Book Review: Catching Bullets by Mark O’Connell

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Book Review: Catching Bullets by Mark O’Connell

Reviewed by Jack Lugo

The idea of writing a memoir of watching your favorite film series may strike some people as an odd exercise, yet Mark O’Connell’s book succeeds  not only as a document of his James Bond fandom but also as his personal life story.   Many have heard of the saying “you are what you eat.” Well after reading this book, one might come away with the conclusion that “you are what you enjoy” or more accurately “what you enjoy is what ultimately shapes you.”  Ever since he watched Octopussy starring Roger Moore as James Bond at the age of nine, O’Connell knew that he was a Bond fan.  The fact that O’Connell’s grandfather, Jimmy, happened to be the personal chauffeur to Cubby Broccoli (founder of EON) was icing on the cake and certainly solidified O’Connell’s personal connection to the franchise.

The insight O’Connell brings as a fan to the Bond film franchise is bolstered by the fact that he doesn’t attempt to approach the series the way other fan guides do.  Most Bond fan guides examine each film chronologically going into details about each film with an attempt at remaining objective. O’Connell instead takes a totally subjective approach by recalling each film in the order in which he viewed them starting with his boyhood viewings of these films mostly on British television growing up in Cranleigh, England.  Though these TV broadcasts were mostly censored and cut versions of the films, O’Connell recalls with gusto how he recorded these broadcasts on VHS tapes while attempting to cut out the commercials, which is certainly an activity readers who grew up in the 80s and 90s could recall doing.

The childhood stories in this book are very relatable and often times full of wit and humor.  In one early chapter he recalls his Catholic school teacher, Mr. McCarthy, who would recite Psalm 23 directly at disruptive students.  So, when a young Mark O’Connell thought it was safe to ask whether the teacher had seen the broadcast of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” the previous night, Mr. McCarthy’s only reply was “The Lord is my Shepard, Mark O’Connell, there is nothing I shall want . . .” It’s impossible not to sympathize with O’Connell as I think everyone at some point has had moments similar to that when you think maybe another person might share your enthusiasm for something only to be shot down.

O’Connell went many steps further cementing his childhood obsession with the franchise creating his own Roger Moore posters and imagining a life with Maud Adams, his favorite Bond girl.  In fact, for many years, O’Connell would use Maud Adams as his “straight shield” whenever he needed to cite an actress he had an attraction for in conversation. The irony of a gay young man becoming a fan of the very heterosexual character of James Bond isn’t lost on O’Connell, yet from the very beginning of his introduction to the franchise it is his fandom that helps shape a huge part of his identity as he became an adult and forged his own writing career in British television.

The book gets even more interesting as it gets into O’Connell’s older years as he attains some success writing screenplays that were produced for television.  His wit shines throughout the book.  At one point he recalls how he gave an interview about one of his screenplays in his childhood bedroom which was still adorned with 007 posters. O’Connell brilliantly writes, “I just let the man come into my bedroom, ask some questions and take his photos. And that’s the last time I will ever use that sentence.” The humor in this book is often very inspired, and there are many times when I literally laughed out loud.

There are also many times when the book reminded me of my own childhood fandom / obsessions and how I’ve come to cherish certain memories from that period of time. Unlike O’Connell my childhood could quite possibly be defined by my love for Star Trek.  I didn’t really become a James Bond fan until I was older.  Like O’Connell though, I came into Star Trek long after the franchise had been established and just as Roger Moore may have been a “second best James Bond” to many people who still loved Sean Connery’s portrayal, my love for Star Trek began with Star Trek: The Next Generation and Captain Picard has been and always will be the ultimate captain of the Starship Enterprise at least to me.  James Bond and Star Trek hold some similarities despite appearing quite disparate on the surface.  Both are franchises that have spanned the length of many decades with multiple generations of fans and both have had to reinvent themselves to remain current and relevant for modern audiences.

I remember recording the episodes on VHS tapes similar to how O’Connell recorded the ITV broadcasts of the Bond films, and I spent many, many hours watching and re-watching all of my favorite episodes.  It was a period in my life that I enjoyed immensely despite the fact that many might perceive it to have been a waste of time.  As that series concluded and gave way to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in my high school years, a new Star Trek series gained my loyalty and attention with its brilliant writing boldly eschewing the episodic format that most shows had at the time and focusing instead on character development and multiple story arcs.  I could remember the excitement I felt as each new episode aired continuing the story of the Dominion War and Captain Sisko’s struggle to balance the duty he had as a Starfleet Officer and his role as an Emissary to the Bajoran people.

Perhaps not everyone could relate to the kind of fascination and obsessions that many people have for various franchises like James Bond or Star Trek.  It’s not in everyone’s DNA to immerse themselves into the world of an international spy with a sexy alluring woman for each new adventure or a Starfleet Captain intent on “boldly going where no one has gone before.” For many of us, however, the things we enjoyed as children continue to find new ways to entertain us as we become adults.  While the level of obsession may perhaps dissipate, these cherished memories of fandom will always remain a part of who we are and might even work their way into our creative output as we tap into our own imaginations.  With Catching Bullets, Mark O’Connell has achieved something very unique and very rare.  He managed to not only recount his fandom and insights into his favorite franchise, he also told a story that is very personal and uniquely his, which I think many readers could relate to regardless of how well versed they are with the James Bond franchise.  It was lots of fun reading it and it sparked many good memories.  I highly recommend it to anyone who can relate to experience of being a fan.

