EDITOR’S PICK
Once We Were Young

Part 1: Satan Drives a Tow Truck

 

My tomato red 1980 Ford Pinto hatchback speeds north on the QEW toward Toronto. The year is 1991, before Google Maps, MapQuest, iPods and cell phones. I am driving because I am the only one who can operate a manual transmission with ease. And the car belongs to me, gifted to me by my well-intentioned father when I was 16.

Sam is next to me in the passenger seat. He has a worn paper folded map from the American Automobile Association in his hands. His finger runs up along one side of the map, tracing our progress.

“We’re good,” he says, “We should be there in an hour and a half, or so. I think, anyway. Plenty of time.”

I nod. The plan is to arrive in time to attend some sort of Phantom of the Opera cast party. Mario, Sam’s boyfriend, knows someone who knows someone who is having the party. He also got us tickets to see the matinee the following day. Mario is stretched out in the back seat of the car, shoes off, his long legs propped against the window.

“How much farther?” he asks from some muffled place of half awake-ness.

“An hour and a half,” Sam answers.

Mario groans. I can see his eyes close through the rear view mirror. He places his light blue sweatshirt over his face. I reach for the knob on the radio dial.

“There must be a good radio station.” I say, “Or do you want to put a tape in?”

Sam reaches under his feet and I hear the clatter of cassette tapes and cases being pushed around. He emerges finally with one and pops it into the deck: Sinead O’Conner, the devastating songbird of my angst-ridden young adulthood.

 

I don’t know then that there will be a period of my life when I will be unable to listen to Sinead O’Conner because of the daggers that instantly pierce my heart at the sound of her music. Her songs will always remind me of Sam and this time and our youth. I don’t know that on the day he finally leaves, he will dance with me in a lobby of a Key Bank to the song “Nothing Compares to U.” I don’t know that I will miss him for years.

I turn the volume knob up. Sam and I sing along. His voice is strong and melodic and beautiful. Mine is just a voice but, with his beside it, it doesn’t matter much.

 

I can’t explain the logic behind driving almost four hours from Syracuse, New York, to Toronto, Canada, to go to a party. Fueled by some overwhelming feeling of not belonging, Sam and I took many road trips back then. Most of them began with the two of us simply getting in the car to go someplace mundane, the grocery store for beer and frozen fish sticks or the 7-eleven for cigarettes. At some point on our way home, one of us, usually Sam, would say quietly, “Drive. Just drive.” And I would, to Albany, to Buffalo, to New York City, to Virginia, to anywhere.  I think we both just wanted to escape from the mundaneness and, to us, the failures of our short lives. We were so dramatic, so righteous. We knew nothing.

 

“We’re getting close,” Sam says. He points to a sign up ahead that reads in bright, reflective letters: ‘Toronto 20K’.

“What do we do when we get into the city? What exit do I take?” I ask.

Sam flips on the overhead light in the car as he bends closer over the map, squinting. Mario’s head appears between our seats. He rubs the sleep from his eyes. His long thick eyelashes fascinate me. They are exquisite, the perfect compliment to the smooth dark chocolate brown of his eyes. Sam once told me that it was Mario’s eyes that he fell in love with first. Sometimes, I find it easy to see why.

“Let’s see…exit…12!” Sam says proudly. He’s grinning as if he’s just answered some difficult test question. I laugh.

“Twelve? You’re sure?”

“Yes.”

 

Exit 12 appears dutifully after exit 13 and I maneuver the car off the freeway onto a two-lane street lined with sidewalks and lampposts. The red engine light on the dash lights up as I shift down and I realize that the car is slowing on its own accord.

“What’s going on?” Mario asks.

“I don’t know,” I say as my tomato red Pinto putters to a stop on the side of the road. “I don’t know.”

Sam and I get out to try and assess the situation. Under the hood, I discover that transmission fuel has been leaking. The engine is running fine but it can’t pull itself into a gear to move forward or backward. We aren’t going anywhere.

“We’re going to miss the party, aren’t we?” Mario says from the backseat.

I am holding my AAA card and looking for a payphone.

“Do you think that works here?” Sam asks.

