The Third Step

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INTRODUCTION:   Surprisingly, I find myself the storyteller now. A disconnected observer of a life and events clouded and twisted by the years, but forever etched in my memory. Maybe not so much etched as dropped there, much like beer cans tos...

INTRODUCTION:

 

Surprisingly, I find myself the storyteller now. A disconnected observer of a life and events clouded and twisted by the years, but forever etched in my memory. Maybe not so much etched as dropped there, much like beer cans tossed out a car window, on a dark back road in the middle of the night.

I consider myself fortunate to be exposed to these people and events, but never directly impacted by them. It was a world that perplexed and terrified me and attracted me to it; an inexplicable draw.

 I've often wondered if I was a friend to this guy, Frankie, or just another character in a bizarre and dangerous play; an observer on the sideline watching the clock run out. This all happened in late 1981 and 1982. A simpler time for many, but not for all. Addiction and its complications seem to be timeless, as does a man’s attempt to find, understand and categorize this thing called “God”.

I'll try to report these events as I saw them or they were later revealed to me. It could have been a simple life and a simple story, but things kind of got out of control.

I'm often asked if all these things really happened. How could I possibly know, I'm simply a crazy old man telling a story, you can decide for yourself.

 

 

 

 

ONE MORNING – Chapter One

Frankie sits on the edge of the bed. It feels like he’s bleeding; his rib cage is destroyed; it screams in its own voice.

There is an ache in him that starts deep inside his emptiness, he possesses a spirit that echoes a hollow, mournful wail, a lost wind blowing through a burned-out landscape.  The ache of this emptiness infects every muscle in his body until he becomes the ache, the pain, until nothing else remains.

He blows his nose into his hand, spits on the floor. His feet touch the floor, and he begins to stand.

It still rages, a fire from long ago, from when he was a younger man — sadly, not that long ago– from a time before he was broken; now he is just smoldering embers and ash, but his is a fire that could rage with the slightest breeze.

Some days, he wishes he’d find the one who could cut him down for good, end this once and for all. That last, perfectly placed, cutting blow, but for now he’s got to piss.

He walks out onto the hot concrete stoop and smells the city summer air. A mix of summer flowers and diesel exhaust and a filthy gray stench fills the air from the factories here that surround him.

He reaches into his rolled up t-shirt sleeve and takes out his smokes, pulling one from the pack with his teeth in one smooth motion. His elegance is legendary. He takes a long draw, starts to cough, then to gag and wheeze. He rests his arms on the metal railing and watches the sweat drip from his forehead and onto the concrete, puddling in designs that fascinate him. He leans there coughing, smoking, sweating, silently praying that someone would come along and start him up.

Just one word, give me a reason. Today, like most days, Frankie has declared war on the world. It’s a silent war; no one notices. Anyone passing only sees a broken, hung-over gagging shadow, who saw his best days pass many, many days ago.  No challengers approach. Frankie wins the day by default and walks on down the stairs.

It’s a sweltering day already, a perfect day, hot as Hell. The sun has barely risen, and the sweat is running off his forehead and down onto his t-shirt.

He needs the gym; he needs a fight, anyone, just to connect, to work this out. He needs it every day. It never goes away; there is no release, only this constant need for one more. One more. One more any fucking thing, but today it’s just one more fight.

The thought of a peaceful life is terrifying, at best. Peace is death. He needs the struggle, the only connection he knows.  When he feels the contact, when he feels a rib break, when he sees the blood fly and tastes it, he knows he is alive. It’s an affirmation: without that, he is simply cold and numb and void.

A lot of people remember his times in the church; there were two distinct tries: God how we prayed for an end to those days. They did end, ended with a vengeance that could only be spawned within the twisted wreck of old broken parts and songs and lies and vodka and pills that comprised Frankie. He seemed to find that terrifying peace there, in church. It confused him and angered him.

Sadly, and this is largely unknown, Frankie thinks he is in league with the Devil; it is not a joke to him; get him alone one night, especially after a fight, or when he is drunk and ask him: his list of reasons and rationale are impressive. He makes you wonder. He’ll tell you he is a heartless, unlovable, cold bastard and anyone who thinks differently is a fool who should be taken for all he is worth.

He did love that old woman, Cora and the old woman would disagree; she loved her boy. She was old, very old, died at one hundred. Frankie thought she was crazy, if for no other reason than that she loved him and trusted him. She lived in an old house that should have been condemned. It supposedly predated the Revolutionary War. She had a piano in a room of this house, a room heated by a propane stove that always smelled like it was about to explode. It was cold in that house, and always smelled bad. The kitchen floor was so crooked you swore the entire room was about to fall off the rest of the house. You could not put a full cup of coffee on her kitchen table: the floor slanted so much, the coffee would spill over the side.

