Two years ago, my buddy Joe Garden put together an evening of John Hughes fan-fiction at Union Hall in Brooklyn, with the theme of “What Would the Lives of John Hughes’ Characters Be Like Today?”
I wrote and read the following. I posted it on my old blog, where it received thousands of views. A few months ago, a musician used A VERY SIMILAR IDEA for his web series. I hope that you enjoy it:
A legend had built up around Laren’s, how it came to be named. It was agreed that she was a woman, some said she was the wife of a famous blues musician, some said she was the girlfriend of a former Senator. All agreed that she’d died under mysterious circumstances, stabbed to death maybe in a jealous fit, or she had jumped off the Michigan Avenue Bridge only she hadn’t really jumped so much as been pushed by hired muscle, and the winds of Chicago winters still carried her scream, still haunted that Senator who had retired from politics and opened this bar before living memory and named it after the only woman he loved. Some said Frank behind the bar was that old blues singer, mourning his lost lady.
Of course, the truth is boring, while a legend is wild and strong and lives past it. Once upon a time it had been a cop bar called McLaren’s when the precinct house was still across the street, and them mick boys needed a place to drink after an eight hour shift of beating up on little black boys on the South Side. But the Irish always move on, and Frank had bought the place and had scratched out the Mc on the name of the bar, on every sign and every surface, saying, “This ain’t no mick bar no more.”
That had been a long time ago, and for years this had been our place. Where men could go and have a few after a long day working, sit in the dark and turn on the jukebox and swap lies for lies until one by one, we went home, those of us who had a home of quality to go to. Ernestine had been around then, God bless her, and I’d grumble that if I didn’t get home to choke down her poison she’d beat the black off me, but the truth was she was a damn good cook and had the prettiest goddamn eyes and she was a pretty righteous dancer, which is how we met when I come home from… but that’s not the story I wanted to tell you.
The Northwestern University kids had discovered Laren’s. An article in a magazine called it the classic Chicago dive bar, and now on weekends it was theirs. Most of the old crowd doesn’t go, but I’m retired, and I like to flirt with the pretty little blond girls, and the Japanese kids who come play jazz on Frank’s little stage are goddamn good besides. It’s crowded, and the little white kids are so polite when they come to order a drink, saying “Sir” and “Excuse me,” and Frank smiles and fetches their beer and overcharges ‘em two dollars on the beer and they don’t seem to know.
Sometimes a kid will be trouble, rude, drunk, high. And Frank smiles and overcharges them four, five dollars on the drink and watches ‘em to make sure they use his bathroom one at a time. And it was a Saturday night, when I’d bought a little girl who danced nice a drink, right in front of her boyfriend, who didn’t seem to notice or to mind, and ain’t that a benefit of being an old man. And the blond kid came to the bar. And he was strung out alright. And Frank served him his beer and watched him drift into the crowd, watched him whisper in an ear, a nod, a furtive glance around.
Frank is a big man gone to fat in the belly, with grey on the hair remaining. But he’s fat the way a bull is fat, all muscle and angry strength underneath. and he caught my eye and he knocked his fist on the bar, 1-2. And then he headed from behind the bar to turn some blond kid’s night around, and I knew what he’d meant. 1-2. And I smiled to myself. Knock 1-2.
There weren’t many blond boys hanging out in the bar at Laren’s back then, and we’d had a long argument one night about his age, some saying he was in his 40s and looking younger, some saying he was in his 20s and had walked a hard road. He was skinny, with bone and vein fighting for space on his arms, and I’d seen that scar, but hadn’t paid it no mind. I’m sure his legs were the same way. and his hair tended to drift every which way, and his eyes were old. Ancient. If you’d told me he was a ghost I’d have believed you, and if you’d told me he was possessed those eyes wouldn’t have said otherwise.
No one could say when he’d started coming around, but I can tell you that this skinny old scarecrow was better than a TV show for providing entertainment to a bar full of drunks. It always happened the same way. Random night, he’d walk in. Never no regular habit to it. Might be a Thursday, might be a Sunday, might disappear for months on end and then be there every night for weeks in a row. He’d sit on the farthest stool, and drink and listen, and drink, and listen. If he had money which was rarely, he’d drink a whiskey, a Wild Turkey maybe, or a Jameson, and if he was broke which was always, you’d buy him a Schlitz or a Pabst, and another, and another, and wait.
Because always, when he’d reached that magical amount of alcohol inside his brain, he’d interrupt the conversation, no matter what we was talking about. And he’d say, “Hey man, did I ever tell you about the Christmas where…?” And he’d launch into the crazy lie about the two men who haunted him.
Don’t get me wrong, the boy was haunted alright, and that’s no lie. But the stories he would tell, he was clearly pulling them from somewhere. And they was always the same, maybe a different detail here and there, but mostly the same. Not that we minded, not really. After a while, it turned into a call-and-response, a comedy choir with the blond kid with the ancient eyes playing lead.
