Authors: Colin Dodds
by Colin Dodds
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission of the author.
This book is dedicated to the memory of Joseph Earnest Martin
May 25, 1977—May 25, 2007
Part One—Out of Hand
Several other nearby towns seemed to have better prospects than Worcester. Fitchburg, Southbridge, Oxford, Webster, Rutland and Charlton all had superior water sites. The Brookfields boasted more desirable land. Westborough and Northborough had better potential access to the coast. Yet it was Worcester, with none of these natural assets, that developed the manufactories that produced goods and wealth in amounts sufficient to attract thousands of immigrants from all over Europe. It was Worcester that, by 1980, had become the second largest city in New England.
Nothing came easy to Worcester. It had to develop its early industries without the help of major waterfalls. Since it was not on a navigable waterway, it had to build, at great expense, a canal along the Blackstone River all the way to the sea. Since it had no natural access to Boston, it had to build a road, including a bridge across Lake Quinsigamond. In its search for energy sources other than wood, it could only find an inferior type of coal to mine.
In some ways, the rise of Worcester to its current metropolitan and industrial status is not easy to explain.
—Margaret A. Erskine
Heart of the Commonwealth: Worcester
Tuesday, December 23
Traffic was heavy, and a thick fog rose from the melting snows on the highways between New York and Massachusetts. It was two days before Christmas and a week before Dad’s surgery. I was driving up for the holiday and the surgery, and planned to stay in Massachusetts for longer than any time since I was seventeen.
The drive up had the quality of a voluntary return to prison. I paid the toll and left the Mass Pike, following the highway into Worcester. I had no idea what was coming next. Not for my dad, my old friends still in town, or for myself. Still, I punched the rental car radio hard enough that the green digital display went black. I didn’t know a thing about death, and held to the story that the trip would be a routine interruption in my life. Still, I sought to dawdle, and took the long way to Westborough, going through Worcester.
Driving down Interstate 290, the city of Worcester came up fast, everything full of memory. First came a Polar Cola billboard above the warehouses and silver tanks full of soda. Usually, a big inflated polar bear smiled at the traffic from the billboard. But it wasn’t there that day, and I hoped it wasn’t gone for good. Then the highway shimmied in an S-curve around the Holy Cross football stadium, where I’d played Thanksgiving football games in the cold mud.
Past that was a gap. There used to be a sign:
Every Great City Has At Least One College. Worcester Has Ten
. It listed all the schools. They’d painted the sign on a derelict warehouse with cork insulation in its walls. And a few years back, a pair of derelicts burned it down. The fire took a handful of Worcester firefighters with it. It was a big tragedy, and I guess it still is.
On the radio, Bruce Springsteen sang
Born to Run
. He’d opened a big tour at the Worcester Centrum when I was a kid. Some national magazine wondered aloud why he’d chosen to open the tour in “a burned out mill town.” I remember people in Worcester being angry at the description back then.
Worcester’s unheralded skyline came around the curve, dominated by a big, glass bank building and a high-rise apartment building that never quite caught on. I took the Vernon Street exit, by a leprechaun hat the size of a shed, and I called Joe.
“What the fuck is your problem, dude?” one of them shouted back across Highland Street.
“You’re an ugly fucking pussy is my problem,” Joe shouted.
“Fuck you, faggot,” the guy across the street shouted back.
The yeller had two friends with him, neither of whom looked particularly riled in the orange parking-lot light. The guy was just reading from a script written for him when he was eleven or twelve. And Joe was reading from a script written by the better part of a liter of Jack Daniels.
Before I could interrupt, Joe was walking his six-foot-two, 250-pound self across the street. I had no choice but to follow. Joe’s ponytail bobbed with the spring in his step. The situation wasn’t new. Sometimes I could defuse it. Sometimes, too drunk to know better, Joe was also too drunk to fight. Then I’d just break it up after he hit the ground a few times. Sometimes I’d have to throw and take punches.
It was too cold for this shit and we were too old for this shit, I muttered. The offending parties waited in a parking lot that Chinese takeout place shared with a three-decker. Joe seemed sober enough to handle himself, though drunk enough to fight on a whim. One of the guys in the parking lot gave a short shout—someone’s name. And as we crossed the sidewalk, a door above the parking lot slammed and a big, bald guy with a long, red goatee came bounding down a flight of outside stairs to the parking lot. The bald guy was ready to go, readier than any of us, bouncing on the balls of his feet with his hands up, like a prizefighter.
“What the fuck, huh? You got a problem with my boys? You ready? You want to get fucked up?”
“What? Huh? No, man, no, there’s no problem,” Joe said, backing right down, laughing at himself. The guys in the parking lot seemed relieved that it wasn’t going to happen.
“Hey, I’m Joe, Joe Rousseau. What’s up?” Joe said, putting out his hand to the bald guy. The bald guy bounced for a moment, then decided not to press the issue. Then we all started laughing at the absurdity of the fight, and of Joe.
