Tuesday, May 25, 2010

MILES TO MEMORIES ~ By Kevin Michaels of Harbinger*33

By ~ Kevin Michaels

You wanted to be like Hurley when you were a kid; imagining where life would take you once you grew past the astronaut, cop, and fireman stage of adolescent dreams and desires – when you were told by teachers to picture yourself living in the nine to five world parents inhabited and not the imaginary one of grade school youth.  Hurley was a man who seemed to have everything; well liked by others and someone very few would say anything derogatory about, at least not openly.  He was different - unlike the fathers of my childhood I remembered seeing on the train platform dressed for the office in their suits, ties, and overcoats, while balancing briefcases, coffee cups, and morning editions of the Times and Wall Street Journal. Men caught up in their spread sheets, cash flow projections, and mergers; too busy for the mundane parts of life.  

He was more than that.

It wasn’t something I knew at first, but some things became obvious a few minutes into our conversation.  Memories, like long forgotten dreams came back in a rush of emotion and a hard punch to the chest, and in an instant I was just another ten year old kid on the street where I grew up.

Looking for approval, or at least understanding, from someone who didn’t know anything about me.

“You don’t realize how good you got it,” Hurley told me as he finished the last of his Absolut.  “None of the pressure and none of the stress that can kill you fifteen years down the road.  Things are easy for you right now.”

Nothing I had ever been through seemed easy.  Whatever I could say about that I kept to myself.

              He held the glass in his hand, shaking it just hard enough to make the ice swirl in rings around the bottom.

              “You understand what I’m talking about?” he asked.

              I shrugged.

              “School’s not so easy,” I offered.  “Tests, essays, the pressure to do well –“

              Hurley dismissed my rebuttal with a wave of his hand.  “None of that will matter ten minutes after graduation.  You get out into the real world, you’ll learn that real quick.”

              “More to life than the stuff they teach you in school.”

              His perspective on the real world and mine were two contrasting points of view.

              It hadn’t taken long to learn everything there was to know about him.

He was all about the spacious house in the New Jersey suburb and a comfortable life with his second wife, along with the built-in family that came with their marriage.  There was some measure of success in a sales career; a job he did well enough to maintain a pleasant lifestyle, but one that didn’t seem to give him much pleasure and even less satisfaction.  Everyone who knew him would have said that he had it all, but beneath that façade there was an overwhelming sadness that crept into the conversation.  You had to look, but it was there.  That was the part none of his friends and contemporaries saw, and it spoke volumes about his ability to keep so many pieces of himself hidden and distant.

             Maybe it was easier for me to see that and know what was really beneath the appearances because I was a stranger.  Distance afforded me an advantage those close to him did not have.  I didn’t see him the same way everyone else did.  My admiration for guys like Hurley had ended years earlier.

              We were two travelers on stopovers, linked by the commonality of the airport, each of us heading in different directions with neither one of us knowing that much about the other.  Hurley was just some guy to me; the way he was probably thinking I was just another kid.  He was on the tail end of a business trip – returning home to that Bergen County Colonial after ten days on the road and I was making my way across country towards a week-long ski vacation.  Fifteen friends, a winter break time-share in Utah, and free ski passes courtesy of somebody’s brother or cousinI had accepted the invitation without working through the logistics – an admittedly short-sighted detail that forced me to fly on discounted airline tickets, hopping from city to city and running from terminal to terminal like a jack rabbit on speed just to make connections.  The timing of the trip was wrong.  Mid-terms were only a few weeks away and I had GPA problems as well as serious issues in a number of classes, especially a macroeconomics course I had struggled through all semesterBut there was a cute political science major named Marcia who was going to be there – a “to die for” blonde I had hoped to know better; the intimate setting of a vacation rental was filled with opportunity.  

I didn’t need any extra time to weigh my options and leave my small college in Vermont behind.

              I found Hurley at a crowded bar in O’Hare, sitting at a small table beneath a big screen TV tuned to a Bulls - Pistons game.  Bad weather on the East Coast had created massive delays in every direction, and like most other travelers, I just wanted to kill time until my flight boarded.

