If you missed part of the story or recently dropped from the sky, you can start with Chapter One by clicking here, then step right along in links at the end of each chapter. Just a quick note: although the book so far may seem to have a kind of randomness, a chronological illogic, it does have a plan. Taking it in order works best. Trust me, not your common sense or intuition.
Prefer to read straight through in a few days? You can find some opportunities with my baker's dozen of finished books, six of them novels, by clicking on my Amazon Author page. Otherwise, come on aboard and read about my Rationale for Baking Cookies.
Rationale for Baking cookies
“What are you going to do for money? You quit, so you can’t get unemployment. Why not keep the job and look around while you’re still getting paid?”
Roscoe’s concern surprised me. I imagined that he’d be one of those happy to see me exit. In seven years with the agency, I’d raced from boy wonder to irritating outcast. I’d jumped ahead of myself, taking credit for good luck, alienating people, some of them Roscoe’s buddies.
“I’m starting my own business. This place is a dead end for me now, you know, with the new asshole in charge.”
“Think about it,” Roscoe urged.
I had. Too many things to fix and not enough reason to fix them, not seeing yet that the reason they needed fixing was because I either broke or let them be broken.
Why was I getting advice from Roscoe, anyway? Yes, he was a great guy to hang around with, sometimes hilarious, but last year, his chain smoking put him under the knife. Half of his jaw and the tissue around it got cut out, a surgeon excavating a cancerous landscape. He resumed smoking before leaving the hospital.
“My old lady and her whory daughter are driving me nuts,” he griped as if he read my mind, holding up a lit cigarette between his fingers. “What the fuck else have I got?”
Roscoe’s semi-marriage, the source of some of his funniest stories, had its screws shook loose by his girlfriend’s daughter’s awkwardly evolving womanhood, a hormonal calamity cascading deeper into his universe.
I thought of Kurt Vonnegut writing that he was, “Committing suicide by cigarette.”
“She’s fourteen going on twenty. We can’t keep her down, and the way she dresses, the boys are all sniffing around. At that age, you remember, all we had on our minds was pussy…”
“Some still do,” I interrupted.
“Yeah, right. Me for one. But, geez, my old lady, if she caught me screwing around, she’d cut my balls off.”
Roscoe’s unbalanced face, the left side hollowed out at the bottom, reduced this possibility to sadness.
The subject changed, and although I was mostly killing time, released from all responsibilities the day after I handed in my resignation, I walked the block down Leroy to the main building for the agency where I’d traipsed my learning curve from not quite thirty to the horizon of forty. In the past year, misjudgments and inexperience I refused to admit lead to irreversible mistakes, but I learned more here, about myself and others, than everywhere else. Now, I was unwelcome in the building, but my peculiar, unbroken state of employment entitled me to the parking lot.
While I imagined myself as right on track with my plans, fate set me up as a distracted hiker about to be knocked off the trail in a mudslide. Shedding the craggy classrooms of my twenties, I now had a clear plan for myself.
“Your twenties are your chance to get all the shit out of your system,” I repeated.
I had plenty of that, but there was more. Twenty, I made my break, burning bridges in a way that left me no way back to the city, Binghamton, where everything before took place or the people I knew there. I built myself pretty much from scratch and discovered I could be an astonishing fuck up but still keep a grip on passion and wonder. I knew what I was supposed to do.
“I was supposed to write,” I said.
“If not, what good was all that experience? You tumbled up toward thirty with stories to tell.”
I made a plan. If the shortest distance between two points is straight through, I’d find the least tiring good-paying job in reach. So, a four time high school dropout, who stayed on track for a diploma, finally, because it shielded him from the Vietnam draft, paid a fee for night school in Buffalo.
Adult night school was different because they didn’t assume you were an idiot right out of the gates, a scrambled mess of possibilities who had to be forced by law to sit at wooden desks and listen all day. You volunteered and paid your way. I went back to school to become a stationery engineer, tending high pressure boilers, reading the newspaper and playing cards.
