The Driver

When Travis brought me out to Bridgewater, Massachusetts to live with him and his wife Suzy, the plan was never for me to become his driver. No, I am not here to tell a story about powerful people exploiting the vulnerable for free labor. At least it didn’t start out that way. When I arrived to live with them in October ‘98, Travis could not have foreseen losing his license on a D.U.I. That wouldn’t happen until months later, January of ‘99. Opening their home to me was an act of generosity, plain and simple.

All through the summer of ‘98, a twisted rumor circulated among my old classmates from UMass. Supposedly I was “living out on the streets of Worcester.” Those whispers continued into October — “Hex will freeze out there if we don’t do something” — so Travis came out to find me in Doyle Park, Worcester, my traditional stomping grounds ever since I was a kid.

He tried to be slick, approaching my park bench from behind, then settling down nonchalantly on the end of it, posing as a neighborhood fella just out for a stroll, just leisurely spectating rec league softball games scattered about the park. Using his cupped hand as a visor against the afternoon sun, Travis looked out toward the diamonds and asked, “Who’s winning the game?” A friend of mine, Gary (who I’d known even longer than I’d known Travis), sat between Travis and me on the bench, so I didn’t catch on immediately to his presence.

“Do we look like we give a flying fuck about softball?” Gary asked. All flustered now by the obtuse stranger, Gary stood up, circled around the bench, and settled down on the splotchy grass behind us for his afternoon nap.

“How about you?” Travis asked me. “You know the score of the softball game?”

I played along; he could make fun of my circumstances if he wanted to. “I see three different softball games going on out there, Travis. Which one you trying to get the score on?”

“Umm,” he said, stroking his chin. “How about that one over-”

“I haven’t the foggiest idea about any of them,” I said with a smile.

Travis laughed. “Any chance of you sharing that flask?”

“It’s a bottle not a flask,” I told him. “Just be careful of the cops. They don’t bother with us bums because it’s pointless but they won’t hesitate to ticket a yuppie like yourself.”

Travis tipped my bottle straight upside down anyways, as though it were a flask, glugging probably one third of the vodka, plus the liquid dribbling down his cheeks into his shirt collar. Then, we sat there on the bench into the late afternoon, not saying much, while the October air grew chillier. Next time he reached for my bottle, I waved him off. As Gary snored behind us, Travis and I purported to watch the softball games nearest to us, but then they both ended, and there was nothing left to purport, just people gathering up bases, helmets, and mitts.

“Never owned a pair of sunglasses,” Travis stated, still shading his eyes with the cupped hand. “Never felt the need.” Two boys with good grades, high school diplomas from nearly-identical Catholic schools in Massachusetts, 1963. Housing admins at UMass probably thought we would get along swell, but all these years later, if weren’t watching sports, we still couldn’t sustain a conversation.

Travis eyed my bag of golf clubs over on the other side of me. The wooden clubs, along with $210 in travelers checks, were the last remnants of my life as an ordinary guy.

“Feel like heading over to the driving range?” Travis asked.

In the parking lot adjacent to Doyle Park, there was never a doubt which car was his: the forest green Renault Alliance. Only person I’ve ever known to prefer that model and make. He’d had two of them previous to this one, a red one, and a blue one before that. What kind of maniac, I thought, living in the suburbs of Massachusetts, develops a passion for French cars? French!

Travis drove in the opposite direction from any driving ranges I was aware of. In the direction we were heading, the only thing out there was the highway. The latch to the Renault’s glove compartment was broken, so the panel flopped down, and pressed into my knees. Sliding the seat backwards would have solved it but I didn’t feel like asking him how. I wanted to escape.

On the radio, President Clinton stated that Y2K could result in disaster scenarios the likes of which “have only been witnessed in Hollywood movies.”

“But this is real life,” Clinton said, “and we can’t just cover our eyes during the scary parts. We have to do something.” For once, our Narcissist-in-Chief was right. I had to do something. The next stop light or the next stop sign, I prepared to bust out of the Renault and run/hobble back to Doyle Park but Travis must have seen my fingers creeping toward the door handle because he shifted into fourth, blew past a stop sign, and raced onto the ramp to Route 495, a major highway where there’d be no chance for me to bail.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Travis informed me, while merging aggressively from the ramp into the spotty traffic preceding rush hour. “You’ll dry out in Jeff’s old bedroom. He’s away at college. I’ll provide you room and board through the winter, cigarettes if you want them, reading material and the like, until you find a job and a place to live in the Spring. Suzy’s a nurse, as you know, in case you have any complications.”

Suzy had attended UMass with us, graduating one year behind us.

“Please, Travis, this isn’t your problem,” I said. “Just take me back to Doyle Park.”

“♫Tay-ake me bay-uhk to Doy-oy-al Park♫,” Travis sang, as if it were a Simon and Garfunkle song, then added, “No!”

I glanced at the speedometer, which indicated 43 miles per hour. Was this the upper limit of French engineering? We weren’t in a traffic jam, per se, nor were things exactly moving swiftly. If things slowed down just a bit more, I could possibly roll out into the breakdown lane, allow my right leg (the already busted one) to take the brunt of the damage. It might not be so bad. On the other hand, I might hit my head on the pavement and get brain damage. Or I’d survive but the pint of vodka in my jacket pocket would break. More importantly, how would I get my golf clubs back?

I never got to find out. Traffic eased up and the Renault accelerated to nearly 55 miles per hour. With that, I accepted my captivity and slumped down into my seat, placing the setting sun directly into my eyes. I flipped down the felt visor, the back of which had a little mirror for women to do their make-up. Description of drunk on page 10 of C&P.

I wanted to sleep but before closing my eyes, I took a peek back at my golf clubs. Still there, on the floor of the back seat. Was Travis aware that my cherished bag of golf clubs had been a gift from Suzy, the summer before them two started dating?

My attachment to the clubs was more than sentimental; they were more practical in the park than you might think. First of all, while napping on the grass during the day, I snuggled with the cylindrical bag as if it were a body pillow. Positioned it so my head rested on the pocket holding the golf ball towel.

Second purpose for the clubs is more obvious: I waved a nine-iron at any and all homicidal lunatics I came across in the middle of the Worcester night. Enough said regarding that!

