Dec 12, 2018, 05:57AM

The Heart is an Autumn Wanderer

I wasn't looking for some sexy lady undressing.

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The funny thing is, I didn't know the entire city would be closed, shut down, darker than dark, closed tight, tight as a drum. The only times I'd ever seen Hartford was, pretty much, in daylight, with the family shopping at the old department store, G Fox & Company; or the art museum, Wadsworth Atheneum; or the Bushnell Auditorium for a travelogue; or in the evening, Constitution Plaza for The Festival of the Lights, a choir singing carols, or a Dixieland combo in the summer. I never saw Hartford at night, actual night, and I was always with my parents and kid brother. This was my first chance to see Hartford, by myself, at night. And when I did, the city was dead as a coffin nail.

I'd told my parents I was going to the school dance, Xavier High playing host to Mercy High, for the annual Thanksgiving mixer. But instead of driving south to school, I made a beeline for I-91 and barreled north to Hartford. I had no plan, just get to Hartford, park somewhere, maybe the G Fox parking garage, and hack around, go to the hippie district, such as it is, tiny, focused around one boutique, UFO. It's not Haight-Ashbury, which I've read a great deal about, but, I guess, it's as close to that as ye olde Nutmeg State is likely get. You could term Connecticut as staid.

I was hoping someone might hand me a joint and I'd smoke pot for the first time. I've read quite a bit about marijuana.

Around Wethersfield, just before the highway sails over Howard Johnson's, I did something I'd never done. I sped, really sped, not just a little over the limit. I wanted to see how fast the Dodge Dart Slant-6 could go. I mean, there were no other cars on the road; it's a long straightaway. What was the harm? And "The Letter" was blasting on the radio, that bass line egging me on.

I floored it, and watched the speedometer go from 65 to 70 to 75 to 80 on up until I hit 90. Then 95!

"Gimme a ticket for an aeroplane, ain't got time to take a fast train..."

To be honest, it was terrifying, driving that fast. At first, it was like freefall, fun, until my legs and my knees went rubbery, wobbly, while my jaw was clenched tight. All of a sudden, cold sweat was running down my scrawny ribs. Truth is, I'm a card-carrying chicken. Always have been; always will be. I've never even been in a fistfight. Most guys have, but I've always managed to talk my way out of the situation. Anyway, I eased off the pedal, swore I'd never ever do that again. And believe me, I meant it. Too late. The siren, the flashing lights in my rearview mirror.

I pulled over, the state trooper nosed in back of me, blazing like an epileptic carnival. He let me wait for about 100 hours before he strolled to my window, which I had rolled down the entire time, as I'd been instructed to do in case that such a thing, God forbid, should ever happen. And my hands were at noon on the wheel. And I was polite. Again, all as instructed.

I had my license ready, in hand, then fumbled around the glove compartment for the registration, shaking like St. Vitus the whole time, to be totally honest. It was cold, a November night in New England. But beyond that I was scared. A ticket. And I was no place near where I was supposed to be. I was a criminal and a liar. The crewcut cop went back to his car with all my official stuff. I sat there for another 100 hours, window down, teeth chattering, praying he'd display some heart, let me off with a warning. Please, dear God...

After yet another 100 hours, he was back at my window. And handed me a ticket. I was slated for a court date, Tuesday, December 19, in New Haven, nine o'clock. I was as good as dead. Actually, dead would be better. If you're dead, you're just dead, maybe even in Heaven.

Trooper John Powers: that's a name I'll remember and hate until I die, I swear.

I sat there for a minute, trembling, after he tore away, beady-eyed for his next victim.

So, on to Hartford, driving pretty goddamn slow. I think 45 is the very slowest they allow you on an interstate without getting ticketed for driving too slow, they don't want Ma & Pa Kettle gumming up the works, so I aimed for 50, and that was a struggle, I was shook. Not that there was anyone else on the road, only the occasional Mack truck whizzing past me, and that was very occasional. The heat was on, but I was still shaking like it was 20 degrees.

When I got to Hartford, the parking garage at G Fox was closed, so I poked around one-way streets, found a spot.

UFO was closed, no sign of life near it. So I hoofed it over to Farmington Ave., to The Stereo Shop. Closed! Huntington Books, EJ Korvette's, everything was closed, no one at all in sight, a cemetery. It was like a sci-fi movie, I was the lone survivor on planet earth.