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A Song for Her

The subway doors closed with their usual carelessness while Ken sat and listened to his music dreaming of her.  They could only be together within the confines of a song’s fantasy, but perhaps that was all he needed.  Either way, he had to learn to be content with a life that wouldn’t permit him to get to know her properly.  Dreams are almost always better anyway, he figured as he let himself get lost within the lyrics of the song like an old poem. “The downtown trains are full / Full of all them Brooklyn girls / They try so hard to break out of their little worlds,” he sang to himself internally. At 1AM it hardly mattered if he sang aloud as he was the only one in the subway car, but proclamations of love were never quite the type of thing that emboldened him.  Come to think of it, not much else did.  He lived by a motto that suggested that one should be content with his life even if he isn’t.  Some might say it’s cowardly to live that way, but sometimes a good love song alone could make him feel like he could conquer the world, capture the heart of the woman of his dreams, and ride away in some sort of Don Quixote –inspired glory out into the sunset with a new love that would inspire him for the rest of his remaining days.  For a period of less than 4 minutes, Ken believed the love he had for Lizzie would be boundless and he had faith in that life he lived inside that song.

Winter would be brutal.  The snowfall alone so far had made it one to remember.  As they parted ways earlier, he had hoped only that she would get to home safely and stay warm.  As it is, he himself enjoyed the warmth that the subway car provided and dreaded the prospect of having to leave it once he reached his destination.  That would be a long way off though.  For now there was just him, “Downtown Train” by Tom Waits, and his dreams of Lizzie and what she might be like if he were allowed to know her.  The frustration that he may never get to properly know the woman of his dreams sometimes got to him, but as long as he had her in his mind as the music played that would have to be enough.

It wouldn’t be a wise thing to make a move on the boss’s wife even if he could tell that little love existed between the two.  No, that was one marriage that Ken could never see ending.  Vinnie would sooner have her killed rather than let her off with another man and Ken was a low level underling at that so everyone would be gunning for him at the drop of a dime if that’s what it came to. No, all he could do was dream and love from afar so that’s what he’d do.  Besides, bad things happened to people who chased their dreams, got greedy, and decided to act on them especially in this business.  Though Ken found himself in love, he knew that love didn’t necessarily conquer all – not bullets anyway.  Cupid’s arrow was no match for a .45 caliber semi-automatic fired by on behalf of Vinnie Calabrese.

He valued his own life too much to act on his most paramount desire despite the fact he thought maybe he stood a chance if the circumstances were different.  That very night after the near fatal collision, she had come ever so close to asking him for a kiss.  Just as he leaned in, he could hear a car pull-up and sure enough it was one of Vinnie’s goons prepared to take Lizzie home leaving Ken to get himself home by subway.  He could tell Lizzie was shaken, and Ken almost forgot himself as he was about to suggest waiting for the ambulance prior to recalling just who would be involved.  The civilians from the other car seemed alright as they watched Ken and Lizzie leave the scene of the accident with petulant incredulity.  What did it matter anyway?  It’s not as if Ken was driving his own car?  It would take time but once it was discovered that he was behind the wheel of a stolen vehicle, Ken knew it would be best not to face any questions.  Still, Ken was deeply concerned with the bruise on Lizzie’s head.

For now there was only the music in his ears and his dreams of Lizzie that danced around in his head and that would be fine.   That was all he needed.  Perhaps he should have been hoping that the cell phone of the man in the other car failed to record video of his face; perhaps he should have been hoping that Vinnie’s rage would fail to peak as he heard the news of his wife involved in a serious car accident.  “Who was that idiot behind the wheel again,” Vinnie would shout to one of his goons.  Ken would be lying to himself if he didn’t admit that these little things didn’t poke into his mind occasionally as the music played.  Still, this was his time with Lizzie.  This was his time to imagine what it would’ve been like to completely lean in and kiss her.  This was his time to imagine a world without men like Vinnie and his goons, a world where he and Lizzie were free to get more acquainted, fall in love, and have a future together.

The next song he played was “Wildflowers” by Tom Petty.   Ken close his eyes and the lyrics swam around in his mind.  He saw himself on a boat somewhere off in an imaginary sea with Lizzie beside him baiting some hooks.  She smiled that wide smile of hers, the one she rarely let anyone else see. Ken only first noticed it the first time he met her.  He had come around to Paulie’s place to drop off his collections when he noticed Vinnie and Lizzie sitting at the kitchenette drinking some coffee.  Lizzie looked bored to tears.  Her dark hair sat pleasantly on her shoulders and framed her face just perfectly for him.  Though she wore hardly any make up, her natural beauty was enough to captivate his imagination. Paulie had called over to him to take the kettle and refill Lizzie’s mug, and as he walked over to her he felt the rest of the room fade away just as it always did in the movies. His eyes had then met hers at a casual glance, but later on that night his memory had been triggered by this Tom Petty song.   “Run away, find you a lover / Go away, somewhere all bright and new / I have seen no other /Who compares with you.”

That night and every night since, Ken dreamt of Lizzie.  Nothing overtly sexual would happen in his dreams.  He dreamt they’d take the subway together and talk and laugh and just enjoy each other’s company.   They’d maybe catch a game when the weather was nice or see a show or go out for some clams by the beach on Coney Island and just walk the boardwalk without a care in the world.  Even though he hardly knew her, he felt the connection between them had been strong enough for something more to flourish if only life had been slightly different.

In reality, she probably barely even noticed him until that night.  That night he was given the task of driving her home from one of Vinnie’s clubs.  Vinnie had one of his important late night deals to be made and had to stay behind for one of his clandestine nefarious business meetings.  At least that’s what he made it look like.  For all Ken knew, maybe Vinnie had gone off to be with his goomar.  Ken had no idea which one of these possible scenarios was true nor did it matter. All he knew was that he’d be alone in a Mercedes with Lizzie.  Ken knew the score. He knew the car he’d be driving in would be stolen.  That’s was Vinnie’s business after all, and there’s no way Vinnie would want some low level guy driving his wife home in a humble Buik.  No, it had to be a Mercedes.  Truthfully, Ken felt Lizzie deserved no less.