Hurley had been on his second or third drink when I enteredThe bar was hot and loud, packed with travelers just like him, all of them on their way someplace else – making time with strangers and sharing stories.  The kind of strangers who struck up meaningful conversations and dispersed wisdom and advice but were never around afterwards to know how things turned out.  Hurley was no different.  He was the kind of guy who would tell a stranger about the intimate parts of his life that he kept hidden from close friends.  He caught my eye as I searched the bar, nodding towards the empty chair at his table while talking on his cell.  I slid into the seat, dropped my backpack to the floor, and asked a passing waitress for a Corona.  I took out my Economics book and flipped through pages to pass the time while he continued his discussion as if I wasn’t there.

Silence would have been comfortable.  I didn’t need a conversation to fill the time and I would have been content to read my book wordlessly until they called my flight.

              When he finished Hurley shut his Blackberry and turned to me, forcing a grim smile.

              “It never stops,” he said.  “No matter where you are, there’s always some kind of issue to work out.  One god-damned problem after another.”

             I smiled in return and faked an understanding.

              The concept of ‘it’ as a job or a profession was too far into my future to think about; possibilities of a post-graduation life hadn’t yet shown up on my radar, even though I knew that the comfort of that distance would soon disappear.  Lurking and making its presence felt like a shark circling prey in open water.

              “Fedex, emails, and faxes have replaced conversations.  Nobody knows how to talk any more,” he said.  “Makes everything harder.  Talking’s what they call a lost art.

              “I wouldn’t know,” I said.

              “A guy like you probably doesn’t think too much about stuff like that, huh? Got your own world of worries.  Things more important than the corporate world and how people talk to each other.”

I shrugged.  “Got mid-terms coming up in a couple of weeks, and a pretty heavy course load that’s kicking my ass,” I saidDidn’t think senior year was going to be this hard.”

“Goes that way some times,” he said.  “Things don’t always work out the way you got it planned.”

The waitress delivered my Corona along with another drink for him.  Within minutes his natural ability for sales was evident – words flowed easily for him and he had a casualness in conversation that was disarming and invitingHe was positive about a deal he was working on – something significant, at least where his career was concerned, and although it seemed important to him and his company, I had the sense he was becoming a dinosaur within his own organization.  There was the growing realization that he was on the back nine of his career, and I could sense that he knew his moments of corporate glory were diminishing.

 Without saying it, he seemed to sense what he was up against.  Hurley was becoming insignificant, and for a man like him, that was a horrible fate.

              He was tall and solid - built like a power forward, and at one time he might have been intimidating when he entered a room – something about his size commanded attention.  Now everything about him looked old and tired.  His hair was specked with gray and receding in ragged patches across his headThere were hard lines carved into his face and the corners of his mouth sagged, even when he smiled.  His eyes were cold and distant – whatever joy and happiness that might have once been there had faded from his expression.  He carried a few extra pounds around the middle and looked a little weary, not only in how he rested on his elbows, but in a way that suggested he was worn out on the inside too.

              “Where you headed?” he asked, loosening the knot in his tie and unbuttoning his collar as he settled into our conversation.

              Utah,” I said.  “Ski trip.  Taking a rental with some friends from school.”

              “Guess all the weather problems back east got your flight screwed up too?”

              I nodded.

              “Been stuck here for a couple of hours now,” he said with a sighTried to get out early but my meeting ran late.  Figured I’d catch up on stuff while I’m waitingGlad I got my Blackberry.  Got nothing else to do and no way to kill the time.”

              I sipped my beer and stared across the terminal at the people rushing in different directions.  Wondered where each of them was headed – wondered about the stories behind their journeys and what they could tell me about their own lives.

              “How long until your flight?” he asked.

              “Probably an hour until boarding,” I said.   “When I checked in they told me not to go too far from the gate.  Might be sooner.

              “Came from Boston through Pittsburgh.  Go from here to Denver, then Salt Lake City,” I told him.

              “Wouldn’t it have been easier to fly direct?”

              I shrugged.  “Cheaper this way.”

              Hurley motioned towards the text book in my hands.  “How’s school?”