I wandered around, found a neighborhood: trees, nice houses, it was like a 1940s movie. Hartford's not a real city, not like New York or Boston. The big deal is modern Constitution Plaza, and Traveler's, G Fox, and then it's mostly straight down to a few small shops like Bill Savitt's Jewelry. I really hate that old bastard, Bill Savitt, always on TV and radio with his ads. Parents love him, think he's so funny with his "POMG" slogan. That stands for "Peace Of Mind Guarantee." How often can they chuckle at that cornball gag? It doesn't even make any sense, just some stupid thing he coughed up, there's no pun, no rhyme, no reason.

On the school bus, Stan Otfinoski torments this poor fat kid, Mally Conrad, saying POMG stands for "Piss On Mally's Gonads." Stan goes on and on, giving Mally the business every day on the afternoon bus ride. I have no idea why, except Mally's such an easy target, a fish in a barrel. You see, besides being fat, he has a stammer, and wears thick glasses, and his father died when Mally was six. He lives with his mom in a pretty rundown house; it could really use a coat of paint. And their car is a laughingstock, a rusty old Rambler. Once, Mally screwed up the nerve to sass back. His voice was all quivery and he could b-barely g-get the w-words out, and he was almost crying. But Stan's a huge guy, on the football team. His dad is huge, too. A big ape. He owns Oftinoski Contracting, a pretty big deal around here; they have a fancy house, a split-level with a swimming pool. Mr. Oftinoski always drives a brand new Cadillac. Anyway, I had to give Mally points, that took courage, real courage to stand up to a big mean gorilla like Stan. But when Mally got off the bus, Stan leapt right behind him. Once outside, Stan knocked Mally to the dirt and pounded the tar out of him as the bus left them in a cloud of dust and exhaust.

Anyhow, there are a lot of neighborhoods in Hartford, almost like suburbs, but with teeny lawns, just a fringe, like a tonsured friar. A house would be lit, I could see inside. Nothing perverted on my part. I wasn't looking for some sexy lady undressing. Just seeing a family on a Saturday night, sitting around their living room watching My Three Sons or maybe baking a pumpkin pie, getting ready for the holiday, everyone so happy. Or at least, content. And that made me feel, despite Trooper John Powers, happy, content. Four years ago the mood in these same homes would've been so different. That was one somber Thanksgiving. My parents were beside themselves, my dad's temper at hairtrigger. The morning after Dallas, at the breakfast table, I made some wisecrack about the assassination. My old man really flipped his wig, slammed the table with his fist, and bellowed, "Go to your room! Right now, dammit!"

That was pretty scary. I'd never heard him curse, before or since. I went to my room, which isn't the worst punishment. I read Model Car Science and Car Craft and Jimmy Olsen, and listened to the radio. That song came on, "Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain, telling me just what a fool I've been..." Loved that song. And I found a stick of grape gum, my favorite flavor, at the bottom of a desk drawer. And I daydreamed about Donna, the most beautiful girl in seventh grade. Punishment? A walk in the park, really.

So, back to Middletown with a ton of time on my hands. If I got home too early, how could I explain that? So I took back roads, parked behind Van Buren Moody School, the elementary school where my mom's a teacher's aide, turned off the headlights, but kept the radio playing. That Johnny Rivers song, "Summer Rain," came on. It's not a terrible song, exactly. It does have some fuzz guitar. But mostly it's all strings and horns and lovey-dovey crooning and folk guitar. They only give you the fuzz twice, like for a second or two, and then it's only to ape "Sgt. Pepper" when he mentions "Sgt. Pepper," which is pretty corny, like when an orchestra tries to make a flute sound like a breeze, or a piano like a brook, or something. Still, it is fuzz guitar. I like any kind of fuzz guitar. And Johnny Rivers was cool, a long time ago, when I was in eighth or ninth grade. "Secret Agent Man" and "Memphis." But now he seems like some old guy from L.A. trying to go all hippie. I guess that's L.A.: show biz, tinsel. Even their hippies are fake. San Francisco has the real hippies, The Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. And New York has The Lovin' Spoonful. Chicago has The Paul Butterfield Blues Band and The Shadows of Knight. What's L.A. got? Okay, The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. But they don't even seem like they're from L.A. They're more like San Francisco groups. I read Hit Parader, so I’m up on a lot of stuff, even some jazz, guys like Stan Getz and Dave Brubeck.