Thirdly, and this was the best part. Napping during the day left me hyper in the middle of the night, and a few nights per month, the moon cast a perceptible glow down on Doyle. On these moonlit nights, around 2 a.m., Gary and I converted the park into our own country club. Doyle’s a perfect square, 300 yards by 300 yards, which meant I could drive the ball from one corner to another corner, chip my way onto a makeshift green (usually a baseball diamond), and putt my way into a makeshift hole (usually one of the slots they plugged the bases into). Then repeat. Our 9-hole course had me circling the park counter-clockwise for the first four holes, then reversing direction for 5–8 and finishing off with a diagonal, 400-yard 9th hole. Gary didn’t want to play, nor did I want to teach him, so he served as my caddy.

“You hear about this Y2K thing?” Gary asked me one night as we strolled down the fairway. “Computers going to grind humanity to a halt. Guys like us will probably need to take over.”

Technically, Gary still had a wife, named Iga, and a home, kind of. Their marriage was 99.999% over but Iga didn’t have the heart to turn him away when he appeared at her door for an occasional shower and an occasional meal. According to Gary, his estranged wife was on the verge of letting the two of us to spend the winter sleeping on cots in her basement. Her one stipulation was that we go to church with her on Sunday mornings and listen to the sermons. We’d have to dress up nice, wear cologne, comb our hair.

Now, with Worcester disappearing into the rearview mirror, I wondered if Travis and Suzy would make me go to church.

It was dark enough that the lamps were switching on when I awoke in the parking lot of The Campus Plaza Shopping Center, in front of Marshall’s department store.

“You got a good sleep?” Travis asked.

I nodded.

“Good. Let’s spruce you up before we get home.” Travis and I slipped in to Marshall’s for my makeover, just before they closed for the day. Picked out a baseball cap, some regular pants, shirts, underwear. Nothing worth describing in detail. No montage scene here of me trying on different outfits. Think generic. Earth tones, if you must know.

Total bill came to 43.44. I pulled my travelers’ checks from my pocket, gesturing as if to pay.

“My treat,” Travis said, as he grabbed the travelers’ checks from my hand. “But I’ll hold onto these during your recuperation.”

A few weeks later, I had settled in to their Bridgewater home and watched Nightline with Travis and Suzy like I was one of the family, or perhaps a pet. Had a regular chair that I sat in and everything. But when I said goodnight to Travis around midnight, I got no reply. Was he asleep over there in his reclining chair? I could see he had a cigarette going.

The den was dark, except for the light of the television, and the glow of the cigarette. From where I stood, I couldn’t tell whether his eyes were open or closed, so I inched closer to his reclining chair. Yup, passed out, lit cigarette still lodged between his fingers, a full inch of ash drooping off the end of it. If I hadn’t taken action, we all could have died; these old, wooden houses combust at the slightest provocation.

I managed to dislodge the cigarette from Travis’ fingers and stub it out without waking him. Made me wonder what else I could do without waking him. I eyed the substantial set of keys next to him on the side table. One of which likely opened the liquor cabinet. Only challenge would be figuring out which of the 35 keys was the right one.

That is, if I had wanted a drink. But I didn’t and went straight up to my bed, no detour to the liquor cabinet. “Another night, possibly,” I thought, but then doubted it. Some drunks, they require 30-day detox plans in Acapulco or some such paradise resort, but I only needed 24 hours, essentially one night of vomiting into a bucket beside the bed. Then I was fine. Subbed in cans of fizzy seltzer water. (“You’ve been drinking all these years,” Suzy quipped, “because you like the bubbles.” She may have been right!)

Only problem I ran into in Bridgewater, living a sober lifestyle, was a spell of insomnia. It was particularly bad that night, after I’d saved the household from perishing in flames. Usually I’d fall asleep doing crossword puzzles, but that night, I finished off a whole “advanced” book, and still couldn’t sleep. Next, I took inventory of all the disjointed finishings scattered around the bedroom. Adjoining sheets of wallpaper didn’t line up correctly. At the sloppy meetings of the wallpaper sheets, trails of brown water damage extended halfway down the wall in some places. The storm window complacently dislodged, out of its groove, ⅔ closed.

Only handsome thing in the room was Jeff’s bookshelf full of novels. My eyes ran across the titles on the spines: Sexus, Plexus, The Bell Jar, Tropic of Cancer, Written on the Body, The Eye of the Needle, The Master and Margarita, Oracle Night, Invisible Man. Intriguing titles, but I didn’t want to disturb Jeff’s books, which appeared to have been ordered just so.

The only “hair out of place” was one book that had been pulled out and lay horizontally along the tops of some other books. I crossed the room to take a look, and discovered it was only half a book, missing the front cover and the first 108 pages.

Page 109:

Several days after Christmas I stopped in to see Betty. She was sitting in her room, drunk, at 8:45 in the morning.

These characters gave off an immediate stench — grimy and displaced — like myself.

She had been firm-fleshed, almost beautiful. Wild-eyed. Laughing. Coming from a rich husband, divorced from him, and he was to die in a car wreck, drunk, burning to death in Connecticut.

I turned the book over to read the back cover. It featured a leathery fella with greasy hair, described as literature’s “Dirty Old Man.”

One hour later, I became aware that I’d fallen asleep with the lights on. The final 90 pages of Post Office lay scattered around me on the bed. (So much for not disturbing Jeff’s books.) The spine glue had become brittle and turning the page meant detaching it from the spine. While I gathered up the loose pages, put them on the night table, and pulled the covers over me, I tried to keep my eyes half closed, thereby retaining my sleepiness.

The raunchy atmosphere of Post Office permeated my consciousness. My proto-dreams transported back in time — waaaaay back in time — to a few hours earlier, into that seductive window of time, between 10:30 pm, Suzy’s bedtime, and 1:00 am, when Travis typically stumbled up to their bed. Firmly inside of that window, I snuck down the hallway, into the master bedroom, into the bed where Suzy slept. She played along, dissimulating as if it were Travis tumbling into their bed earlier than usual.

Each Thursday, Travis met with Dr. Gerald Sweeney, the cardiologist, to counsel Gerry on financial aspects of his small medical practice. As soon as that meeting ended, Travis beeped me to come get him, then I’d drive us over The Ground Round, where Travis had another regularly scheduled meeting, with Dr. Winston Brown.

