke to no one, except he would whisper occasionally into the ear of the tiny figure at his side—a slight and fragile female wearing sunglasses, a thin scarlet scarf wrapped around her head like a veil, and floppy gray sweatshirt and pants. He had to bend down dramatically to reach her level, but he did it over and over while I observed.
This odd group was wandering with a sense of purpose. Their bright-eyed leader would take them to a site, which they would size up for fifteen minutes or so. A sharp, lanky man would put some kind of optic device to his eye and look at things from various angles. When he finally spoke, everyone would take notes.
I could not help but follow them around. It’s the detective in me—though I’m retired, that instinct never dies. I began chatting idly with a few of their members, the ones floating in the periphery away from the core group. They were friendly enough, but responded vaguely, if at all, to my more specific questions. I, however, had little to ask of them. Basically I only wanted to watch.
I tagged along until I grew weary of them, which happened after they led me back to the wooden deck overlooking the falls. I was about ready to leave.
Spray hit my face, as it was hitting theirs. There is an old stone staircase there, leading down from the platform to the swirling waters of the river as it pours down over the rocks. The town had fenced and sealed it years ago after being sued multiple times by stupid people, swimmers who went down there and jumped into the river and injured themselves.
The tall hipster and his diminutive companion were standing by the locked gate to the staircase. The tiny person’s eyes went blank, then lit up. She started dancing. There was no music, but she was dancing. It seemed like something else though, something more. She was moving all parts of her body as if none of them were connected, or if they were, it was in some kind of non-physical, almost spiritual way. And she had this smile on her face, like she was somewhere else entirely. I gotta admit, it was entrancing. It was devilish. It was angelic. I couldn’t tear my eyes away.
She was done dancing. She stopped, looked around, and then she hitched her foot onto one of the cross-spokes and hoisted herself onto the top rung of the gate, where she precariously balanced herself, first on both feet, then on one. She laughed, pulled off her scarf, and let her long, blood-red curls fly horizontally in the wind. She was queen of the world, if only for a few moments.
The hipster wanted to grab her. You could see it in his body language. But even touching her would be dangerous and could push her off into the swirls below.
She laughed. Her voice was high and harsh and filled with both wickedness and elation.
The guy decided he had no choice. He grabbed her by the one leg still planted on the fence and picked her up like she was a slippery bad child. She squirmed and lashed about and yelled at the guy as she struggled to elude his grasp, but he held on to her with more strength than one would guess he possessed.
He lowered her back to earth. She wriggled like a hooked trout for a few seconds then twisted back at him, stopped, and grew suddenly centered and silent once more. I thought I saw a smile in there too.
“Fuck you. Fuck you all,” she said calmly as she turned and scrambled away—away from the water, away from harm, and away from the scraggly hipster who ran after her. She picked up the pace as she rounded the turn back onto Bridge Street. He was close behind in hot pursuit.
The rest of their entourage watched but made no moves. This was clearly between the two of them.
That was enough for me. I didn’t wait to see what happened next. Instead I made a point of detouring down the narrow lane in front of the bowling alley so I wouldn’t run into them again. There was trouble brewing here, and I did not need trouble.
I knew who this guy was. I may not get out much, but I do know a little about film. This was Nick Mooney, quite possibly the finest young director alive—a genius, but notorious for going over budget, bedding down his female stars, and leaving havoc in his wake.
I still had some monk and some detective left in me, so the urges to save and investigate bubbled up, but I didn’t need whatever it was they were tempting me with.
Screw them. Screw ’em all.
Fuck them. Fuck ’em all.
Though home would be empty, bereft of big dogs and humans alike, I went there. Once inside, I closed the door.