              “It’s been a long semester.  A lot of work.

              You got any plansIdeas about what you want to do after school?”

              It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought about the future – in many ways it was a weight around my neck, and each day the pressure as well as the fears grew heavierThat nagging worry about life after graduation and what it would be filled with ate at every minute of my day and returned every time I thought it had disappearedI thought about doing something creative post-graduation, maybe finding a position in advertising, but there was a fear that it would morph into something corporate.  The admiration I once held for businessmen like Hurley, with their suits, ties, and leather briefcases had died by high school, and a life chained to a desk in an office seemed like a death sentence.  The kind of career choice that could suck the life out of your soul and leave you an empty shell with no future.  Graduation was five months away, and although I couldn’t be sure of much, I was certain I didn’t want that.
I didn’t share that with Hurley – what could he know about anything I wanted, or what my own desires, dreams, and ambitions were when I wasn’t even sure of them myself.

              “I remember what it was like when I was your age,” he said.  “Graduating college – ready to take on the world.


              There were all kinds of things I wanted to do with my life.  Big plans.  Important things.  Big dreams.
                I took a sip of my Corona and stared across the table at him.  “So what happened to all those dreams?”

              Hurley shrugged and his smile dimmed.  “Things change.  Met a girl right out of college and before I knew it, I was married with a kid on the way and a steady job,” he said, looking at me. Got boring and routine.  Life caught up to me and all those plans faded.”

              “So what did you want to do?” I asked.  “Before you settled down?”

              “Used to love to write,” he said.  “Poems and short stories – that kind of thing.  But you could never make a living doing that and I wasn’t one of those guys who had some kind of book inside him that he was dying to write.  Didn’t see how I was going to make a go of it, just by writing.”

              “Didn’t matter any way,” he added.            
              “Why not?”

              “Kids change the equation.  Take up all your time,” Hurley said.  “Require more of you than you think.”  

“You put a lot of things on hold,” he added.  “Find yourself spending the first years of their lives wishing they would grow up faster so you could move on to things that seemed more important.  There’s an endless string of shit that consumes all your time and energy.  Doesn’t leave time for anything else.”

              Hurley knocked back his vodka“Then it’s gone before you know it.  When that happens you start reminiscing about how special it was when your kids were little,” he said. Holding on to little memories that turn you teary-eyed and get you choked up because you realize you missed so much all those years.  Wanting back all the time you wished away.”

              Hurley stared across the terminal, looking at the planes taxiing back and forth to the gates without really seeing any of them.

                Always put work first,” he said in a quiet voice. 

               Made it important.  More important than it needed to be.

              “Tough not being there for your kids,” he added.

              It was always another flight, I thought.  Another business trip.  Another airport.  Little league games, teacher conferences, and school plays that were missed; apologies that never made up for the hurt or the loss.

I knew firsthand how hard it was to be alone, playing Little League games with nobody there to cheer on your accomplishments.  Wanting to please someone who never bothered showing up.  Never hearing encouragement.  Never getting the recognition that boys need.  After a while you put up walls to ease the hurt and minimize the pain.  You learn to get past the things that cut out your heart, even though the scars never heal.

              “I never claimed to be perfect,” Hurley said. “Whatever faults I had as a father I can’t fix now.  Can’t do nothing about it but say I’m sorry.

              That’s what guys like Hurley never understood – their apologies were always years too late and never truly mattered by the time they were offered.

              There were things I could tell him about loss and loneliness but I kept quiet, nursing my beer and glancing towards the departure board for updates to my flight status.  There was nothing he could teach me about growing up without a father; at least nothing I didn’t already know.

              Hurley gestured towards my bottle.  “Let me buy you another one.”

              “Probably be calling my flight soon,” I said.

              “You got time,” he said.  “Another one won’t hurt.

              “I’m okay,” I answered.

We watched other travelers hurrying to make their connections while Hurley flagged down the waitress again and I nursed my beer.  He told me a little about his life as a kid – growing up in some small Pennsylvania town, an only child orphaned at eight, raised by his grandmother and three of her sisters.  Never really had a father figure in his life but I couldn’t tell how much that mattered; if he missed what a father was supposed to bring to the family dynamic, or if it had any impact on how he raised his kids and what he brought to those relationships.  