The first time I pulled into the parking lot of “The Round,” as locals liked to call it, I considered which role Travis wanted me to play. His old pal from college? Or his driver (“the help”)? If driver, I’d stay in the car and fill out crossword puzzles to the light of the parking lot lamps. If friend from college, though, I should join them inside, sit at the bar with them, participate in conversations, and drink some Sprite or whatever.

Having no preference myself, and since Travis gave no indication, I split the difference by going inside, introducing myself to Dr. Brown — “call me Win,” he said — then retreating with my book of puzzles to a small circular table behind them. No one protested so it must have been an acceptable choice.

Hours passed with me just working away at my puzzles, drinking Sprite “on the house” — a perk for designated drivers. The bartender, Sheila, also hooked me up with one of those super-sized hot pretzels with mustard that you usually see at Celtics games or street fairs. Up at the bar, Travis and Dr. Brown endlessly argued over, speculated about, and made predictions regarding their shared passion: The Bridgewater State University men’s basketball team, the BSU Bears.

Finally, a long lull in their conversation, so I needled them from my little circular table: “I think you guys have a problem.”

“The chauffeur speaks,” Dr. Brown said, swiveling in his stool to face me. “I’d nearly forgotten you were here, Hex.”

I told them, “as a former college baseball player myself, I guarantee you the BSU players think less about the games than you two do. Especially D-3 players, like Bridgewater State.”

“OK, then,” Dr. Brown said, smiling. “What should we talk about, if college basketball is so boring to you?”

“Yeah, Hex, what do you have to add?” Travis asked. He kept his back turned to me instead of swiveling around like Dr. Brown did. “And if you’re going to join in on the conversation, why don’t you come up and sit at the bar?”

Dr. Brown and I continued with our conversation as if we hadn’t heard him. I remained at my little table while Win remained swiveled toward me in his chair.

“Seriously, what do you like to talk about?” Dr. Brown asked. I’d been reading the Henry Miller books from Jeff’s bookshelf — Sexus, Nexus, Plexus. Had some thoughts I wanted to share, but doubted if a doctor had the time or inclination to read those vaguely pornographic novels.

“Me?” I said. “I’m mostly interested in finance stuff, like NASDAQ, Wall Street, Dow Jones Industrial Average.”

“OK, I’ll bite. Which stocks do you see on the rise?”

“Well, I’d check into aluminum,” I told him, eyeing his dirty white Reeboks, perched on the bottom rung of the bar stool. “In the commodities listings. Goes up and down rather predictably. You’ll want to buy middle of next week at the bottom of the trough and then unload in 3 months.” Complete rubbish.

“You put your money where your mouth is?” Dr. Brown asked.

Dr. Brown must have known I was in no position to invest. But I took the question anyways. “Honestly, Win, I would,” I said, before nodding over at Travis. “I honestly would put my money where my mouth is when it comes to aluminum. Only problem is, Travis over here won’t let me. Got me on a short leash.”

Dr. Brown laughed, and looked over for a response from Travis, who had begun to scrutinize the small wart on the edge of his left index finger — his tell, a sure sign he was about to get bent out of shape. “What was that you said, Hex? I won’t let you buy stocks? That’s why you aren’t investing?”

Sheila jumped in, “Hope you guys don’t mind if I call ‘last call.’ Not many customers tonight and it’s an hour drive back to Danvers.”

Neither Travis nor Dr. Brown felt like having another so we exited to the parking lot. Travis turned back, saying he had “to pee,” which left Dr. Brown and I alone in front of The Round. “I’m on foot,” he told me. “I live half a mile down the road there, but I’ll wait with you until Travis comes out. Rough neighborhood and all.”

It seemed odd for a doctor to be walking around instead of driving, not to mention the dirty white Reeboks he wore and his reading glasses, held together on one side with Scotch tape.

“Are you one of Travis’ clients, Dr. Brown?”

“No, I’m not that kind of doctor. I’m the professor kind.”

“Oh.” That made more sense. “Over at Bridgewater State, here.”

“That’s right.” He looked me in the eye and smiled, open to more questions about his work.

“So you write books on irrelevant topics, I take it.”

“That’s right!” he said. “Current project is the most irrelevant yet! It’s about ‘POMs’ — an acronym I invented for (p)layers (o)nly (m)eetings in professional sports. You know, those times when players get together to sort things out, without any coaches around. Well, there are many reasons they might do this. Maybe to discuss unofficial game plans that are too dirty for the coaches to know about. Maybe to bring a superstar teammate down to Earth if he’s been cavorting with Hollywood-.”

“Win,” I said, interjecting, “I know what a player’s only meeting is.”

“Right, sorry. I’ll give you the one-sentence version, then. The manuscript proposes these ‘POMs’ are the modern-day equivalent of 18th-century hush harbors.”

I nodded, waiting for him to elaborate on “18th-century hush harbors” but instead, he just gazed upwards and admired the stars.

“You must be one hell of a teacher,” I told him.

“I don’t think so, actually. Once upon a time I earned my keep at the university by doing better research than everyone else. Now everything is going digital, and I’m not into all of that. Where the hell is Travis?”

“Talking to that bartender from Danvers most likely,” I said. “Hey, listen, maybe the Y2K thing will take down all the computers and you’ll be back on top.”

“Let’s keep our fingers crossed!”

Ever since I started driving Travis around, sleep came easier. Insomnia declined as a factor in my life. Driving didn’t require much physical exertion, but it made me feel useful and put my mind at ease.

That night, after arriving home from The Round, same was true. Fell off to sleep in a few minutes. Felt like I was asleep only a few seconds, though, when I woke to the sounds of someone — or some thing — creeping up the stairs outside my bedroom. Was this Suzie turning the tables on my fantasy? Bukowski had permeated her consciousness too? No, sadly, Suzy had a slight build and these footsteps were heavy.

The squealing of the steps carried on for what felt like half an hour. Travis must have imagined he was being stealth. Eventually, the squealing ceased and I sensed him standing outside my door, uncertain whether to knock or barge right in, placing his knuckles near the door, then pulling them away, indecisive.

He settled on half a knock, which simultaneously inched the door open.

“Hex,” he whispered. “You awake?”

“I am now,” I said.