Lizzie came out of the club wearing her brown heavy leather coat as snowflakes whirled around her lovely brown hair.  Like a gentleman, Ken got out and charmingly opened the passenger side back seat door for her taking her hand to assist her getting into the vehicle.  Ken was wearing his best suit, a grey one with pinstripes that made him look like a Wall Street executive.  He had received the call just 45 minutes ago to drive into Manhattan to Vinnie’s club on the Upper West Side and pick up his wife to drive her back home to Brooklyn.  There was important business to be done and no one else had been around to drive her. Vinnie’s regular driver needed to stay behind for Vinnie while Ken had held on to the red Mercedes he had borrowed running an errand earlier that day.   This is my big opportunity, thought Ken.  He knew he couldn’t exactly profess his feelings for her, but he could at least count on some time alone with her.  He could take in her beauty looking in on her through the rear view mirror smelling the perfume that would radiate throughout the car, and perhaps even have a meaningful conversation with her that didn’t involve refilling her coffee mug.   The stage would be set for him to be with the woman of his dreams, and Ken believed nothing could ruin it.

Ken could tell Lizzie was tired as she yawned a big yawn seconds after getting into the car.

“How was your evening?” asked Ken.

Lizzie sighed, “These places tire me out.  I pretend to enjoy them for Vinnie when truthfully I’d rather be home alone snuggling with a good book.”

“I know what you mean.  I’m not much of a club person myself.  Just relax and I’ll get you home.”

“Ah shit!”

“What’s wrong?”

“I left my keys in the club.”

“Should I turn back?”

“No, keep driving but take it slow.  I’ll have someone come and follow us.”

Ken listened as Lizzie reached someone at the club.  The person on the other end said they’d have someone drive the same route and that they’d either meet up in front of the house or stop somewhere so Lizzie could get her keys.  Ken enjoyed the sound of Lizzie voice.  It neither was the high-pitch shrill of the other men’s wives nor was it that stereotypical mobster wife sultry mess of a tone you sometimes get in the movies.  It had just the right tone to be unwittingly seductive exuding guilelessness that could only be genuine.  He imagined himself listening to her talk to him, and it didn’t matter what words she used, whatever she said would sound just right.  Ken imagined that Lizzie could be a singer if she wanted to.  Perhaps the show business life would be less kind to her than Vinnie, but at least she’d have some kind of freedom.

The brisk night air could be felt despite the heat on in the vehicle.  The snow started to come down more heavily, and the city streets were soon coated in a sheet of whiteness.  The windshield wipers dutifully kept the snow from obscuring Ken’s view, but nothing could prevent him from dreaming.  He had ran out of things to say and felt content enough to let Lizzie rest as her eyes lacked their usual flare of energy.

“You mind if I put on some music?” asked Ken.

“Sure, go ahead,” said Lizzie.

“I got this song stuck in my head and I just need to hear it.”

“What song is that?”

“Downtown Train –  the Tom Waits version.”

“It’s a beautiful song but I’ve only heard Rod Stewart sing it.”

“You have to hear Tom Waits sing it.  There’s just the right sense of loss and yearning behind it.  The Rod Stewart version is a bit syrupy.”

“I know what you mean,” said Lizzie, “Put it on.”  As she said this, that’s when Ken saw that rare wide smile of Lizzie’s. It told him she was genuinely interested.  She was no longer in that sleepy fog as she fixed her hair and leaned forward from the back seat towards the middle of the front of the car next to Ken.

Ken took out his phone and cued up the song while sitting at a red light.  The song started just as the light turned to green.  The opening guitar line chirped like a morning bird as the Mercedes drove off.  Tom Waits’ guttural voice came on soft and low, “Outside another yellow moon / has punched a hole in the night time mist.” Ken could feel Lizzie’s elbow against his bicep as he glanced over and saw her close her eyes and listen.

Tom Waits crooned on, “I climb through the window and down to the street / I’m shining like a new dime / The downtown trains are full / Full of all them Brooklyn girls / They try so hard to break out of their little worlds”  Just then, Ken could hear Lizzie let out a sigh and she whispered, “That’s me.”

He could hardly believe he established this kind of connection with Lizzie.  It was almost as if he had discovered a secret language to speak to her with.  The music he played would speak to her heart from his very own, and who knows what would come of it as there would be no way for her to leave Vinnie putting both their lives at risk, but at least their souls could figuratively sing to each other in the quiet moonlight in this very car on this very night.  He already decided that he wouldn’t kiss her even if she wanted to.  The music would be enough for him.  In a way, these lyrics and the way she took them in with her eyes closed and her full attention on the song, knowing that the song he played spoke to her very soul, in a way . . . in a way that was far more intimate than a kiss or even anything that might physically come afterwards.

Just before the chorus came on for a final time, she asked, “Ken, would you please play that song for me again after this is over.”

“Of course, anything you ask.”

Then after a pause she added, “I want you to drive fast.”

“But it’s snowing and –“

“Shut that mouth of yours and do as I ask, drive and drive fast.  I want to feel my heart race.”

Ken hesitated for a minute.   The next intersection seemed far enough so that he might be able to provide her with a brief thrill if that was all she wanted. He looked at her, and just then she kissed him on the cheek and said, “Drive.”

Ken put his foot on the accelerator and sped down towards the next intersection as Tom Waits gruffly wound down his song, “Will I see you tonight on a downtown train / All my dreams, all my dreams fall like rain / On a downtown train /On a downtown train.”  The light changed from green to red just as Ken thought he might have been able to make it.  He panicked putting his foot on the brakes only to have the brakes lock and the car continue to swerve towards the intersection.  Lizzie had her eyes closed seemingly relishing in the vehicle’s temporary loss of control.  Ken put his arm across to the seat next to him. He could feel her body crashing into his arm surging forward as the impact of the other car spun the car around. Instinctively, he pushed her body back towards the back seat preventing Lizzie from flying forward.

Her mouth opened wide as she landed back in her seat.  They stared at each other in shock.  With the car now still and the ringing in his ears starting at full force, he climbed in the back seat next to her and asked her if she was okay.  Her head had snapped forward into the headrest of the front passenger seat.  Ken could see a blue bruise on her head.  She looked at him tearfully and said, “I think I’m alright.  What happened?”