I shrug.

“I don’t know what else to do. I’m going to call the number. Can you see what that street sign says? I think that’s a payphone down there.”

 

Miraculously, it is a payphone and, even more miraculously, someone answers the 1-800 number I dial.

“AAA. How can I help you?”

“Well,” I say, “First, I’m in Canada…”

“Oh, that’s fine,” says the chipper female voice on the other end. “We’re partnered with the CAA. No problem, at all. What’s your location? Do you need a tow truck?”

I tell her where I think we are and she promises that a tow truck will arrive within an hour.

 

Back at the car, I find Mario pouting and Sam pacing back and forth while smoking a cigarette. I look from one to the other, trying to decide if I want to get in the middle of whatever it is that is going on.

“Fine,” Sam suddenly bursts out. “What do you think? We came all the way here. Why don’t we have the tow truck driver take us to the party? We may as well go. I mean, why not? Right?”

I stare at him for a few minutes, weighing my options. I know if I say no that the rest of the journey will be miserable. Mario is an experienced pouter and able to guilt trip a stone just for rolling under his feet. If I say yes, what would really be the harm? I mean, what could happen? We’ll still need to figure out how to get home. We may as well have some fun while we’re here.

“Sure. Fine.” I say.

The three of us sit on the curb smoking cigarettes in silence until the tow truck shows up.

 

The truck is lime green with orange and red flames painted on the sides. ‘Eli’s Fast Towing!!’ is printed on the doors in block black letters. I wonder at the decision to include two exclamation points. Then I meet Eli. He swaggers from around the front of the cab to greet us. He has a deliberately messy mane of blond hair that he continuously runs his fingers through. His movements are punchy, quick and sharp. He has on a worn jean jacket that may have never seen the inside of a washer and a tight white crew neck t-shirt. A silver skull and cross bones hangs from a chain around his neck.

“I hear you need a tow. I’m Eli,” he says.

We nod.

“Yes,” Sam says, “Can you take us here?” He shows Eli a slip of paper with an address written on it.

“Sure. Sure, I can do that. Is that a garage?”

“No, no. We’re going to a party. We came all this way.”

Eli looks us up and down.

“All right,” he says. He hooks the Pinto up to his truck, then motions for us to get into the cab with him.

 

Cozied up in the cab of the tow truck, I wonder briefly what the hell we are doing. Eli hasn’t stopped talking since we drove off, and I’m pretty certain he’s trying to get himself invited to the party. I am trying to work out what our next move will be after the party when I hear Eli saying, “I could tow you all the way back to Buffalo, no problem. It won’t take long! I could do it in a couple hours. It’d be great fun. No problemo. No problemo at all. Whadya say?”

I hear Sam answering.

“Sure. Yes. Come back at 4 a.m. Can you come back and meet us at 4 a.m.? Then tow us to Buffalo?”

“Ya got yourself a deal,” Eli says.

“Good Lord,” I think to myself.

 

The party is on the third floor of four-story building. There are multiple small rooms that lead into each other, railroad style, but also a hallway that runs outside of them so that they all seem to have three doorways and little wall space. In every room, someone offers some sort of drug. I walk in and out rooms for a seemingly long time. I become confused and make my way down narrow stairs until I find the backyard. Sam is already out there, lying on the ground breathing in the fresh air.

I sit cross-legged beside him.

“That tow truck driver, Eli, he’s strange. I think there’s something wrong with him. He was on coke or something,” Sam says.

“Yeah.”

“I think he might be Satan. I mean, really? Tow us all the way to Buffalo? Don’t you think he looked a lot like Satan? His eyes anyway. You can always tell by the eyes.”

“Yes. You’re probably right,” I say.

 

I really do think Sam is right. I don’t know why and I know it’s illogical but I have a strong urge to not be around when Eli shows back up.

“What time is it?” Sam asks.

“Two-thirty.”

“Ok. Let’s get Mario and go find some transmission fluid.”

 

Five minutes later with Mario reluctantly in tow, we walk the streets searching for an open gas station. Thirty minutes and a few stubbed toes later, we finally come upon one. I ask the attendant for transmission fluid.