The silhouette in the doorway rocked back and forth on its heels for a few moments against the light in the hallway. Travis’ green eyes shone through the darkness. “I won’t let you buy stocks? I won’t let you?” he said. “I’ll tell you what I let you do. I let you stay in my house for free. I let you eat the food that Suzy makes. I let you not be homeless on the streets of Worcester like you were about to be when I came to get you.”

“I was just busting your chops,” I said, but it didn’t register with him. The guy was passed out on his feet.

“Stocks?!” Travis repeated. “What stocks would you buy if I let you?”

“Aluminum,” I reminded him. “Remember? Actually a commodity not a stock.”

“I want to know, right now! Why would you tell Win Brown that I won’t let you buy stocks? It makes no sense! None!”

“Hey. Travis,” I said calmly.

He wiped some of the milky substance that had gathered in the corners of his mouth, trying not to acknowledge that I’d spoken.

“Hey,” I repeated. I’d seen this movie before and it wouldn’t be hard for me to divert him until he passed out.

“What?” Travis snapped, afraid to lose control of the confrontation.

“You remember Denise Avalon, by any chance?” I asked.

“Denise who?”

“Denise Avalon. From UMass. Her brother was Danny Avalon from the baseball team.” If I could shift the conversation for a few seconds, he wouldn’t be able to remember his train of thought.

“Rings a bell. Why on Earth would you bring her up right now?”

“Just bear with me. You remarked once upon a time that ‘her butt points miraculously up at the sky.’”

“So?”

“That was a great line,” I told him. “Guys on the baseball team quoted it for months afterwards.”

Travis suppressed an adorable smile, like a kid who’d been praised for finishing his dinner.

“I’m not kidding,” I told him. “Where do you think she’s at these days, anyways? I’m thinking of giving her a call.”

“You serious?” he asked, smiling broadly now. “Denise Avalon? From UMass?”

I got out of bed, put my slippers on, and we creaked our way downstairs. Upon entering the kitchen, Travis gleefully pointed me to the drawer with the phone book in it. For the next ten minutes, I simulated the gestures associated with searching the phonebook, knowing our mission was hopeless, but also that it would be a time-consuming distraction from “stocks?!”

After flipping arbitrarily around the pages for a little while, I asked Travis, “You think she mighta taken someone else’s name?”

No answer. He had passed out in a chair at the kitchen table, chin on his chest, a new cigarette burning in the ashtray. The ice was nearly melted in a nearly full highball on the table. Must have been the last one he poured before coming up to confront me about aluminum. I stubbed out his cigarette and smelled the drink — sweet and strong.

Approaching the sink to dump out the highball, I thought twice. Brought it out on the deck instead. Drank it slowly on the warm spring night beneath a sky full of stars. Even with the ice cubes all melted in Travis’ whiskey-ginger, goddamn that guy makes a strong fucking drink. I nursed the cocktail and soaked in the stars, while Travis slumped over passed out in the kitchen.

Installed in my normal booth at Pizza Palace, the day after co-opting the highball, I felt hungover in a way I hadn’t experienced in decades. When you drink a lot, everyday, for years and years, you don’t get hangovers, you pretty much are a hangover.

Whereas last night, after looking up Denise Avalon in the phone book, all I did was finish the remainder of one strong drink, and that was enough to make me feel shitty all day. Feeling like shit, though, can feel good, under the right circumstances. It can bond you with your neighbors and fellow pizza patrons, for example. Scanning the crowd at Pizza Palace, I surmised who else might share my condition. One lady in a trench coat, rushing out the door with three 10-inch pizzas. She was definitely a candidate. A small pizza for each of her three miserable little kids, who she couldn’t bring herself to cook for today, and who all wanted different toppings.

Waiting for Travis to finish his meeting, I had plenty of time to speculate on the lives and loves of my fellow pizza patrons. I ate my third pepperoni slice of the afternoon and flipped through The Herald’s sports pages yet again, particularly interested in finding my way back to Gil Fronsdale’s column, in which Fronsdale ridicules the Boston Bruins decision to hold a player’s only meeting, or a “POM,” as Dr. Brown called them. After a brutal losing streak which had Bruins bickering on the bench and even on the ice, All-Star defender Ray Bourque called the POM in order to “wipe out the tension that creates losing as well as the bickering that losing creates,” according to Fronsdale.

At the end of the column, Fronsdale took delight in the fact that, the day after the POM, the Bruins lost again, shutout 2–0 by the Ottawa Senators. “I mean, as long as they aren’t bickering anymore,” he snarked, “who cares about another embarrassing loss?”

If I hadn’t made a mess of the article with pizza grease, I might have clipped the article for Dr. Brown, in case he found it useful for his POM book. I didn’t understand why such a book needed to be written, nor why an English professor would be the one writing it, but I wanted to help Win if I could.

Around 3:30, Travis arrived at Pizza Palace with a young woman. Out of the corner of my eye, she looked like Sheila, the bartender from The Round. Same dirty blonde hair, big bangs, jangly earrings. Both forty-something. They approached my table and Travis introduced me to Terry. “Terry, meet my college roommate, Michael Hexatropolis. You can call him Hex. Kind enough to do the driving for me in my time of need.”

“The least I can do,” I told him. “And nice to meet you Terry.”

“Terry is the secretary over at Dr. Sweeney’s,” Travis said.

“Mind giving a gal a ride over to the commuter rail?” she asked. “Over in Brockton?”

“My pleasure,” I said.

“On second thought,” she said, checking her watch. “Mind if I do the driving? I know some short cuts over to the station and it’d be nice to beat my son Scotty home from school for once.”

Travis nodded, so I handed Terry the keys. As we walked to the Renault, parked right down the block, she continued the story she’d been telling Travis about “this guy Mango.”

Travis bust out laughing at the very mention of Mango. “Why Mango?” he asked. “And where do you find these guys?”

“Actually, everything was going great with Mango,” Terry said. “Third date, he comes around to my side of the booth at The Ground Round.”

“We have one of those in Bridgewater,” I told her, squeezing myself into the backseat of the two-door Renault. “We just call it ‘The Round,’ though.”

“I know! Did my undergrad at B.S.U!” Terry said. “Go Bears!” She also seemed to know this car — started the ignition, shifted into gear, and maneuvered out of the tight spot, delivering her Mango story all the while. “Anyways, Mango starts making out with me right there in the booth of The Ground Round — excuse me, The Round — which, I dare say, I’m fine with.”