“Did I ever tell you about the Christmas I was left home alone?” he’d say, and we’d leave off arguing about the Cubs versus the Sox, say, and someone would always say, “Shit, Kevin”–that was his name, Kevin–”tell us all about it.” And we’d put down our beers and we’d listen. It always started the same. He was the youngest of 5, or 7, or 9. Country Ed would nod gravely. “Sounds like your daddy got the job done.” And we’d toast to that. And Kevin would look at him and hear, but not hear you know? And keep talking.
And this Christmas, his parents took the entire family on vacation, and forgot to take him with. I mean, hell, I grew up the youngest of four, and sometimes my parents forgot to feed us, but you can bet they knew where I was at all times. But this white boy would then spin us the damndest yarn. Big house, nice furniture. Crazy old man roaming the streets. But it wasn’t until the second time through the story that Ed the Plumber really got to the heart of what had been bothering all of us.
The white boy was going through it again. Ed the Cop hadn’t heard the story yet, and we wanted to hear what he had to say. He had taken us through the part where he’d tried aftershave for the first time, and was eating junk food and watching gangster movies, and we were at the church and hearing them two boys planning to break into his house. “Ah,” said Ed the Plumber, “and now the two brothers enter the story.”
White boy looked at him confused. “They weren’t brothers,” he said, “I don’t think. They just worked together. They wanted to call themselves the Wet Bandits – “ And the look in Ed’s eye, I think the entire bar, which was hanging on this story all got the same idea at the same time. “No,” said Ed, putting his hand on Kevin’s shoulder to physically stop him telling this story. “They was brothers, right? You know… brothers. Your African American criminal types.”
The boy looked more confused, and shrank in himself, “No, they were white.” This stopped Frank. He was wiping a beer glass clean and I will never forget until my dying day the way he stopped and looked at Kevin. Frank is, as I say, a big man, and he was a lot leaner in them days, and a sight to stop a knife fight when he was in a mood, and this boy did not know, like a kitten watching the lights of an approaching train. I seen a surgery done on his pool table in the back in ‘82 and I seen him take a pair of bolt cutters to cut the hospital band off double-D’s wrist in ‘97 so’s he could go back to drinking after crashing his car, but the look on Frank’s face at that moment said, “This is the craziest shit that’s ever walked through these doors.”
He looked this Kevin in the eye and he said, “You’re telling me your neighbors was white.” “Yessir,” this kevin said. “And your neighborhood crazy was white.” “Yessir.” “And the two gentlemen who attempted to break and enter into your home with attempt to commit grand larceny were both white?” Kevin nodded, then stopped himself. “I believe one was Italian.”
Well, you had to laugh. “That must be the most expensive neighborhood in all of Chicago,” Frank whooped and he rang the bell over the bar which meant the next round was on him. When blondy stumbled out that night, we took to dissecting this story, and Ed the Cop said, “I don’t remember hearing about Wet Bandits, but there’s something about this story.” And Ed the Plumber said, “I don’t remember hearing about anyone big enough asshole to break into someone’s home to clog their toilets, but if you meet them, give me a call. Might be I can work them on commission.”
Well, as I said, the boy didn’t come in regular, but when he did, the story got crazier and Richard Pryor himself could not have asked for a better audience. In his story, he tortured them wet bandits, who got the names Harry and Marv. Marv was a tall, whiny, Jewish boy and Harry was a short, angry, Italian, and the kid would tell us about dropping shit on their heads, irons and paint cans, about setting them on fire, about shooting them in the nuts. One cold night he came in, dirty, skinny, smelling like he’d slept in the same clothes a few days, and missing a tooth in the back. That night, in his storytelling, he’d knocked out one of the Wet Bandits’ teeth, and I didn’t say nothing but I noticed, see.
And of course, there was the night when the boy said, “And of course, when they followed me to New York,” and we all stopped what we were doing and said, “What?” and he got this innocent look in his cracked blue eyes and said, “Well I told you about the Christmas my family forgot me and I ended up lost in New York City,” and of course we made him tell the story, and of course, it ain’t none of it made more sense than anything he’d said before. Tall Paul the Bus Driver caught it this time. It was around the time Kevin, I told you his name was Kevin, started talking about the Pigeon Lady, and Country Ed said, “You mean she was half-pigeon?” And the boy Kevin says, “No, she was homeless and she was always surrounded by pigeons,” and Country Ed said, “Well shit, I wish my wife was the chicken lady so I’d stop spending so much money on groceries.”
And Tall Paul looked at the boy Kevin and said, “And you’re going to tell me she was white, too.” And kevin nodded at him and said, “Yes! Why?” And Tall Paul put down his beer and looked at kevin and said, “You’re going to tell me you went to New York City and you stayed in a hotel and all of the staff was white, and you went to different stores and all the staff was white, and not once in New York City did you meet a single black person?” And Kevin nodded.
“I got a brother and four nephews in the Bronx and I know they live there because I got to buy Christmas presents and birthday presents for ‘em.” And that boy Kevin just stared. Tall Paul looked at me and said, “Well, shit, maybe I’m crazy. Am I white?” And we laughed and Frank rang the bell and somewhere in there, the New York story became the Chicago story and Kevin put them Wet Bandits through hell and back.