“How many bottles?” he asks.

“All of them,” I say.

 

We carry our twelve bottles of transmission fluid back to the Pinto. Mario immediately gets into the back seat and stretches out. He’s drunk and stoned and not at all interested in Satan or what happens next. I start pouring bottle after bottle of transmission fluid into the engine. A puddle starts to form under the car.

“Get in. Start it up,” Sam says.

I do, checking my watch. It’s 3:45. I move the gearshift back and forth as Sam continues to pour transmission fluid into the engine.

 

If this is the end, it’s not at all as I imagined it would be. I always thought my end would be in a glorious burst of flames during a thunderstorm on a dark cliff overlooking a raging ocean. Maybe not, though. Maybe it’s this. Maybe Satan is really coming. Maybe he does drive a tow truck.

 

I look at my watch again: 3:58. I move the gearshift up and over and the Pinto lurches into reverse.

“Oh my god!” I scream. “It moved. It moved!”

I shift into first and it sputters forward. Sam is dancing in front of the car.

“Don’t stop. Don’t stop. I’ll jump in!”

Somehow he manages to close the hood. I shift into second.

“Get in!” I yell.

Sam is next to the passenger door now, hopping and running. I tap the brakes just a little and he lifts the handle to open the car door. He runs next to the car for a few seconds with the door ajar then flings himself inside, pulling the door closed after him.

“Ohmygod. Ohmygod,” I say.

Sam is laughing and crying and shaking. Mario is passed out in the back seat, oblivious to the evil versus good drama that just unfolded on the not so very mean streets of Toronto.

“Oh my fucking god!” Sam exclaims, “Its exactly 4 a.m. Drive! Drive! Ohmygod.”

 

I drive. I have no recollection of finding our way out of Toronto, only that we somehow do. On the outskirts of the city, we stop to get gas and some food. I am afraid to turn off the car and afraid to dawdle for too long. Sam and I rush into the convenient store for Ho-Hos, Pringles and coffee. While paying, all the lights suddenly go out.

“What the?” Sam says.

“I dunno,” says the store clerk. “Sometimes that just happens.”

Sam and I look at each other. We are both thinking the same thing: run. We throw money on the counter and run out to the car. I again start driving before Sam is completely inside the car. He’s getting good at leaping into moving cars, a skill that could possibly serve him well in the future. We drive all the way back to Syracuse without stopping again or saying a word.

When we get back to Sam’s place we coax Mario up the stairs and into bed. We watch him as he instantly curls up and falls back to sleep, snoring softly.

‘I don’t know if I can sleep,” Sam says. “I may not sleep ever again.”

“You’ll sleep,” I say. “Come on.”

I gather up a pile of blankets and head out to the enclosed second floor porch in the front of the house. There are two large wicker chairs and we each take one, wrapping ourselves in blankets against the chilly March morning air. I can see the red Pinto below us, parked along the side of the road next to the neighbor’s garbage can. The remnants of a recent snowstorm are still evident on the grass. Rolled up papers dot a few lawns because the paperboy never can get them all the way up to the porches. There is no hellfire here. I turn to say something to Sam. He is already asleep.

 

 

Part 2: The Language of Sleep

 

A hand on my shoulder wakes me from my sleep. I was dreaming about Christmastime a long time ago. Sam was there, in my dream childhood, which isn’t true in real life. We were eight or nine and building an elaborate Lego city. I built yellow houses with red roofs. Sam built windmill after windmill.

“I’m sorry,” the doctor says, his hand still on my shoulder. “He hasn’t woken up yet.”

 

Memory is such an odd beast. I always think it interesting what people’s minds chose to remember, especially what surfaces when someone is about to leave your life, this life, for good.

 

Sam is shaking me awake. I slept on the mattress in the corner of his dining room again. I slept there often the winter we met. The sun isn’t up yet. Sam pulls me up to a sitting position and hands me a mug of coffee. The mug is my favorite blue ceramic one with two cats on it. One cat says, “I knead you!” Its paws are on the other cat’s belly.