“Nothing like mango during springtime,” I offered.

“Exactly, Hex,” she said. From that point on, I couldn’t hear her story very good from the backseat but I felt good about getting that quality comment in before I faded off into the background. The last thing I caught her say — I believe this is what she said — was that she “likes” when guys “try to kiss me in public…. means they don’t care what other people think about them…only care what I think about them.”

Again, I can’t confirm that’s what she said. Around that time, I had leaned back and stopped trying to listen in. Looked around for my seat belt, reached into the crease of the seat for it, but it was too far gone. Either ripped out entirely or hopelessly buried down in the crease. Or perhaps the French do not offer seatbelts in the back seats of their automobiles.

Up in the passenger seat, Travis lit a cigarette and cracked the window, which whistled louder as Terry accelerated, further drowning out their conversation. Although Travis made gestures in the direction of the window when he ashed his cigarette, the wind blew most of the ash back into the car. Ashes and sparks swirled around me in the backseat, as Terry fishtailed through the curvaceous backroads of Rockland, Massachusetts.

At a stop light outside the State Park, I picked up Terry’s story again: “…this guy seemed like the real deal, Travis. I put Scotty to bed, then he and I’d text raunchy stuff back and forth for hours. Mango had a good sense of humor about that kind of thing.”

In the final stretch leading up to the commuter rail parking lot, Terry eyed the train she was trying to catch pulling parallel to us on the other side of a chain link fence. She put us in fifth, pulling ahead of it, causing the whistling window to whistle even louder.

“Sorry, guys!” she yelled. “Gotta get Scotty his after-school snacks!”

We pulled into the commuter rail parking lot at 3:49, one minute before her train’s scheduled departure. “What can I say?” she sighed, as she shifted into neutral and lifted the emergency break. “No good single guys out there.” The coda to her story. I must have missed the part where things didn’t work out with Mango.

Terry turned back to me with a smile. “No offense, Hex.”

“None taken!” I exclaimed, exalted merely to be placed by her in the category of “single guys.” I leaned in between the two front seats, about to throw Dr. Brown’s name in the ring as an eligible bachelor but Terry had already bolted from the car, toward the arriving train.

It was my job to call Dr. Brown every Thursday afternoon to tell him what time we’d arrive at The Round. Travis schedule was all over the place during tax season, so sometimes he’d finish his meeting with Dr. Sweeney by 3 p.m., other times not until 6 p.m. I usually had a time to report to Dr. Brown with by 4:30 but, today, it was 5:30 and I still hadn’t heard from Travis.

I called Dr. Brown anyways, even though I had nothing to tell him. “Hey,” I said.

“Hey,” he replied. Just then, a woman leaned up against the wall right near me, next in line for the phone. The nametag on her Pep Boys uniform read “Beverly” and she casually examined her painted nails. I’d seen her here on previous Thursdays at Pizza Palace. A regular like me.

“What time you guys getting here?” Dr. Brown asked.

“Don’t know. Travis hasn’t beeped me yet. Thought I’d call you anyways so you’d know. Or not know, heh heh.”

“Guess he’s finally grown tired of me.”

“Guess so,” I concurred. Beverly peeked up from her nails and flashed me a quick smile, letting me know she didn’t mind waiting for me to finish. I had considered approaching her a few times, on previous Thursdays. Had visions of spending my golden years eating slices with Beverly, although I doubted whether Pep Boys offered any kind of pension program.

“Anyways,” Dr. Brown said, “what’s going on with you?”

“You know… still driving lots,” I told him. “Nice foliage this time of year.”

“I thought foliage was mostly in the fall.”

“Naw, it’s year round these days because of acid rain and shit,” I said, not sure what I meant by that.

“That so?”

I peeked back at my table to make sure no one was messing with my stuff. Noticed my newspaper lying there, open to the sports pages. “Listen, Win — mind if I call you Win? — perhaps I’m being indiscrete here.”

“Doubt it,” he said. “What’s on your mind?”

“Well, I figure everyone probably harasses you every time the topic of your book comes up in the news. ”

“Nope, never happens. Wish it would! That would make me a quote-unquote public intellectual, a big deal.”

“OK, good, so I’m not being a cliche,” I said.

Beverly studied the framed photographs on the wall, most of them portraits of Pizza Palace employees rubbing shoulders with minor public figures and celebrities: state reps, Steven Seagal, and so on. I got her attention and pointed out at the pay phone on the street. “Too rainy,” she mouthed back. “But take your time.”

Dr. Brown asked if I was referring to the Bruins thing, “that players’ only meeting they had last week?”

“You saw it already,” I said. “The Fronsdale column?”

“I happened to run into it. It’s helpful as background but I’m focusing on examples from pro basketball, not pro hockey.”

“Oh.” I thought for a second. “Then you must have seen the Houston Rockets thing.”

“No, missed that one.”

“Oh yeah, it was a big one. Last week.”

“Big article or big meeting?”

“Both,” I said. “Anyways, I happened to clip it. I’ll give it to you over at The Round next time.”

“If there is a next time,” Dr. Brown said.

“Travis probably just forgot today or it was busy over there. Listen,” I said, risking a wink in Beverly’s direction, “there’s a line forming here at the pay phone here so I better let you go.”

I hung up with Win and smiled again at Beverly: “All yours,” I told her.

“Important business deal?” she asked.

“Very important. Major shit going down. After you finish your call, why don’t you come over to my table and I’ll tell you all about it?”

“Oh, forget my phone call. I was just going to call my mother. I can call her later, that fucking bitch.”

Terrible timing, though. As Beverly and I rejoindered to my table, I spotted Travis and Terry on the other side of the boulevard, waiting for the walk signal, sharing an umbrella.

“Oh, Jesus Christ, Beverly, my fucking boss just arrived.”

“Fuck,” she said. “What are the fucking odds?”

“Raincheck on our talk?” I asked. “Next Thursday? Same place, same time?”

“Absolutely,” she said. “Call me Bev.”

After dropping off Travis at Dr. Sweeney’s, this time, I parked in my regular parking spot down the street from Pizza Palace, but walked in the opposite direction, this time, away from the parlor, away from my darling Bev, toward the Rockland Public Library.