Everything there had a purpose and a place to Frankie. That place was his home.

Even when it was clean, the table with the red Formica top and the rusted chrome legs looked like stuff had been spilled on it. A 1940’s era stainless-steel-and-plastic mess, it was a thing of beauty to him. He would sit at this table as a young boy and drink his coffee, with condensed milk and sugar, as he listened to the crazy old woman beat on that poor piano with those skinny, arthritic hands. Her knuckles were the size of walnuts, her fingers long and skinny, but she would beat that poor piano to death as she wailed those church songs. She would sit there and sing in that voice that sounded like a choking cat or a screech owl in the night, and he would sit there for hours and drink his coffee and listen. This was church, all that ever worked for Frankie. 

The hot, dry summer passed and ended fairly uneventfully, sadly. Frankie always looked forward to the summer and managed to miss it as it flew by. His time passed drunkenly and slowly in a ceaseless parade of hangovers and benders.

The thought did cross his mind, from time to time, that this was no way to live. Not the way the old lady would have wanted him to live. Those thoughts ended as quickly as they appeared.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a time when he was younger he wished he would die, that someone or something would end it accidentally. Frankie was a goddamned master at finding himself in perilous situations, none of which were ever planned or his fault; he was kind of the poster boy for chaos theory: shit happens.

 A lot of people thought he had a death wish. He assured me one night it was much darker than that. He could consume an impossible quantity of alcohol. The more he drank, the more he talked, the more I could believe him. He almost got his wish one night…looking down the barrel of a 30.06 hunting rifle.

This would be the story of Pam, Pamela Anne: she was stunning, looked a little like David Bowie. She wore her hair, in 1976, in what would become the ‘80’s mullet, a trendsetter, a stoner beauty, voice of an angel and Frankie’s friend.

It was a cold autumn night. He walked into The Lovely, Turf’s tavern, not so much an actual bar as a hole where he went to get drunk and high and listen to Lynard Skynard’s “Freebird” over and over and over on the jukebox, like that was the only song on the damn thing. Just that fucking song. Like, not no one person in that hole could figure out another song to play, ever.

Turf’s was in some weird, angry time warp: every day, every night was the same as the last. The night always ended when Jack, the bartender, bought the last round. A shot of Jack Daniels that would invariably have Frankie running out the door puking between clenched teeth and then stumbling into the street, or---on more than one occasion---a snow bank, where he slept until the cops came along and dragged him home.  To this day, he cannot stand that song, Jack Daniels Tennessee Sippin’ Whiskey, or anything about the South. At least, that is what he says.

He saw Pam’s friend, Patty, sitting in the corner, drunk and crying. Empty shot glasses, once filled with cheap Tequila, rolled around the table beside half-full bottles of Rolling Rock beer. Patty said Pam was with Billy, at his house; he was fucked-up on heroin. Frankie had been dreaming of a reason to kill this asshole since the day they met.

Kevin Tyson was his best friend at the moment. Most of Frankie’s relationships had a short shelf life. He got up and left Patty and walked over to Tyson and said he needed a ride to Goshen. Tyson was kind of an idiot and made some remark about picking up babes. Frankie took Tyson’s beer from the bar, and Tyson naturally followed him like a small, stupid dog out the door.

Tyson’s car was a rolling garbage can, a 1960-something Dodge Dart. Beer cans and cigarette butts everywhere, rolling papers, baggies of weed. The ride to Goshen was perilous but uneventful. Tyson played some crap on a cassette tape he had made, proudly saying it was his “band,” and Frankie just looked out of the window and listened to the empty beer bottles clink is the back seat, a sound far less annoying than the sound of the band.

Pam was one of the hundred or so true loves of Frankie’s life, and he hated Billy Martin, it seemed, since birth and a thousand-fold more now that he knew Pam was with him. Frankie lived by a bizarre and twisted and personal moral code: basically, everything Frankie did was OK, as long as he didn’t get caught and you didn’t fuck with his friends, especially Pam. Billy’s family had a lot of money. Their house was a mansion. Old money. Frankie had never been there before, never been invited. He had happily pissed in their driveway on more than one occasion.

Tyson and Frankie pulled up to the house. The driveway had a gate that was open. Tyson killed the headlights, and they drove to about 15 feet from the front door.

The house was creepy, with only one light on by an upstairs window. A cold wind blew over the grounds, tossing dead leaves and sticks in the air. The trees were barren; the flowers in the gardens lining the driveway, dead.

Tyson said the place looked haunted. Frankie assured him that he was drunk and it was October, so the place should look haunted.

They needed a plan, fast. Frankie only wanted to get to Pam and Billy. He didn’t think much about a plan. He tried the door. It was locked. He started screaming an endless string of obscenities at the top of his lungs. The only words Tyson could make out were “fucking,” “asshole,” and “motherfucker,” interlaced with words not nearly as clear.