              “Funny thing about life,” he said after a while.  “You get to a point where you open the paper every day and find yourself reading the obituariesBecomes a morbid little routine, like reading the sports section and the comics.”

              “I know the joke,” I cut in.  “You read the obituaries and figure it’s a good day if your name’s not there, right?”

              He shook his head.  “You start reading about the different people who diedNone of them look so old,” he said, “especially when they’re the same age as you.”

              “Dying use to be something that happened to old people, you know?”

              The waitress put down his drink and he brought it to his mouth with the kind of swift, smooth movement that came from familiarity.  “Start to wonder if they ever realized their dreams, or if they spent all their time reneging on promises made to themselves when they were just starting out,” he said.

              Hurley took a sip.  “Wonder how they’ll write about you when you die.”

              “Sounds like you got what you wanted,” I offered.  “Good job.  A family.  Nice house in a good neighborhoodGot to be some satisfaction in that, right?”

              He shrugged and held up the glass for examination, staring at the clear liquid as he swirled it slowly in his hand.  He took so long to answer that I thought he had forgotten I was there.

              “I don’t know,” he finally said.  “I guess you start to look back at your life and your accomplishments, look at what you’ve done, and ask, ‘is that all there is?’”

              I didn’t know what kind of response he expected so I let the statement fall away in silence.

              Hurley noticed the look of surprise in my expression.  “Not like I don’t love what I got,” he quickly added, “but some days it feels like my life has gone in directions I had no control over.  Feels like I missed out on a lot.

              I wanted to ask him if that was why he was so sad.  If it was because his dreams had slipped away before he could get his hands around them one last time.  Unable to take that ride into the future he had promised himself when he was my age.  Lost potential, or something like that, I thought.

              But the questions I could have asked were swallowed by the PA announcement that my United flight to Denver would be boarding shortly. There was a sudden rush of movement and around me people grabbed coats and quickly paid bar tabs; hurrying to leave so they could stand in another line at the gate.  Desperate to be first in seats they already owned, as if that would get them where they were going that much sooner.  I took one final swallow from my bottle and gathered my economics book, stuffing it into the bag; knowing it wouldn’t be touched until I returned to Vermont.

              I got up to leave and stuck out a casual hand towards Hurley.

              Hurley looked at it for a moment – surprised by the suddenness of my departure, then took it in a hand that was large enough to engulf mineHe smiled and said, “I appreciate the time,” he said. Thanks for listening to an old guy bitch and complain.

              I smiled and gave a small nod.

He tightened his grip on my hand and held me at the table.  “Can I give you a little advice before you leave?”
I shrugged.  “Sure.”

Go enjoy yourself,” he said.  “You only get so many chances before they’re gone, and you don’t want to spend your life looking backwards.

He looked like he wanted to say more but the words never came.  I slung the bag over a shoulder and told him I would do my best to have fun, then eased my way out of the bar towards the gate.  I took one last look backwards - Hurley was sitting at the table, staring a hole in his Absolut while the Pistons trounced the Bulls on the screen above his head.  The waitress passed and he offered a smile and a quick comment; probably asking for one last drink before his own flight boarded.  I dug the boarding pass out of my jacket pocket and focused on the week ahead in Utah, already dreaming about the memories I would create with Marcia.

              That was the last time I saw my father.

              Hurley died two months later.  We exchanged a couple of text messages and had a brief conversation a few weeks after I returned from Utah, but like everything else between us, it was inconvenient and awkward.  I had been hurrying to class and he had been in between flights in another airport, on another trip, and neither one of us had time to talk.  There were vague, cursory promises to speak again but the time came and went like everything else we sharedHe died in a Marriott hotel room in downtown San Francisco, three days into another cross-country business tripThe woman Hurley had picked up at the hotel bar called the front desk when he collapsed in her bathroom, but there was nothing the EMT’s could do to revive him, no matter how hard they triedHis last trip home to New Jersey was in a coffin, tucked away in the underbelly of an American Airlines 737.