On the phone, the Thursday before, I’d told Dr. Brown that I had clipped the Houston Rockets article for him, about the POM. Not 100% true, but it was a white lie because knew I could access back issues of The Herald at the library and make a copy of the article for 10 cents.

Walking through the front doors, I avoided eye contact with any and all librarians scattered around the first floor. I’d learned, from previous trips to the library — to make copies of the Sunday Times crossword puzzles — that most librarians have too much time on their hands, are overeager, and end up overcomplicating the most simple tasks. “If you are interested in crossword puzzles,” a librarian said to me at the Bridgewater Public Library, “you can do them on our computers now!” She pointed to a bank of empty computer stations, funded by the Clinton Administration. The librarians have to cajole people into using them in order to justify the expense.

To avoid the librarians, I enacted tunnel-vision, dissimulating as if I knew exactly where I was going. In this mode, I circled the first floor of the library, using my peripheral vision to look for the stacks of newspapers and periodicals. No luck. Planned to do the same thing on the second floor and looked for a stairwell. Turning a corner, I saw the reference desk twenty yards away on my right. The librarian stationed there locked eyes with me, ready to pounce as soon as I entered her vicinity.

So I arbitrarily turned into the next aisle of books. Amazingly lucky, it seemed, because at the end of that aisle, there was a door to some stairs. As I got closer, though, I noticed a red handle indicating a fire exit.

As I backtracked down the aisle, the reference librarian — wearing a nametag identical to Beverly’s nametag on her Pep Boys uniform, except this one said “Jean” — appeared before me, blocking my exit.

“And how may I help you?” Jean sang.

I resented her not only for trapping me in the aisle. Her question was also presumptuous. Assumed I was there for a specific item, which I was, but she could not have known that. Jean didn’t account for the possibility that I was merely browsing, wandering the stacks, smelling the roses.

“Oh, hi,” I said. “Just trying to get to the second floor.”

“If you go through THAT door,” she said, pointing to the one I’d already retreated from, “you’ll set off the fire alarm, then our sprinkler system will go off and all of these wonderful books will be damaged. Is that what you want?”

“Does it look like I’m about to go through that door?” I asked, only recognizing how immature I sounded when it was halfway out of my mouth.

She eyed me skeptically. “What exactly do you need on the second floor?”

I looked down at my clothes. Travis had taken me shopping for a second time at Marshall’s so I had on new khakis and a golf polo. I was taking regular showers and didn’t resemble a bum anymore, I don’t think. Why, then, was I catching so much grief from this woman?

I told Jean about the article I wanted — from earlier in the week, The Herald’s article about the Houston Rockets’ POM — and she instantly perked up.

“Why don’t we look that up in Lexis-Nexis?” she said. “It has everything.”

A chance to use the abandoned computers! This was idiotic, in my opinion, for us to do a digital search for the article, when we could much more easily rifle through the newspaper stacks and be done with it in five minutes. However, I counseled myself to be nice to this woman, reminding myself it might be her birthday, or she might have a husband as negligent as Gary.

Walking to the bank of public computers, Jean apologized for the fire exit misunderstanding. “Thing is, I’m trained to help people do research like you are doing, but ever since they turned that door into a fire exit, feels like my main job is to keep people away from it, so the sprinklers don’t go off.”

“Not a problem,” I said.

“So what were those keywords you wanted me to search for?”

“Try ‘players-only meeting,’” I told her.

“You sure you don’t mean ‘players owners meeting’?”

“Players. Only. Meetings,” I repeated, the patience draining from my voice. “Can’t we just-”

“I don’t think anything will come up with those keywords but I’ll give it a try.”

“Thank you.”

Jean entered her log in information and we watched the beach ball spinning on the screen. “The network might be a little slow today. Could be the heat,” she said. “As long as we’re waiting, may I ask what kind of project this is for?”

It probably would have only confused her if I told the truth: “unsolicited research for a friend of a friend’s scholarly book project.” So I resorted to my favorite deflection phrase: “Oh jeez, it’s a long story.”

“Only thing is,” she countered, “sometimes I’ll cater my searches accordingly if the person is writing a term paper or doing a school project.”

I smiled at her. “Do fifty-year olds like myself come in here often doing school projects?”

“You’re only fifty?” she retorted. “I had you pegged at sixty-five. Or older.”

I burst out laughing, nearly spilling my coffee, and she laughed too. “That was a good one,” I told her. Never would have thought Jean had a sense of humor.

Something about my momentary connection with Jean reminded me that Bev was expecting me over at Pizza Palace. For our raincheck. To talk about my major business deal. Could I get back there for a minute on my way to pick up Travis? Probably not.

Christ almighty. Beneath that Pep Boys outfit, Beverly had a nice shape, didn’t she? Combine that with Jean’s sense of humor, not to mention her government pension, and we’d really be getting somewhere.

Frankly, by the time we’d opened Lexis-Nexis, I could have found the Rockets article in the physical stacks already, but I remained calm. Not as agitated as I normally would have been. Jean and I smiled pleasantly at each other while the beach ball kept spinning.

I assessed where my fine spirits came from. For one thing, I wasn’t drinking anymore; alcohol is a depressant. That was part of it but not all of it.

I also felt buoyed by a forgotten sensation: hope. Not just one hope but two hopes. Actual layers of hope. The top layer of hope, the superficial one, involved my hope that Jean would be wrong and I would be right. Counter to her prediction, the keywords I supplied her would yield results in Lexis-Nexis. From then on, Jean would stop steering people away from the agenda they had coming in, godammit.

On a deeper, more humanitarian level, I hoped that my Lexis-Nexis research might be useful for Win’s book, that he and I could be friends.

“Well, wouldn’t you know?” Jean said, bringing her reading glasses to her eyes. “Over 250 results.”

“No kidding?” I remarked without a hint of sarcasm. If I was going to start having friends — real friends, not just drinking buddies like Gary — I oughtta learn to be civil. “You’re good at this,” I told her.

As long as I had them all right here in front of me, what if I collected all 250 of them and brought them to Dr. Brown? Would he think I was psycho? On the other hand, what did I have to lose? Dr. Brown himself said he was lost when it came to digital stuff. He might not know about Lexis-Nexis.

Just then I got a beep from Travis, who was ready to be picked up from Dr. Sweeney’s office. No time for the articles. No time for Bev, unless I decided to keep Travis waiting.