The parking lot guys introduced themselves and started talking with us about people we knew in common, places we’d hung around, high schools attended, and a dozen other connections implicit in Worcester. After five minutes, amity settled over us. It made a kind of sense. Joe’s unfocused rage was common as the air in that town, and his wild audacity broke up the monotony. He was a friend the parking lot guys could appreciate. The almost-fight had already become nothing more than an anecdote about a crazy drunk, and a scary bald guy in a parking lot. And me, I wouldn’t figure much in subsequent retellings, except as the guy with Joe Rousseau, the crazy drunk.
Joe and I said glad good-byes to the parking lot guys and went into Tortilla Sam’s to get on with our plan of using chicken wings to transmute drunkenness into sleep. Most people had the next day off, and the bars had been full. The faces in the bars each had the history that hangs around everyone who hangs around long enough.
At one particularly noisy bar, I yelled an apology to a guy named Gabe I’d picked on rather viciously in junior high school. I bought him a drink and he forgave me for my abuses. I told him about my life in New York. And he fed me a line of shit about how he, a now-obese guy in a motorcycle jacket, had become a world-class martial artist who dominated the secret cage-match circuit until he chose to retire—a decision which the highly displeased crime bosses of Tokyo had no choice but to accept. Gabe hadn’t changed much since the eighth grade. I excused myself before I did or said anything that would undo my apology.
“He was a cage fighter about the same time I was Surgeon General,” Joe said, talking about Gabe. “I see him all the time. I think he graduated Worcester State last year. He’s a bouncer sometimes at Irish Times.”
“I’m just glad I got that off my chest. I always hated how I treated that kid.”
“Remember that school trip, when you punched him in the face because he was crying because I put bug spray in his sleeping bag and then said he pissed it?”
“Yeah. I think that was included in my apology.”
“You sure were a prick.”
“Hey, we can’t all be saints like you.”
The waitress brought wings. One by one, Joe put a whole wing in his mouth, closed his mouth over it and pulled his head back. His knuckles turned white and his forehead veins bulged as he wrestled the meat off the bones.
Joe was part French Canadian and part Iroquois. The latter part dominated his face. His nose was broad and his eyes big. He couldn’t grow a beard if he wanted to, and his mouth seemed too big for his face, especially when he smiled his wild, open-mouthed smile.
“Hey, what happened to the big Polar Cola polar bear over 290?” I asked.
“The Holy Cross kids must have taken it. They usually do it this time of year.”
“Oh, good. I was afraid the Polar Cola people took it down.”
“The big bear? They would never take that down.”
“You never know. I mean, look at Spag’s. That place was an institution, and now it’s gone.”
“It’s still open,” Joe said, pulling chewing chicken meat and cartilage.
“But not as Spag’s. When I was up last summer, I saw they even painted over where his name was written in roof tiles. I can understand them taking the neon picture of Spag’s face off the front of the store. Changing the name of the store might even make some sense. But why bother painting over his name on the roof? Did it confuse anyone? Did it upset anyone?”
“It just doesn’t belong to Spag anymore,” Joe said, shrugging.
“See? That’s what I mean. People don’t need a good reason to get rid of something. So my fear that some callous corporate vizier of a regional soft drink dynasty had removed the big inflated Polar Cola polar bear was not totally out of whack.”
“Fine, my brother, I pronounce you not totally out of whack. You may go in peace,” Joe said, making the sign of the cross in the air with a chicken bone.
“Speaking of out of whack—that guy who attacked you here, with the chair, what happened to him?”
“Who, Matt O’Brien?”
“Yeah, your latest nemesis …”
“Yeah, I hate that fucking guy. I heard he got out of jail around Thanksgiving. He was away for about a year. I told you about that, right?” Joe said and I shrugged. “It was this guy from down in Great Brook Valley—O’Brien carved his initials in his face at a party.”
Since we met in the fifth grade, Joe always had an arch-enemy in his life. It gave a shape to the days. But in the fifth grade, his nemesis was just a popular kid on the soccer team.
“And they let this guy out?” I asked.
“I guess he pled it down to simple assault or something.”
“This was the same guy you kept calling at two in the morning to tell him he was a worthless pile of rat turds?”
“I know, right?” Joe said, and started laughing. His laugh was staccato and out of control, like a happy seizure. It rolled over him and then me until my face and stomach were sore.
“You really know how to pick a nemesis,” I said in between laughs.
“Do you know what he’s doing for a living now that he’s out?” Joe choked out.
holds horses’ mouths open
for a living, for veterinary dentists. And it gets even better,” Joe said, talking, laughing, eating chicken wings and half choking from the effort of doing all of them at once.
“You mean better than beating you into the hospital with a chair, carving his initials into some guy’s face and holding open horses’ mouths for a living?”
“Yeah, it’s nuts. He has ‘
’ tattooed on his lower back.”
“Who is that even addressed to?”
“I guess it’s for whoever is sodomizing him in jail.”
“At least he was thinking ahead,” I said, and Joe laughed until his head touched the table.
We finished the wings and then drove down to Main South to an afterhours place. Joe was looking for this black girl he emphatically wanted to sleep with. She wasn’t there, but we stayed for a few whiskey shots out of tiny plastic cups. Under the unmoving and unlit disco ball, I watched Joe hit on a hefty Irish girl. The depth and breadth of his libido was always impressive. Eventually, her friend, a bedraggled looking Spanish girl, dragged her away, but not before she had given Joe her phone number.