Anyhow, I sat there for an hour or so, thinking about how I should've just gone to the stupid dance. Maybe the girl I was destined to marry was there? A strange and magical girl, not one of the Mercy High skags. She'd be from out of town, visiting a cousin. Straight-as-an-arrow chestnut hair glancing slim shoulders, bangs obscuring violet eyes, an overbite. Her tiny nose crinkles when she laughs. And when she laughs, it's music. Her name is Audrey, and she's dressed in the latest style, really groovy shoes, but it's like she doesn't even know just how wonderful she is. She's just so, I dunno, natural, not the least bit stuck on herself. And maybe she's not from around here at all. Maybe she's from South Carolina? And has a Dixie accent that's so cute that I just melt.

I could see it: The Pro-Teens on stage, playing a spacewalk version of "Gloria" or "Midnight Hour," savaging it to the maximum, holding Fender guitars facing hard against Fender amps, feedback squealing so loud that the stinkin' chaperones are holding hands to ears, grimacing, running to the back of the room. Then Donny Heath, Esquire in hand, launches into a solo, ultimate treble and ultimate fuzztone, while his twin brother, Bobby, just smashes away his drum kit. It's hardly even music. It's a fury, it's a squall, it's an ocean of anarchy.

"About five feet fo', from her head to th' ground! She come round here! Make me feel alright! ...Gonna shout it ever' place!"

And we're dancing, Audrey and me, and she knows all the steps, looks so tuff. Between numbers, we share a Coke, which is almost like kissing, if you think about it, and she laughs at all my jokes, even the ones that aren't winners, so I fall in love with her. When no one's looking, we slink into the hallway, around the corner, find a lonely spot deep in the shadows of the cloak room, and she just drifts into my arms, and plays with my lapels, loosens my tie, unbuttons my collar. And I kiss a girl for the very first time. I tell her how much I love her, and I propose marriage. She accepts with an adorable and perky nod. And with a tilt of head, and that South'en drawl says, "O' course, y'all will have to ask mah fah-thuh fo' mah hand in marriage, all prop-uh like, kind suh! And Ah cain't promise he'll cotton to no lil ol' Yankee, but in yo' case, Ah think he just might make an exception." Then I kiss a girl for the very second time, this time longer, deeper, the way I've read about...

And some distant day, after high school and college and all, we are married, living in a quaint little colonial, furnished with really modern stuff, complete with a top-of-the-line stereo: Marantz and Thorens and AR. She drives a Volvo station wagon to haul around our kids, a whole buncha kids, boys and girls, cute as shiny brass buttons, and I have a British Racing Green MGB GT to zip to my architect office. And my hair is like Dave Davies'.

Instead: sitting in the family car, freezing in the dark, listening to Johnny Rivers on the radio, feeling like a regular Charlie Brown, wishing and hoping and praying on a lonely star that everything, just everything, was different, just as it had been earlier this very day. I guess this is my punishment for sinning, for lying to my parents and speeding. Now I'll never find a wife, I missed my chance with Audrey, and I'll die alone in a shabby lice-infested room in some decrepit skid row flophouse in a crummy town. I'll be smoking in bed, fall asleep, and burn alive, and then go to Hell where the burning never ceases.

A little before 11, I crept home. No one was up, thank God, so I just went to my room and hung up my clothes: green corduroy sport coat, pink button-down collar shirt, paisley tie. That and desert boots are my best stab at cool, as close to a Byrd as I can get, all accomplished within the narrow confines of a Catholic school dress code that is backed to the hilt by strict parents. And even this look is a Byrd from two years ago.

Hair? Forced to the barbershop every month. I comb it forward. Best I can do under the circumstances.

I brushed my teeth. Still parched, I drank water out of a Dixie cup, but it didn't help. I felt nauseous, dizzy. This was, hands down, the worst jam I'd ever gotten into, the worst day of my entire life, ever.

There have been a lot of articles lately about teenage runaways, kids just like me who decided to cut out, head to Haight-Ashbury or New York's East Village, when it all got to be too much, when everything, just everything, was pushing too hard, pushing too hard on them.


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