“Come on,” Sam says. “Let’s get out of here. Let’s just go somewhere. Drive, anywhere.”

I sip the coffee, brushing my hair from my eyes.

“OK,” I say. “Just give me a few minutes.”

 

Sam and I slept in my car more than once. One time, we were on a residential cul-de-sac in Alexandria, Virginia. Many mature oak trees lined the street and we fell asleep under the leaf shadows coming through the street lamps. In the morning, when we stumbled out of the car, a woman wearing a pink bathrobe and curlers spotted us. She picked up her paper from the lawn, shook her head, and turned abruptly away.

 

“I’m surprised I fell asleep,” I say to the Doctor. “What did you say?”

“He’s not awake yet. He might…he might not wake up. You should start thinking about what you want to do.”

 

“Ness! Ness!” Sam is pounding on my door in the middle of the night. “Are you asleep? Ness!”

I wrench myself from slumber and pull on my blue plaid flannel robe. I open the door.

“What? What’s wrong?” I ask.

“Nothing. I just…I just wanted to talk to you.”

I study Sam for a few minutes, trying to figure out what is going on. He’s barefoot and wears a grey t-shirt and red striped PJ bottoms. His eyes appear clear, not glassy. He has an unlit cigarette in his hand. I motion for him to come in and sit next to me on the bed.

“What?” I ask again.

“Do you ever wonder if people will miss you when you’re gone? If they’ll care?”

“Sam, what are you talking about? I’d miss you. I’d miss you forever.”

“Ah, I know you would…but what about others?”

“Does it matter?”

“I want to leave something behind. I want people to remember me.”

“You will. They will.

 

We lie on the edge of the single lane country road in Chittenango, New York, where Sam grew up. Our heads are toward the center on a slight incline. It is July and the air is warm.

“I used to do this all the time when I was little,” Sam says. “For hours, just watching the stars. Sometimes I’d almost fall asleep out here. Until my mom would start yelling for me.”

I stretch my arms out so that one flops over Sam’s belly. I can hear his breathing and the crickets. The faint porch light from his Mom’s house is the only light. We count the stars. I find myself drifting off to sleep.

“Sam!” his mom yells from the house. “Are you two coming in? Its pie and ice cream time!”

 

“Let’s go to L.A. Just get in the car and go. We can camp along the way; sleep under the stars… just you and me. What do you think?”

“Sounds wonderful,” I say. “We need a better vehicle though.”

“I have a friend with an RV. We could take that.”

“Sure. Yes, let’s.”

 

My shoulder hurts from falling asleep in the tan vinyl chair in the hospital waiting room. I’m not sure what time it is or how long I’ve been there. The only other person in the room is a man in black sweat pants and bright white Adidas track shoes reading The New York Times. I make my way to the nurses’ station.

 

One summer, I work at the Chautauqua Summer Theatre. I have a private room in a wood boarding house within the gates. Chautauqua is a gated, carless community for artistic types. Sam comes to visit me there. We spend the evenings on the porch of the boarding house. Sam plays the guitar while I doze on the lawn chair. People stop to listen and clap and sometimes join in. Sam sings the Sinead O’Conner song “Black Boys on Mopeds.” I fall asleep to the sound of his voice.

 

I can’t find anyone at the nurses’ station so I wander down the hall. I find Sam’s room. I can’t go in but stand transfixed outside the window. I know he is gone. I know it before anyone tells me. I can hear him singing “Black Boys on Mopeds. Tears run down my face.

 

“Are you asleep?” Sam asks.

“Not yet.”

“I wish we could explore outer space some day. Do you think that will happen in our lifetime? We’d be good space explorers. Someone ought to give us our own ship. What would you name it?”

“Our ship?”

“Yes.”

“Ummm…I don’t know. Samuelness?”

“How about Samuelness the First?”

“OK. Samuelness the First.”

We both fall silent. My eyes close again.

“Ness?”

“Hmm?”

“We’ll do it, right?”

“What?”

“Everything. All the things we say we’re going to. Go to outer space. Slay the dragons. Climb all the mountains. We’ll do those things, right?”

“Of course we will. Of course. Now go to sleep.”

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