Tyson looked up, as he heard a window open, and he screamed at Frankie that someone had a gun. A couple of shots rang out, shattering the silence.  Frankie bolted for Tyson’s Dodge and looked back as he ran, seeing three shadows standing in the open windows, all three firing at him.

He hit the dirt behind the Dodge and looked into the terrified eyes of his friend; when he was scared, Tyson’s eyes literally bulged. It was funny and freaky. On more than one occasion, Frankie wondered if he hit Tyson in the back of his head would they just pop out and roll around on the ground.

All the pair could say to each other was, “who the fuck?” and “what the fuck?”

It didn’t take Frankie long to realize the shots had landed nowhere near him. Either the people in the house were too fucked up to be able to shoot, or they only wanted to scare them.

The silhouettes in the window looked down at them. It was a cool, moonlit night, and it was easy to see everything on the ground. Frankie was angry and humiliated, never a good place for him, one he found himself in a little too often.

Frankie crawled across the ground to Billy’s car, a brand new Corvette.Frankie hated the car almost as much as he hated Billy. He grabbed a few big rocks and started smashing the hot, red and white, shiny ‘Vette, while screaming to Billy, calling him all sort of unfriendly names and body parts.

The front of the house flew open. Billy came charging at Frankie, exactly as Frankie had hoped he would. Frankie got up, dove into Billy’s gut, and they both flew to the ground.  This wasn’t a pretty fight: Billy was wasted, and Frankie was a little insane. In seconds, Frankie was kneeling on Billy’s chest and pummeling his face with hard, well-placed punches. Blood began to flow. Frankie tasted Billy’s blood as it spattered on his face. As each punch landed on Billy’s face, a deep satisfaction in Frankie only made him want to hit harder and deeper. With his last punch, Frankie felt like he broke a bone in his hand.

Frankie heard another gunshot. He swears to this day he felt the bullet fly past his face. Billy lay underneath him, motionless, looking quite dead. Frankie looked to his right and saw Pam, his friend, the girl he came to rescue, holding the gun by her waist, a finger on the trigger.

Frankie stood to approach her. She raised the rifle to her eye and was about to shoot him, when Tyson came screaming out of the bushes and lurched between them, himself scared to death and realizing this act of heroism was totally out of character and a complete mistake. Tyson stood there, arms extended, like a cop stopping traffic in both directions; he started shaking and pissing himself.

Like a statue, Frankie stood there, paralyzed with confusion.

Pam dropped the gun and ran over to Billy.

Tyson grabbed Frankie and dragged him back to the Dodge, shoved him inside and ran around to the driver’s side, started the car before he was in the seat and took off out of there, gravel and dirt flying.

In the distance they could hear a siren but could not tell if it was a cop or an ambulance. As they drove away, it dawned on Tyson that he was now, in fact, quite possibly an accessory to murder. All Frankie would say was, “He’s not dead. He was still breathing. Just drive, please, just drive.” The rest of the drive back to the bar was in silence, except for Tyson’s heavy breathing.

They stopped at a gas station for beer and cigarettes. The guy at the register knew Tyson and commented on the blood on Frankie’s face. He joined them outside, and Frankie passed around beers.

As they stood there in the chilly air, Frankie took a long drag off his smoke, coughed so hard he thought was about to pass out, and took a longer drink of his beer. He looked up at the moon and thought about Pam. Finally, he said, “I just can’t believe it, I can’t believe she wants to be with that asshole.”

At this second Tyson completely lost his mind. “You are probably an hour away from being arrested for murder, me with you, and all you can fucking worry about is this fucking Pam?”

Frankie rolled his fingers into the palm of his hand, evaluating if that hand could, in fact, be broken again. He said he was really just pissed off about Pam, but part of him was broken.

I wondered at times how long a person can survive with a constantly broken heart, with a pulverized spirit and an empty soul, or perhaps no soul. Pam could do that without intent, simply by being Pam. She was the party-waiting-to-happen. She was everyone’s friend, including Frankie’s. Frankie never saw it that way.

The guys finished the beers and drove back to the bar. For a second, Tyson thought he heard Frankie crying. When he asked him if he was OK, Frankie’s response was simply “Shut up, Kevin.”

They drove down the nearly abandoned avenue in silence and pulled into The Lovely. Jack, the bartender, was out back with a couple of girls smoking a joint. Jack and Frankie were not close friends, but they kind of understood each other. They shared the same code. Jack followed Frankie into the bar, leaving the girls with Kevin; then he walked behind the bar. Frankie silently sat there staring at the dark, stained, ancient oak bar top. He held his hands on the raised edge like he was holding on to keep from falling.