              There was nothing in his obituary about the dreams he once held or the unfulfilled promises left behind.  Only cold words in black and white that summed up his life in ways everyone expected.  Nothing about the disappointment he carried around with him or the sadness he could never shake.  Nothing that provided any insight into what he wanted – just a couple of lines about who he was, where he worked, and who was left to mourn him.  Nothing more about the son he had left behind years earlier when he walked away from that part of his life, and no mention of guilt or remorse about it.  Nothing about the things that had been left incomplete between us would remain that way, with no chance of resolution.

              I didn’t make it back for the funeral.

(c) 2010 ~ Author Kevin Michaels
First Run Exclusive ~ AT THE BIJOU

As you can well see, AUTHOR KEVIN MICHAELS is a strong quiet extraordinary voice in the way the world churns within and is seen from without. He blew me away with this story's choice of voice and then honoured me (and us) that AT THE BIJOU would be his first choice to debut the inherent sensations of this relationship (or lack of relationship) piece. It's haunting me still ~ the story, not Kevin.

Kevin speaks out in the upcoming collaborative synergy book, HARBINGER*33, from an inner perspective you'll simply have to see to feel. Watch for that ship-full of talent publication, but give it up for Author Michaels now . . . in just HOW his story made you feel.

I need to catch my 'gulp' before commenting. 

Kevin Michaels is everything New Jersey (attitude, edginess, and Bruce Springsteen . . . but not Bon Jovi). He is a writer and surfer who lives at the Jersey Shore. Past the depth of his perceptions he watches the waves breaking on the beach at his home in Asbury Park, until their beckon get him back out there on his board. Both Kevin and writing projects are on a  creative roll, banging out stories for publications, letting them roll in his prominent write-site, A COLD RUSH OF AIR, editing and revising yet again a few sections of his novel STILL BLACK REMAINS, finishing up other stories that have lingered far too long in the "drafts" file, and pushing through projects. There's always projects.

Of all the writers' theatre joints in all the cities in all the world, I'm so glad he sauntered into mine.

~ Absolutely*Kate
and the fine staff of renown




Pamila Payne said...

Quiet, but deep and very beautifully rendered.

Paul D Brazill said...

Wonderful work, Kevin.

Harry said...

Excellent piece Kevin!

Kate Pilarcik ~ absolutely said...

"Once you grew past the astronaut, cop, and fireman stage of adolescent dreams and desires ... " < Great lead-in for the way two troubled father and son psyches had to travel. Not just through O'Hare, but all the places that made what matters not fully there.

Kevin - where do you go inside yourself to bring out the unsettled soul? This choice of voice echoes the shadows the more. Superbly crafted from the tip tap type to how the feeling past a mere funeral - lingers on.

Such great phrasings:

"Memories, like long forgotten dreams came back in a rush of emotion and a hard punch to the chest, and in an instant I was just another ten year old kid on the street where I grew up."

"The bar was hot and loud, packed with travelers just like him, all of them on their way someplace else – making time with strangers and sharing stories. The kind of strangers who struck up meaningful conversations and dispersed wisdom and advice but were never around afterwards to know how things turned out."

SO VERY GLAD you brought this story home AT THE BIJOU ... and *yes*, when folks grasp their personal prized copy of HARBINGER*33 ... there's more to your tough genre writing they'll come to see.

~ Absolutely*Kate

Unknown said...


I always look forward to your work and this piece flows so well and captures so many elements. Great piece.

Kevin Michaels said...

Thanks all for your comments and feedback! I really appreciate it! As I noted to Kate, I was in a Pat Conroy sort of mood and I guess some of that came out....Thanks all!

Kate Pilarcik ~ absolutely said...

Ah Kevin, using your remarkable command of the language of life's heart to tell a story through the sifting of feeling. You're a prince amongst tides you are.

(Couldn't resist. Your moods and genres may vary in depth and grit, but your expressing dead on - whoops, pun there - is always superb.) Thank*you for this wonderful piece of non-peace, in the voice of 'another'. ~ Absolutely*Kate