“If I come back next Thursday,” I asked Jean, “can you teach me how to do that search you just did?”

“I can teach you right now,” Jean said, color rising up her neck and into her face.

“You are the greatest,” I told her, “but I have to run.” I had the urge to take her hand and kiss it the way I’d seen done in the movies but resisted. I wasn’t there yet.

When Travis and Terry arrived at the Pizza Palace (transition problem!) I asked them what time I should tell Win.

“Hold off on that actually,” Travis said.

“Okay,” I said. “We’re not going over to The Round tonight?”

“Just hold off on that for now. I’m not sure how things are going to shake out.” After a pause, he said, “Win’s out of town at a conference this week, if I remember correctly.” A lie.

I turned to Terry. “We driving you to the commuter rail?”

She looked over at Travis.

“She’s joining us over at The Round, actually.”

“What about Scotty?” I asked.

Travis threw up his arms in frustration, as if to say it was none of my business.

“He’s at his grandma’s tonight,” Terry explained. “Hope you don’t mind I’m joining you. The Round gets me all nostalgic for my college days.”

“Of course not!” I said. “Besides I’m just the designated driver. I have no real power in this situation.”

“You ain’t the driver!” Terry snatched the car keys roughly from my hand. “Not today you ain’t!”

Instead of taking Route 28 over to The Round like I usually did have, Terry sped through Rockland’s farm country, on backroads I didn’t know about. “You’re a really good driver!” I shouted to her from the back seat.

“Thanks!” she shouted. “How about closing that window, Travis, so we can all hear each other?”

Travis obeyed and twenty minutes later, we arrived at the back entrance of a parking lot. It was The Round, but I completely didn’t recognize it, because we’d approached it from such an odd angle.

I brought my puzzles inside and sat at my customary circular table, like always. Sheila brought me my usual, Sprite and a huge pretzel with mustard, without having to ask.

A little later, Travis went to the bathroom and Terry swiveled in her chair to talk to me.

“Hey, Hex, who was that woman you were talking to as we were walking into Pizza Palace last week?”

“Nobody,” I told her. “Or maybe somebody, eventually, but not yet.”

“She was smoking hot, if I remember correctly,” Terry said. It was a slight exaggeration, but one that I appreciated. “How come you don’t sit up here with us? Sitting back there, it feels like you’re chaperoning us. Or like you are ‘the help.’”

I shrugged. “Eh, bar stools hurt my back after a while,” I told her.

“Then we should come down and sit over there with you,” she said.

She was being nice, which made me feel guilty, because I had been thinking earlier about that fetish she’d told us about, when guys try to make out with her in public. Not that I’d ever try such a thing, especially because the inside of my mouth was, at that moment, coated in cheap mustard from the pretzel.

I looked down at my crossword puzzle. The clue for 18 Across was “Classy guy” — 9 letters. “Gentleman.” Both the clue and the answer reminded me I shouldn’t return to doing crossword puzzles while Terry was trying to talk to me. But I filled it in anyways, with numbers instead of letters. 508–359–8063. Dr. Brown’s phone number.

“Tough puzzle?” she asked, as I handed the book to her.

“No, actually Travis got me these ‘Intermediate’ ones by mistake. Not to brag or anything but even the ‘Advanced’ level is too easy for me.”

“Impressive,” she said.

“Check out 18 across, page 55,” I told her. “You said once upon a time that there’s no good single guys out there.”

“My goodness, Hex. Is this your phone number?” she asked, unoffended.

“Guy’s name is Win,” I said, spotting Travis returning in my peripheral vision. “Professor type. Single. Mostly full head of hair. Good sense of humor.”

Before she could say anything, Travis arrived back in his seat, interrupting to tell us about the dirty writing on the wall. He stopped when he saw Terry holding the puzzle book. He looked back and forth at us, confused.

Terry shrugged. “They’re too easy for Hex, so he gave them to me.”

Travis looked at me suspiciously.

“How is it,” I asked him, “you can witness me finishing the puzzle from the Sunday New York Times — in pen — then you supply me with puzzle books labeled ‘Intermediate’?”

Usually, when Travis’ appointments were right there in Bridgewater, I returned to the house after dropping him off. Watched ESPN, read Jeff’s books, practiced my golf swing in the backyard. That sort of thing. But Jean had helped me print out all 250 Lexis-Nexis articles — on the house — and I wanted to know what Dr. Brown thought of them. I’d see him in a few days at The Round, but Travis would be there, and that could be awkward.

So, instead of returning to the house, I took a detour over to BSU. Milled around campus for a while with my manila folder at my side. Noticed many of the students looked like teenagers and others were in their thirties and forties. Dr. Brown had said, “It’s a state school. Everyone is welcome.”

I found him in his office, reading the newspaper, at the end of the hall in the English Department. The door was open. I watched Dr. Brown bite into his sandwich and bits of lettuce and globules of mayonaisse fell out onto the page. He and I didn’t share the same taste in newspapers — he read The Boston Globe, me, The Boston Herald — but we both used the newspaper to catch the drippings and droppings of our lunch.

He was shocked to see me. And I was shocked by how shocked he was. “Now’s a bad time?” I asked.

“No, come on in,” he said, struggling to regain his composure. “What’s going on? Travis OK?”

“Oh, yeah, he’s fine. I’m just stopping by. You said, everyone’s…”

“Of course, no, come in, come in. I’m glad you dropped by actually. I have to keep these office hours, but no one ever comes.”

I handed the folder over to him. It would be self-explanatory, once he opened it. “These only cover POMs in pro basketball,” I told him.

As Dr. Brown began scrutinizing the articles with a furrowed brow, I tried to act cool. “Mind if I browse your book shelves here?”

“Go ahead.”

His books were organized alphabetically, so I scanned over to the Bs, grabbed one that said “Winston Brown” on the spine. Flipped randomly to page 156 of Talking in Circles, Dr. Brown’s book on “the cultural significance of huddles.”

…Being the gleeful warrior that he is, Cedric “Cornbread” Maxwell invariably flashed his toothy smile while he infiltrated opposing team’s huddles. In these moments, Maxwell is no less than a spy in enemy territory, less interested in gathering information than in manipulating opponents’ emotions. Maxwell understood something critical: the mere suspicion that hostile forces are eavesdropping is often enough to effectively stifle communications among peers….”