All Ken could think of to say as he held her shoulder awkwardly was, “I think I was driving too fast.”

Lizzie blinked a few times in a disoriented manner and then said, “That’s right I told you to drive fast.  I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.  I’m just glad you’re alright,” said Ken.

Her eyes composed themselves and she looked at Ken endearingly.  Ken held her face in his hand, and just as they both closed their eyes, Ken could hear the car pulling up behind them.  As he was about to lean in to kiss her, a knock came on the window.  It was Nicky, one of Vinnie’s goons.  They got out of the Mercedes and it was agreed Nicky would take her the rest of the way home since no one was seriously hurt.

As he walked away, Ken could hear Lizzie ask, “What about Ken?”

“Let ‘em take the train, whaddayou care anyway?”

Then, Ken remembered his phone in the car.  He ran back to the Mercedes and grabbed the phone, which had somehow landed on the dashboard.  Most would believe he went back for his phone so that the police wouldn’t have that as evidence against him, but only Ken knew he went back for his phone for the music. He noticed the guy in the other car point his own cell phone at him knowing it might lead to no good but decided to do nothing. Ken never saw himself as the threatening type despite the nature of his work.  Besides, a violent outburst would be unbecoming of his noble love for Lizzie.  He listened as the stranger in the other car involved in the accident protested and yelled for him to get back to the scene of the accident blathering on about insurance information and police and ambulances.  None of that stuff mattered to him.  Even if he had been fatally injured, Ken had a hard time believing that any of it would matter even then.  All that mattered was Lizzie and his dreams of her and the music that allowed him to visualize her and the two of them together.

He laughed to himself as he got into the subway car. He sat down, played the Tom Waits song again, and imagined another lifetime in another world where he and Lizzie could be together.  As the song began he thought to himself, Maybe . . . just maybe . . . Lizzie will be one of those Brooklyn girls breaking out of her little world and perhaps I’ll even see her tonight on a ‘Downtown Train.’  Inside the length of one song, Ken even fully believed he’d see her once again on the train that very night.

The End.

Author’s Note:  This short story is a work of fiction inspired by some music as many of my stories are. For the sake of anyone who wants to hear the Tom Wait’s version of the song Downtown Train, here’s the youtube video:

A Christmas Crush

It was his Junior Year of High School and Sharon Mulvaney was all Todd could think about. I wish I could just tell her how I feel but I know she’d just reject me, he’d think to himself, and yet ever since the first day of school this year when Sharon introduced himself to him in the hallway outside of English class with that small but clever smile across her face he knew he had fallen and fallen deep. Today would be the last day of class before Christmas Break, and he’d have the perfect opportunity to express how he felt about her. Would she even notice though? For English class, Ms. Dempsey assigned everyone to write a love poem. They had been studying poetry for the last few weeks reading Ralph Waldo Emerson, Rumi, Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson. For the final assignment of the year Ms. Dempsey thought they should write their own poem and that the theme should be love – any kind of love whether it be romantic love, love of one’s parents, love of a friend, or any expression of feeling that could be classified as love. Most other boys would play it safe and write about how much they loved their moms or their dads. Finn Kubrick wrote about how much he loved his Super Nintendo Entertainment System and everyone had a good chuckle even Ms. Dempsey. The woman may have been in her early 50s, but all those years refused to transform her into that stern rigid school teacher stereotype. She’d laugh at a good joke if a student made one but neither was she an “easy A.”

As Todd waited for his turn, he reflected on all his previous brief yet meaningful interactions with Sharon. There were the couple of times they were paired together for projects in other classes, the times they’d pass each other in the hallway and he’d nervously say “hi,” perhaps staring a bit too long as she’d walked by him with that confident stride of hers. There was that time when they almost sat together for lunch and were in close enough proximity to carry on a conversation, which mainly consisted of school and the pop-up science quiz of the day. There was just something about Sharon that he couldn’t explain that conjured all these complicated emotions inside of him. The warmth that emanated from her brown eyes transfixed him at times rendering him motionless or at the very least fumbling for the right words to say. The Van Morrison song, “Brown-Eyed Girl,” played in his head from time to time even though he hadn’t been a big Van Morrison fan nor had he particularly liked the song before he met Sharon. His feelings for Sharon, however, shed a whole new light on that song for Todd and became something of a pleasant ear worm for him. Unlike the other girls, Sharon hardly wore any makeup and she dressed quite plainly with simple small earrings that failed to dangle from her ears, which went against the current trend the other teenaged girls were happy to follow. Sharon was also very smart. She’d get A’s on practically every test and every quiz. She wasn’t shy to participate in class often shedding light on some of the books they had read for English that year. She was the only one in the class to note the sadness and longing of characters like Jay Gatsby or Boo Radley often times coming up with the wisest observations, ones that hadn’t even occurred to him as he read those very same books.

Maybe it was the way she’d sometimes look at him as if there was an unspoken understanding, as if maybe if he’d approach her at just the right time, maybe it would lead to something more. During his more rational moments, Todd would shrug off this fixation on Sharon as nothing but a delusional fantasy. Besides, what could she possibly see in a shy boy who mostly kept to himself with nothing to really set him apart from the other boys in the class? Sure, he considered himself to be smart though not as smart as her. Sure, maybe he wasn’t the worst looking boy of the lot although he was far from being the best looking boy at the same time. For all his intense emotions about her, however, Todd could not think of a way to make Sharon take notice of him until this poetry assignment came up. This would be his big opportunity. He’d write a poem about her and somehow she would know she was the subject of his desire and maybe –just maybe- she’d have those similar feelings.