If ever there was a job that looked easy but paid well, it was shift engineer. Once your shingle got hung, you were obliged to take two clock rounds per day, checking vital instruments and recording their readings — in pre-digital days — on written charts. The other six hours, you were forced to find ways to pass the idle hours creatively. Sometimes, you dialed up your wife or girlfriend, or you might hang around with the guys on the loading dock, swapping stories. In the unlikely event of an emergency, you called the chief and waited for him to pull up his pants and drive in.
I believed I could handle that, and it would leave me time and energy to sit with Bic in hand, writing stories, two hours a day, as prescribed by Henry Miller.
What I landed instead was the most demanding, confounding work I ever took on, days and weeks marked by duties I never expected to perform, aided only whatever involuntary teachers I could summon to help me through it.
“The thing is, Val, I caked it. A me I knew very little about got in gear, and I caked it. I was the golden boy, the guy who pulled off stuff they didn’t think could be done.”
“And what else…?”
“Okay, what else?”
“And your head got so big,” she said, “nobody else could squeeze in the same room with you. Nobody else measured up to your standards, did they?”
“Alex did,” I reacted, defensively.
“How did that turn out? Where’s that partnership now?”
“In da ditch,” I mimicked. “Who’d imagine a guy as smart as Alex would just spin his wheels…? For decades!”
“So, he didn’t quite cut it either, did he?”
“Stuck in a time warp. Clock’s still ticking, but the hands don’t move.”
I walked back to my car down the quiet, residential street, ten years later, in the detached fragment of a near death experience, scanning scenes, friends, opponents, students and teachers, before feeling my shoes hit the sidewalk again, made richer but now on my own, no bosses to confuse with head games, no novices to mentor and no more head-turning feats to impress the stalled and wary.
No surprise, I’d driven off the cliff myself.
After all these years, it’s uncanny that people are blind to the devils and angels mingling as their souls. I mean, what’s the point of virtue if it’s involuntary? Are we good because that’s all that’s in our nature?
Until we’re not?
As Sorvino found, Hitlers, Stalins, and the Donner Party daily attend the happy hour, listening to music and conversations in our heads. Who gets called up next? Devil or angel, as Bobby Vee’s song went in the Sixties? All those people ready to slip into the costume your friends, family and neighbors point to and call “you…?” You’d probably rather be blind than look at the freaks, malicious actors and loiterers gamboling around in there.
It my twenties, it first hit me that we’re all actors, taking on parts in front of an authentic self. If the capacity didn’t exist in us, we wouldn’t sit still admiring plays. It knocked me out to see how artfully skilled performers slipped in and out of characters without losing a center. In my thirties, I watched myself try on masks. It was interesting, being someone new for a while without changing clothes.
Oh, sure, I reprised some roles. I got to be the bad husband and bad boyfriend again, and the reckless lover. I played head games with my bosses and risked mutilating the best of what I gained. But I also played rainmaker for the first time, showering dozens of people with money they never expected to earn. And I learned to be something I’d never been, member of a functioning family, an unexpected gift that kept giving.
Thirty, I shut my eyes, plugged my nose and jumped in the pool. I used everything I knew about fixing buildings to massage two structural cripples through Buffalo winters, polishing them up with a crew thrown together from parts retrieved from a human scrap heap. Alone in the middle of a night when a pump failed, I transformed the pipes behind walls in one building into an extended, temporary low pressure boiler. I pulled it off so seamlessly nobody else noticed. Then, piece by piece, I assembled a team of discards and gave them jobs, sixty rejects earning living wages by the time I was done. As it happened, my corner of the business generated so much cash that the rest of the place had to lose ten-thousand dollars a month, just to remain nonprofit, a feat achieved with impressive reliability. If I’d only had the presence of mind to keep my mouth shut about it…
On the day Roscoe tried to talk me into staying, I walked away from the mess. It still worked for everyone else. Sixty broken people had jobs. An incompetent by design nonprofit agency continued riding their backs for survival. But it was a mess because I left it without a single friend remaining. I polluted my own legacy.
That’s the way the cookie crumbles, I guess. So, what do you do?
Not a tough question. You start baking new cookies.
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