Jack asked him how the hand felt; it looked broken. He handed him a shot of vodka and a Rolling Rock and stood there waiting, silently. “It hurts, Jack, it hurts really fucking bad, motherfucking bitch, what the fuck.”

Frankie and Pam had a long and twisted friendship. She was working, occasionally, as a prostitute to pay the bills. Frankie was always telling himself he was OK with it, but he never was. He fell in love with her hard and fast. He thought that maybe it was love-at-first-sight, but he never believed in that crap. But the first time he saw her, he was mesmerized, they were young, she was a cashier in a grocery store. Even a few years later, when he stood outside her apartment, watching as another guy went into her apartment and closed the door, the reality of who she was and what she did for a living – part time, of course – never really sank in with Frankie.

From his first glance of her, he never felt himself worthy of her. That was the day he put her on a pedestal, one she did not want or accept. She liked Frankie. In fact, she liked him a lot, and she wished he would calm down a little. He seemed to be way more invested in her than she was in him.

Back at Billy’s house, Frankie had somehow fallen off a cliff tonight, realizing that all those annoying voices in his head, the ones telling him to see her for what she was, had been true. He sank deep. It felt a lot like falling, endlessly, not particularly fast or slow, an endless fall from which he could never return; he might never hit the bottom, just fall aimlessly, endlessly through time. Pam had literally pulled the ground out from underneath him, and this night, sitting in The Lovely, inhaling shots of vodka as fast as Jack could pour them, Frankie knew, but could not quite fully accept, the woman who was the love of his life, the one he would have actually taken a bullet for, was none of that.

He was actually a lot more upset with the realization she had been fucking Billy, than with her gunshot. He lived every day of his life with this nagging denial, but there were flashes during which he believed that she loved him. He was committed to her totally, which made little or no sense to anyone else who knew the saga, because, well, she was kind of a prostitute.

Frankie thought, deep in his soul, he could fix that. It would only take money and time and a scheme. He was pretty convinced he could fix anything with the right scheme. As he watched him get drunk, Jack actually thought he could see him getting sadder, instead of getting bolder, as if this cloud, this pervasive mist of reality that Frankie could always outrun, keeping it, at times, only inches from his heels, had finally overtaken him. It was not unlike watching someone suffocate, but there was nothing to do or say, simply watch as the man he’d known seemed to change.

Jack and a handful of others had waited for this day. Pam was not a bad girl or a bad person, but she was not the woman Frankie had placed so high on the pedestal.

Frankie wrote this about Pam one time:

“Find the one who makes you shake just thinking about her. Find the one you can't stop thinking about, at all, for a second. Find the one who makes you feel like a fool, but you don't care. Find the one who stops time, the one who, when you are with her, nothing else exists. Find the one who you would crawl over broken glass to be with, then think about that and realize you'd actually do it. Find the one who changes you in ways you don't understand or even like. Find the one who makes you fight, every day, how much you love her, who makes you try to deny how much you love her every day. Find the one who makes you hate how much you need her and want her. Find the one who, when you touch her, it feels like you've been punched in the heart, and you lose your breath and a little of your mind. Find the one who makes you question your sanity, often, the one who makes you worry you may lose her because you know in your heart you are not worthy of her.” 

After reading that the night Frankie wrote it, sitting alone at a darkened corner of the bar, huddled with a pencil and paper he’d borrowed from Jack, Jack said to him; “Frankie, that is beautiful and touching and total bullshit. Pam is not that girl”.

Frankie glared at Jack for a long time, in silence, sucking on beers and vodka.  Jack’s words never left Frankie. That night, I think they may have started to solidify and ring true, to hit home.

This night, the night after the bullet passed, it felt, in a way, like Frankie's first defeat in the ring, the first of many, had felt; something just reached inside of him and snuffed out his strength. He sat there feeling completely vacant, not even angry or sad, but empty, hollow. We were sitting next to him; in the silence, you could almost hear the sound of glass breaking, and the moaning sound of a great metal structure as its foundation collapsed and it slowly, agonizingly, crashed onto itself and into the ground.  Frankie sat there in total silence, rolling the now-empty Rolling Rock beer bottle in small circles on the wooden bar, staring off into nothingness.  

He always questioned whether his love for her was real and healthy or an obsession born out of a need never identified. His love, or whatever it was, instantly changed into a feeling of the worst kind of betrayal.   There was no tear in his eye as he sat there silently, occasionally shuddering, as if his mind and his body had begun to accept and absorb what had happened in the hour before.  Under the stubble of a two-day beard, his skin appeared ashen, ghost like.

I found something years later that he had written about this night. He wrote that it was the realization that the unspoken, but cherished, promise was, in fact, a lie.  It would take years for him to realize he didn't lose the girl, he lost his illusion of who the girl was.

Losing the dream is what took Frankie down that night.

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