She’d become his first real girlfriend since that whole mess with Cindy Stanton really didn’t count. Cindy only used Todd to make her boyfriend jealous but at least Todd had received a few kisses for all his trouble, and in the end Todd didn’t mind when the whole thing ended as he never really conjured any real feelings for Cindy. No, this would be the real thing for the first time, and what better way to begin the Christmas Break than with a new girlfriend with whom he’d be crazy in love with for the first time. It sure beat spending the Break playing Zelda until 3am every night like last year. No, this year there would be no time for video games. He’d be busy on the phone and his mom would get annoyed and ask him “how much longer?” and “can you wrap it up?” and he’d put his hand over the receiver and whisper, “just a few more minutes” but those few minutes would last yet another hour until his mother’s patience would reach a boiling point and he’d be forced to hang up. They’d see each other at least every other day, and maybe they’d even managed to be alone in his room just long enough to get to 2nd base.

Todd’s life was about to change and he could feel it in his bones as he walked up to the front of the class to recite his poem. He began by reading aloud the title first, “Love on the Sand,” which he had put a lot of thought into. One of the things Sharon spoke of during one of the previous writing assignments had been her love of the beach. It was one of the earliest writing assignments as it had to do with what students did during their summer vacations. She wrote this eloquent essay about how she and her father spent the summer by the beach in Florida, and how the warmth of the sand as it touched her feet evoked this sensation within her that was hard for her to described, but the word she associated with it most was “freedom.” Ms. Dempsey had been so impressed with Sharon’s written assignment that not only had Sharon received an A (something that would happen regularly as the year went on) Ms. Dempsey requested that Sharon read her essay aloud for the class to hear her and to listen to all the beautiful phrases and metaphors she used. From the very beginning Sharon set a high standard, one that Todd felt intimidated yet impressed by.

Todd began his poem, “There are nights I dream of you on your lovely sands . . .”

Ms. Dempsey interrupted, “Todd, what did we say about using passive verbs in poetry? You know that’s a no-no.”

The class chuckled a bit, but Todd tried not to let this distract him. It didn’t matter that there were 20 other students staring at him at the front of the room nor did it matter that Ms. Dempsey had decided to interject her tough critique just as he had barely started. Sharon was all that mattered, and he continued as if they were the only two people in the room.

“There are nights I dream of you on your lovely sands
Though to my heart their warmth emanates from your eyes
As they flitter so too does the ground on which I stand
And as you breathe so too does my passion rise

The sound of the waves soothes us as we embrace
No one sees or hears us alone as we kiss an endless kiss
With your brown eyes pleading for our past to be erased
Our love is one that could never be dismissed.

And so I stand before you now alone but not for long
For surely you must know that it is you I now desire
In my dreams we kiss firmly and so very strong
And now, my love, our passion must conspire”

Todd felt almost faint as he finished reading his words. His heart raced inside of him as he look in the direction of Sharon hoping that she would give him some sign of recognition telling him that she knew he had written this for her, perhaps she’d even be overtaken to the point where she’d leap up out of her chair, grab him in her arms, and kiss him. It may have sounded unlikely, but the way his heart and mind raced, he felt like anything was possible. Then, just as his eyes found her, he noticed her whispering to Finn Kubrick. They were both laughing quietly to each other, and this crushing sensation came across his body. Had she even noticed? Todd asked himself. How could she not respond to such a masterful poem that was obviously written about and for her?

Just then, Ms. Dempsey spoke in her wisely quiet tone, “Well, Todd. I admire the courage you took writing a romantic love poem unlike the other boys, but I think you need to work further on your writing and your understanding of poetry. You didn’t use enough metaphors and the rhythm sounded a bit flat. The final line doesn’t make sense. Still, an admirable effort.”

Stacy Choi raised her hand, and Ms. Dempsey acknowledged her, “So, in the first stanza it sounds like all you were doing was talking about your subject blinking.”

“Stacy, I’m not sure Todd appreciates that particular critique right now. Let’s try to encourage his creativity instead of shooting him down.”

Todd thought it was funny that Ms. Dempsey used the phrase “shoot him down” because that’s exactly how he felt as he watched Sharon’s warm brown eyes fix their gaze on Finn Kubrick. He noticed him passing the page that his poem was written on to her. Seriously, that poem about his Super Nintendo wasn’t even that funny. He felt small as the feeling that he didn’t matter to Sharon swept him up in an unbridled depression.

He sat back down and stared at the desk in front of him knowing that nothing would make him feel better. Then, it was Sharon’s turn to read her poem.

He forced himself to look up at her as she read the title clearly looking endearingly at Finn Kubrick, “You’re So Funny.” She began:

“You’re so funny you make me laugh
And my laughter carries me like flurrying flakes of snow
The wind scatters the leaves as the ice freezes the trees
But you know just where to find me

The days scurry and stumble past
Like fragments of fleeting music relishing in doubt
But you, my love, with your humor capture me in a frenzy
And sweep me up to the destiny of our secret whereabouts

This Christmas give me not the joys and toys of youth
Instead, give me laughter to cure my needless solitude”

Sharon looked up above her page, and smiled a heavenly smile in Finn’s direction. Everyone in the room knew who that poem was for. Even Ms. Dempsey couldn’t help but note, “ A marvelous poem possibly about a boy in this very room I imagine. Brilliant work, Sharon.”

Everyone except Todd smiled to themselves as Sharon took her seat next to Finn and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. Ms. Dempsey had to calm the class down as they all began to “Wooooo” in unison. Todd did his best to hide his disgust.

The school day ended as Christmas Break began, and Todd went home thinking to himself. I was a fool to think she’d like me. Girls . . . they always go for either jock or the funny guy. I’m neither one of those. I’m just me – boring old me. There is nothing that could be done except to look forward to another Christmas break of video games and obligatory family gatherings. Then, just before he reached Parkson Avenue as he waited for the light to change he had an epiphany of sorts. His mistake was that he fell for someone whom he desired more than she could ever desire him. What was that poem we read a few months ago about the lover and the beloved . . . . Rumi said,

“All year round the lover is mad,
Unkempt, lovesick and in disgrace.
Without love there is nothing but grief.
In love… what else matters?