After a while, he stopped coming around, and it was around this time that Ed the cop retired and Tall Paul got religion and Ed the plumber had a heart attack and didn’t drink no more, and life has a habit of slowing and changing, and suddenly you’re standing in the same spot but facing in the other direction, and the boy Kevin was forgotten except among the old-timers as a “Do you remember,” kind of story to pass the time. I did see him one more time.
It was Christmas, and it was raining, and Chicago in December is no joke. Most everybody was home, but Ernestine had passed and our daughter was in London, and I was sitting in Laren’s with nowhere else to be, keeping Frank company. Some bars do big business on the holidays, and I guess Laren’s does now, with the college kids who can’t leave town, but back then it was me and Frank and a couple other people who were minding their own business and I was minding mine. The door opened and before I saw the blue eyes or the blond hair I knew who it was. Five foot seven, skinnier than he’d been in a while. If he’d once looked old for a young man, he now looked young for an immortal. His eyes were no longer haunted, they were ‘most empty now. He took the stool next to me, and normally in an empty bar I take that as an intrusion, but I could tell the boy needed to be near breathing human company, so I let it slide.
“Let me buy you a drink,” I said, and he just shook his head, “I got money,” and then he looked at Frank and said, “Wild turkey neat, double,” and then he sat, blankly, in communion with his reflection in the barroom mirror. Well, a few more of those and an hour later, I was finishing my beer, about to settle my tab, when the boy Kevin looked at me, and he said, “I told you about the time my family left me home alone on Christmas.”
I suppose I could have said No and gotten a full show. But something about the boy’s eyes that night, I knew that he knew what he was saying. So I nodded and said yes. Then he ordered another. I suppose I wanted to leave then, and I suppose I could say I was scared, because the boy had the energy that night of a man who could do anything at any time. But instead I ordered another beer, too, and halfway through his double, when he’d worked it back down to a single, the boy Kevin looked at me and said, “I got a job. I haven’t come around here lately because I got a job.” I nodded, and allowed as how that was nice.
“It was nice. It was a favor. A favor job. My social worker has a friend at the Lakeshore Nursing Home, janitor job. Nothing wrong with an honest job mopping floors.” I allowed as how that was nice, and he spit on the floor. Frank, he didn’t say nothing, he just watched that boy spit on the floor, but the look in Kevin’s eyes, I knew that Frank knew that he was letting that slide.
“It is nice,” he said. “Thought it would be old people but it’s not that kind of nursing home. Quiet. Lot of crazy people there. Not crazy. Damaged. Like a halfway home for the mentally incapacitated. Rich people send their damaged kids…” and he trailed off and he looked at his glass and whatever it said to him must have made him sad because he drained it in one swallow and a sigh. Frank refilled it without being asked.
“When they came for me,” he said, “When they broke into my home, on Christmas Eve, I brained ‘em. I brained ‘em good. In the cartoons I watched.” He drank. “In them Looney tunes, you knock a man out dropping an iron on his head, he gets up with cartoon birds chirping and he gets back to work. But the one guy, I knocked him on the head with the iron, 1-2… 1-2, and he was down and the other one, he saw what I done, and he got out a big nasty buck knife, and he looks at me with murder in his eyes. Murder. I don’t remember getting up, I just remember running, up the stairs. Locking myself in the bathroom. He screamed… I can’t believe none of the neighbors didn’t hear the screams. Or the knocking down the door. He cut me…” and here he rolled back the sleeve of his shirt and showed us a scar ran along the length of his arm, from wrist to elbow. “And he cut me.” And the boy lifted his shirt, showed us a snow-white belly with a scar, it ran all the way down under his belt.
“And the third cut I grabbed the knife. He was a grown man but I was scared, like scared strong, you know? I grabbed it, and I… and I tried to flush the knife after. The cops came and said I’d done nothing wrong, it was self-defense. The other one, he lived, if you call that living. His parents had money, I guess. Enough to hire a lawyer and they sued my parents and they got the house. Everything changed,” he said.
Just then, there was a burst of laughter from the group in the back, and it was a jolt back into the world, and it felt profane, like swearing in a church on Sunday. But the boy Kevin, he didn’t hear. He was buried a thousand miles deep in the dirt.
“I was in the nursing home today, and I was sent to bring a bedpan to a room on the long-term care floor. Most of my work was short-term, because that’s where you get guys pissing the bed, the floor, themselves. But I brought this bedpan into this room. Brain damage, I could see that. Permanent brain damage. Struck on the head with a blunt object and left incapacitated, unable to fend for himself, without the wits to ties his shoes. Drooling in bed, an idiot grin on his face, and the worst part was, when he looked at f c, for a split second I swear he knew who I was. And it ‘most knocked me down, 1-2. 1-2.”
And he drained his glass, and he put on his coat, and he walked out into the night. And Frank waited a second, and in the quiet of that moment he said, “Shit, he didn’t pay his tab.” And I said, “Well, might be I can cover him. How much did he owe?” And Frank said, “Forty-seven dollars,” and I said, “Forty-seven dollars? You better go catch him then.” And Frank laughed and he rang the bell and he said, “The last ten rounds were on me.”