More interesting than I expected for a book about huddles. Helps that I remember “Cornbread” Maxwell from his days on the Boston Celtics. Same guy who jumped into the stands at The Garden to punch a fan in the face.

When I looked up from the book, Dr. Brown sat there smiling at me. “Hex, my friend. You realize this is what I hire my graduate assistants to do.”

I slapped my forehead and walked over to retrieve the folder. “Obviously. Duh. See, I’ve got too much time on my hands, these days, Dr. Brown. I’ll let you get back to your work, then. Or your lunch.”

But Dr. Brown kept flipping through the folder, even took out his pen to take some notes. Did he like them or not? I couldn’t tell. “I guess you already have plenty of people gathering these materials for you,” I said. “I nearly went to graduate school myself, back in the 60s, so I get how it works.”

“UMass right?” Dr. Brown asked.

“Yeah, was thinking about a doctorate in chemical engineering but it didn’t pan out.”

“Oh, so you’ve got a bachelors. Very interesting.” Travis closed the folder and took off his reading glasses.

“As you said, you’ve already got people doing this for you.” I reached out to take the folder back, eager to put this all behind us and get back to being a driver, but he held on to the folder.

“Correction,” Dr. Brown said. “I said that this is what I hired my graduate students to do. This is what they are supposed to be doing. Doesn’t mean they actually do it.”

Dr. Brown noticed me trying to hold back a smile. “It’s OK, you can laugh. It’s kind of funny, I guess. In the interviews they promise they’ll work their butts off for me. Then when I bring them on as research assistants, there is always some excuse about a huge paper coming up in one of their classes. Or they gather a bunch of texts for me but when I look at them, it’s just-” He made the gesture of ripping papers in half and wiping his hands. “They obviously don’t understand my research, or they don’t understand sports, or both. Either way, they supply me with piles of irrelevant articles, for the sake of being able to say they are doing their jobs.”

“Those bastards,” I said. “What about these ones I gave you? Relevant at all?”

“Oh, undoubtedly. For sure. I’m actually interested in what you make of them.”

“What do you mean?”

“Big picture. As you were reading.”

I thought for a second. “Well, there’s what the articles say. And then there’s reality.”

“Go on.”

“The papers can’t say this outright, not even the more acerbic columnists like Fronsdale. I always had the impression POMS were a chance for black players to get together and talk their own language without the white coach around. But political correctness, and so on and so forth. So you can’t say that.”

As I spoke, Dr. Brown took more notes. “What are you writing?” I asked. “That I’m racist?”

“No,” he laughed. “Your thoughts are relevant for my chapter about how ‘ordinary’ people perceive players-only meetings.”

“Fancy that,” I said. “I’m an ordinary guy.”

Dr. Brown laughed. “Sorry. You’re right. ‘Ordinary people’ is an unfortunate term we use in academia for ‘Joe Six-pack,’ to differentiate from the people at the top who control society.”

“No, you misunderstood. I wasn’t complaining. ‘Ordinary guy’ is a like a step up for me, compared with six months ago. Like last week, when Travis’ friend Terry referred to me as a ‘single guy.’ Also a compliment, by implication.”

Dr. Brown sat up in his chair when I mentioned Terry. “The secretary right? B.S.U. grad? Dear God. Travis introduced me to her once at a Bears game. Afterwards, he said, ‘Don’t go there.’ But didn’t say why. Just that I wouldn’t be interested. ‘A few screws loose,’ he might have said.”

“Not true,” I told him. “Zero screws loose. Not that I know her that well. But I can tell.”

“I probably wouldn’t care if she did have some loose,” Dr. Brown said.

“Travis probably trying to keep her for himself.”

“Good God. Fucker’s already got a wife.”

“Hey, listen,” Dr. Brown said. “I’m going over to watch the Lady Bears play. They’re having a good year. Why don’t you come along and we can talk more about the articles?”

Dr. Brown and I sat in the bleachers behind the Lady Bears bench.

I’d left the beeper in the car and totally forgot about Travis, who could easily be sitting on a curb outside Dr. Embry’s office, waiting for me to pick him up.

Screw it. This was a good chance to hang with Win. It was quiet in the gymnasium, so we could hear all of Coach ______ instructions to her team. “I can see how this would have been helpful for your book on huddles,” I said.

“Exactly. Sat here taking notes on the huddles.”

“Like an ethnographer.”

“Yup, watching player’s body language, who was allowed to talk in the huddle, who stared off into space.”

“That when you met Travis?”

“No, I was finished with the book by the time I met Travis. I kept coming to the games because I was hooked. The men’s team was the runt of the MESCAC league when I started the book and by the time it finished, they’d become a powerhouse.”

The door to the gymnasium opened, and Travis arrive in the gymnasium. He sat down beside us. “Forgot about me, did you Hex?”

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “How’d you get here?”

“Suzy picked me up. I thought you said we were crazy for liking D-3 basketball? Now you’re a fan of D-3 women’s basketball?”

“Decided to give it a chance,” I told him.

“I was just telling Hex how you and I met,” Dr. Brown said.

“1996,” Travis said, pointing up to a banner in the rafters. “MESCAC conference championship. I remember it like it was yesterday.” I’d been worried what Travis would say when he saw me sitting here with Dr. Brown, but he seemed to be taking it OK.

I figured Bev and I would sleep late since we’d been up so late the night before, but she was already up making breakfast when I woke up at 9 am.

In one hand, she held a tray with eggs, grapefruit juice, and toast. In the other, she held a gray suit.

“This should fit you OK. We’ll get you one that fits you better for next Sunday.”

“A suit for what?” I asked.

“Church!” Bev said. “What do you think? My mom’s coming to pick us up in twenty minutes so get your ass in gear.”

Before I could say anything, she’d jumped into the shower. I asked if I could join her but she said we don’t have time for that. So I ate the breakfast and did my best to freshen up in the kitchen sink.

The novelty of being in church made it entertaining — the hymns, the robes, the incense, and so on. I remembered the hymns from my days in Catholic school. Bev and her mom belted out the lyrics, so I did to: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Grant us peace.”

I couldn’t hear my own voice because it just blended in with all the others in the church. But one voice cut through all the others, angelic. I turned around to see who it was, and what do you know, it was Gary, dressed in his Sunday finest, bellowing his angelic voice into the rafters.

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