What else matters? . . . Indeed. Only these are times when just about everything else matters. No one has the time or the need to contemplate the true nature of love. They just want to feel good and have a laugh with someone they like. Love? Well, does it even matter anymore even if it exists at all? The key to life if one doesn’t want to end up alone is to find someone who regards you as their beloved rather than seek out your own beloved whose fickle nature will only break your heart.

Those thoughts permeated Todd’s mind as he walked home alone and went back to his room. He’d quit seeking out love. He’d quit being the “unkempt, lovesick, and disgraced.” Who needed that anyway? Instead he’d wait for a woman who would be lovesick for him. Instead of rejecting her as had been done to him, he’d be kind to her. He’d accept her love for him, give her all that she wanted in life, and all that he could give.  He’d never truly let himself get swept away in love, however, because the moment you let yourself get swept away is the moment that person controls you. Surely, Todd thought, it would be easy and simple to conform to this new away of thinking.

Many years later after Todd imagined his epiphany would remain unchallenged, he’d be swept away in his desire for another woman. Only this time his circumstances would not allow him to act. He had made a vow, and when he made that vow he thought no woman could possibly alter his view that it was better to be the subject of a woman’s love rather than find yourself as the lover of a woman who could flippantly reject you with little regard for your feelings. Better to be the beloved than to be the lover, or so he always thought. The lover always suffers in the end.  The beloved are always fickle. Only Todd never realized that emotions as complex as love and desire could never quite be controlled and suppressed.  No, that was hardly ever the case. Twenty years later on Christmas Eve, Todd found himself writing a love poem only it wasn’t for his wife.

Confession Before the Drive

by Jack Lugo

December 15th 1987.

It was supposed to go off without a hitch.  The armored truck was supposed to pull up in front of the drug store across the street at 7:03 am, and I was supposed to make sure to put the needle down on “Walking in the Rain” by the Ronettes.  Then, Ronnie and Mikey were supposed to pull up from around the corner and steal the truck just as the guard walked inside the building with the bag.  It was supposed to be smooth sailing, and I would get a 20% cut.  I needed that money like you’ll never know.  From the 2nd floor window of WQPZ, I spent many an early morning watching that same truck pull up in front of the drug store at the same exact time about 15 seconds before we came back from commercial and put on some dumb top 40 hit, but today was different.  Today was all about requests, and so we were allowed to break format and play oldies as long as someone had called in to request them.  Not all phone calls made it on the air though, and so even though no one had called in to request “Walking in the Rain,” I could just fib and say I got a call from “Roberta Farmer” who just wanted to hear that classic song that reminded her of her late husband – some nonsense like that – no one would know the difference.  My program director, despite being a prick, let me have my way with the requests on most of these days.  He was too busy tabulating what sequence of songs would get us the most ad revenue and as for these request days, well, they were a nice thing to do for the community but really nothing makes money like pounding the shit out of “Will You Still Love Me?” by Chicago followed by Kenny G’s “Songbird” into the ears of our listeners just before going to commercial when the real brainwashing would begin.

I didn’t get into this fucking business to play Kenny Fucking G and appeal to sponsors, who preferred our music to be “hip but safe” and “none of that hard crap.”  Parents groups, news anchors, and fucking politicians have stuck their nose in where it doesn’t belong way too many times.  I remember the pre-disco days back in the early 70s when music was alive, when we’d get the new Led Zeppelin album and played it for the first time and the music meant something.  It spoke to us, and for a brief moment we could lose ourselves in those loud driving guitars, bass, and drums.  We’d feel as immortal as Robert Plant must have felt belting out those songs as if nothing else in the world mattered.  That’s why I wanted to do this.  That’s why I became a disc jockey.  I just wanted to bring that sensation to as many people as I could.  Instead, I get paid $150 a week to tell corny jokes and act like I’m excited about some stupid duet between Peter Cetera and Amy Grant.  I swear every time I play a Peter Cetera song, a little piece of my soul dies, and what’s worse is that I have to act like I’m into it while I intro the song, “Hey! This is Dan the Man with all your favorite Soft Rock Easy Listening tunes to brighten up your day, and now, here’s that incredible duet from 2 stellar voices.  One of them hails from the band, Chicago.  The other one grew up in Nashville singing Christian music.  Here are the immensely talented voices of Peter Cetera and Amy Grant singing “The next Time I Fall.”  I could almost feel the vomit rising up to the roof of my mouth just imagining myself having to intro that song again.

Ever just feel like you wasted the majority of your life caring about something that only ever mattered to you and no one else?  Ever wake up one day to realize that your life has been nothing but wasted time working for shit pay just for the sake of paying your rent and paying your bills only to have nothing left in your pocket afterwards?  This business I have chosen has done nothing but driven me to drink, gamble, and indulge in just about any vice that would enable me to escape from the hell and misery of my life.  That’s why I needed this score to work out even though I never tried anything like this before.   If it worked out the way we’d plan, I’d get square with my bookie, and still have enough left over to leave this shit town to start my life over somewhere else.   I’d forget about my life in radio, find myself a quaint small town out of state, maybe try my hand at bartending once the money ran out, and perhaps charm my way into the life of a sweet young country girl. We’d save up, get a house in the woods one day, and I’d spend my days off writing songs for her singing about horses, cows, and pecan pie.  She would worship me and maybe one day I’d confess my past life to her and she’d understand and maybe even sympathize with me.  Then, we’d have a bunch of kids, grow old, and complain about the music our own kids listen to. Yeah, that would be the life wouldn’t it?  Just thinking about it makes me regret all the time I squandered becoming a DJ, believing in the passion of the music I love, and wishing that this passion would spread like wild fire instead of petering out in the embers of the Adult Contemporary format.  Instead of rocking out to Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and The Who, it’s become about politely bopping our heads to Lionel Richie and Kenny Loggins. The great rebellion was hijacked and morphed into some kind of family friendly one-size-fits-all merry-go-round that just keeps going round and round feeding the public insidious brain candy.

In this business you get to rub shoulders with some pretty shady types.  That’s how I met Ronnie and Mikey.  We all had the same bookie, and we all had a string of bad luck together.  It’s amazing how a bad luck streak starts because at first you don’t think much of a bad loss, but then they just keep mounting.  Then, I had to go double or nothing on my Tigers facing the Twins in the Playoffs, and that’s when it all went to shit.  I was in a hole so deep I’d never get out of it, and once I couldn’t afford the vig anymore, I was all out of options.  Sal could be an understanding guy for the most part, but once you’re in big to him, you either pay up or you end up with broken limbs.  Then, when there’s nothing left to break and no amount of threatening could make the money appear, well then it’s . . . curtains I suppose.  It’s usually fast and quick.  One single bullet in your temple at close range . . . unless you do something to make him want to make you suffer.  Then, you’re screwed.  This guy, Marvin, a few years back owed Sal 50 grand and decided to leave town and move to fucking Wyoming in the middle of nowhere.  He thought he could start over, and no one would ever think to look there.  Well, all it takes is for one hint of your whereabouts to get to the wrong people, and then, you won’t even see it coming until it’s too late.  Sal hired some sadistic fuck of a hitman to not only track Marvin down but to send a message to anyone who dared ever think about running on him.  The guy captured Marvin, brought him to a secluded warehouse, and tortured him with a blowtorch.  That’s why I knew I couldn’t just run off.  These wise guy types have people everywhere.  You think they can’t get to you in Wyoming?  Guess what – they can and they’ll make sure you’ll regret ever even thinking about running.

The underground is everywhere there is to be in this world.  You can try to live an honest life, but there’s no avoiding it. Ronnie and Mikey were good guys.  They were almost ‘normal people’ considering where they came from.  Both their fathers used to run numbers and pull off small jobs here and there.  It was nothing to brag about, but growing up the way they did, that’s just how people made a little extra  pocket money.  No one ever thought it was a big deal, and they each worked regular construction jobs while pulling off a few stick-ups occasionally each year – a convenience store here, a gas station there.  They’d run in with their ski masks and a pistol, and no shots ever got fired and for the most part, the clerks they were robbing cooperated, and when all was said and done no one ever got hurt.  The places were all insured so what did it really matter anyway?  It’s like Robin Hood – rob the rich to feed the poor and why not?  I became friendly with them as soon as I arrived in town a few years back before the format change, back when things were looser.  They’d request Frankie Valli or some Cream, and I’d play the obscure stuff they wanted to hear until eventually we’d end up at the bar every night after my shift.

I had the cozy 4 –midnight shift back then.  It was great. I could sleep late all morning, wake up around 3pm, roll-in to work, play whatever tunes I like after 10pm when programing went out the window, and once my shift was over head out to Patti’s Bar out on Montcliff for drinks with my buddies til closing time.  They’d give me shit for all the crap I played before 10pm, and we’d have a laugh and bash MTV while slugging Budweisers until it was time to go home and do the same thing over again the next night.  Those were the days.  Then came the format switch to Adult Contemporary, along with a new program director, and a switch to morning drive 6am-11am where there was no wiggle room at all on the playlist except for Fridays which were designated as Morning Drive Weekend Request Days.  I’d answer the phone and 9 times out of 10, I’d get a request for a stupid song that we had already played a dozen times in the last 24 hours.  That’s what happens when you let the public decide things.  You think they’d want something different, maybe even something a little crazy, but no, these idiot box watching morons just want to hear the same 40 songs over and over again because it’s what comforts them.

No one wants to be challenged to think anymore, and maybe it’s not even about thinking anyway.  Maybe it’s just that people prefer to experience the same “safe” emotions that these Easy Listening songs conjure.  There’s nothing wrong with a soothing innocent love song I suppose, but what about lust and desire?  What about the fury and rage of someone putting all that they are into music that’s meant to inspire people to live their lives as if they mattered?  Do you have an unrequited love who you’re just crazy about but never had the guts to say anything to because maybe they’d reject you or maybe they’d think you’re some nut and never want to talk to you again? Well, the difference between the music I love and the music that they force me to play is that the music I love inspires you to make sure you tell that someone how you feel about them.  The music they force me to play lulls you to keep daydreaming about that person until maybe one day they come to you and ask you out for dinner and a movie.  The music I love inspires you to go out and find love or at least get yourself laid.  The music they force me to play only teaches people to suppress and sugarcoat their desires.

For months, I sat looking out the window while the commercials played and watched that armored truck pull up in front of the drug store.  The two fat security guards looked like bumbling fools wobbling in and out of the place to drop off whatever change denominations had been ordered probably stopping for some Burger King on their way to their next drop off.  The routine was the same every Friday.  The first guard (let’s call him Bert) would be behind the wheel and pull up right in front of the drug store’s entrance.   Then, the 2nd guard (let’s call him Ernie) would get out of the truck on the other side with the bag that had been designated for this drop off.  Ernie would usually take anywhere from 3-5 minutes (usually closer to 3) and get back on the truck and they pull off and get on their way.  Well, for the last 2 weeks, it was just Bert by himself.  Maybe Ernie got sick or went on vacation. Maybe Ernie fucking won the lottery and they hadn’t decided to give Burt a new partner yet who knows.  Well, if Ernie used to move slow, Bert moved even slower.  I suppose the reason Ernie would make the drop off was that Ernie was the least fat of the two guards and could get in and out quicker.  These last few weeks, I watched Bert huff and puff each time he had to pull up by himself, grab the bag from whatever compartment it was kept in inside the van, and walk his bloated fat ass into the drug store to make the drop off each time leaving the keys inside the ignition with the car running and the driver’s window open.  The thought occurred to me that someone could just run up and steal the truck with nearly no effort and come away with a big score.

I ran the idea past Ronnie and Mikey, and they both loved it.  Ronnie couldn’t wait to try to pull it off, “It’ll be our biggest score ever.  Dan, you’re a fucking genius!”

“Well, don’t count the money just yet. I don’t know if Bert will have a partner next Friday. Maybe Ernie will come back, or maybe someone new will be assigned to him.”

It was Mikey who came up with the plan that would set the heist in motion.  He was slightly smarter than Ronnie, but that isn’t saying much, “You got a point there, Dan so this is what’ll happen.  You’re going to watch for the truck to pull up from your window at the studio.  If Burt is by himself again, then you play a specific song and that’ll be our signal.  You play the song, then Ronnie pulls up next to the truck.  I get out, take the truck and we both speed away.  We’ll meet up by Jasper Hills once the coast is clear later that evening and split up the dough.  Since Ronnie and me are taking on most of the risk here, let’s say we give you 20% as a finder’s fee and for giving us the signal to pull off the job.”

I figured 20% would probably be a good haul for me. I wasn’t looking to be wealthy for a lifetime.  I just needed enough to get Sal paid off and start my life over somewhere else.  I figured it’ll be enough to last me up to a year if I lived frugally and stayed at the most modest accommodations.  I’d put some roots down and get to know people and eventually land a bartending gig or some kind of job to give the appearance of being a normal guy who’s just settled in from out of town.  Of course I’d have to stick around Detroit for some time afterwards so that no one suspects my leaving had anything to do with the heist, but maybe in 4 or 5 months, I’d put in my 2 weeks and just drive off somewhere and wander around until I found some place I liked or more likely found some woman who liked me enough to make me want to stay.

So, the fateful morning came, and wouldn’t you know Burt was flying solo again.  He pulled up at 7:02am and at 7:03am I could see him grabbing the bag with the keys still in the ignition. I rushed over and did a quick spiel about how “Roberta Farmer” requested The Ronettes’ classic “Walking in the Rain” in tribute to the fond memories of her late husband.  Why “Walking in the Rain,” you might ask? Well, why not? I always loved Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” and the thunder at the beginning of the track always brought back the memory of my first love whenever I heard it.  We were walking in the park one afternoon when we were each 14 years old when out of nowhere, a huge downpour started.  My first impulse was to start running to get some cover since we were out in the open and quickly getting drench.  Just as I started to run, she grabbed my arm and pulled me towards her kissing me firmly without yielding to the sound of the thunder in the background.  If the lightning had struck me in that moment, I would have died a happy man.  Maybe I should have died that day.

The sound of thunder came on at the beginning of the song as it always did and then the tambourines, then the background vocals, and for a moment I lost myself in the music until Ronnie Spector’s vocals began and I remember just what was supposed to be happening right outside.  I rushed over to the window only to see Bert still sitting in the driver’s seat.  He was supposed to be inside the drug store making his drop off, but instead, he was sitting in the driver’s seat bopping his head and singing along to his radio.  The damn bastard was singing along to my song, the song I put on as the signal to Ronnie and Mikey to rob the fucking truck.  I started yelling, “NOOOO!” at the top of my lungs, but of course no one outside would ever hear me. I rushed back to the turntable, scratched the needle off the record, and got back on the air attempting to sound calm yet clearly out of breath, “ Sorry, Roberta, it would seem as if we’re having some technical difficulties with the record right now. I’ll see if I can dig up another copy for you somewhere, but for now please enjoy, ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ by Rick Astley.”

I dropped the needle on that shitty record, and rushed back over to my window.  I was desperately hoping that the guys heard me interrupt the record and aborted the heist.  Somehow I knew, however, that I would have no such luck. Mikey and Bert were engaged in a brawl.  He had just pulled Bert out of his seat on the driver’s side and I arrived at my window just in time to see Bert’s bloody face hit the pavement.   I could tell Mikey was furious and that he was likely more furious with me than he was with Bert.  Ronnie was in his blue Buik alongside the truck with nothing but a stunned look on his face.  Just then I could see Mikey reach for something in his belt buckle.  It was his pistol.  I shouted from my window, “Mikey, don’t do it!  Mikey don’t do it!” but just as soon as I finished, I could see the splatter of blood from Burt’s head on the pavement.  A devious smile crossed Mikey’s face as he looked up towards me at my window.  He pointed the gun at me and fired but missed my window entirely. I ducked and hurried back to my console as I imagined the sound of the truck and the car speeding off.  A few minutes later I walked over to my window and saw the scene. Bert’s body lay flat faced down as the EMTs bent over him preparing him for a body bag.

I managed to get through the rest of my shift, but I knew it was only a matter of time before life as I knew it would end.  Either Mikey or Ronnie would find me and kill me, or Sal would kill me for failing to come through on the next vig, or Ronnie and Mikey would get picked up and tell the cops I helped them plan it, or somewhere along the line this will catch up with me.  I know it.  Guys like me don’t get away with this kind of shit, and I was foolish to even think I could try. So, tmrw I drive. I get in my car and drive but not to Wyoming that much I could tell you.  I’ll keep going until I run out of money or run out of gas.  I’ll lose myself the sounds of the radio and relish in as much music as I can, and if I can’t find a decent station, I’ll put on my cassette tapes, and if I can’t put on my cassette tapes, I’ll play my guitar. I’ll do whatever it takes to escape this cruel reality however I can through music.  Maybe, if I feel daring enough I may even call in a request, and maybe the DJ on the other end might feel just a twinge of sympathy for me.  I won’t tell them that I’m one of them of course, but maybe they’ll just know it intuitively.  I’ll hear the ringing as I hold the phone next to my ear and the radio feed through the slight static on the other end while I wait on hold.  The DJ will say the call letters, and ask what I want to hear.  I’ll just say, “Play me a love song, please – ‘Walking in the Rain’.”