Michael Cocchiarale "Recovery Mission"
So far, it’s been elusive, a pain in the ass to grasp, but some small part of the hard-to-describe past (a hand perhaps, maybe just a big toe) has been dragged to light, Zac thinks, in the middle of the seventh (or is it eighth?) hour of foot in front of the other, second in a frayed line of old friends heading up, up, up into rapidly thinning air.
“I admit it might be stupid,” Zac says, “but I was a certain age and . . . and they were hometown heroes and now after all those years when you—I mean, I—I start really looking back, or down. Into the gap . . .”
“What crap?” This is Zig, hurling words over a short-sleeved shoulder.
“The gap. The, you know, time. It’s like a long chasm running from right this moment to way back then, and all the things that have happened are lying there for rescue, if you can only stretch down that far. And this band . . . you know there’s nothing like music to take you—”
“Name me some songs.”
“Guys, GUYS, wait, I’ve got to . . . catch my breath.” A hundred feet behind, Mat staggers to a stop. Sciatica, acid reflux, gout—the entire climb he’s gone on like a geyser about one pain or another.
“Never mind,” Zac says. “You don’t—”
“Guys . . . Could we . . . just sit . . . ?”
Zig raises shades so he can crush Mat with bird-of-prey disdain.
“For a minute?”
“Come on,” Zig says, turning to Zac. “Let’s hear those songs!”
Like it was yesterday—like it’s right exactly now—Zac hears the pinch of static, the prefatory pop. There’s his older brother Gary, still in ski cap and parka, playing air guitar to the raucous first track on the album that made them both big fans.
“Well . . . ‘Misery Loves Company,’ was one. ‘Let’s see . . . ‘Who’s to Blame.’ ‘Why Should Love Be This Way.’” How inane the titles sound as they drop from Zac’s dry, cracked lips. How much like the clichéd chapters of his sad, desultory life.
Zig whistles. He shakes his head. “Man, that’s like win, place and show in the GayDay Parade.”
Clam—the taciturn one, the time-honored weirdo—makes off-key fanfare sounds. He kicks up bulbous knees, brandishing his skull-handled walking stick like a drum major’s baton. Oblivious to the performance, Zig moves on, each step powerful, certain, clear as the long-ago morning when they all giddily began this climb.
“But you understand?” Zac calls up to Zig. “You know . . . what I’m saying?” He’s losing grip. That plump big toe of the past is slipping through his fingers back into the void.
“Nope. And I never will.” Zig turns, boots backwarding forward as he talks. “It’s just one of those ineffables.”
“Guys . . . I’m cold,” Mat says, rubbing his bare arms. “Aren’t you cold? I need to cover up.”
“Cover up?” Zig stops in his tracks. “Cover up?”
“I need to dig out my jacket.”
“Then just say ‘dig out my jacket.’ ‘Cover up’ sounds like you want to drape a goddamn shawl around your shoulders.”
Mat grins wildly as he drops pack and self to the ground. Zac, taking advantage of a rare shot at rest, balances his behind on the knife edge of a rock. He reaches into his fleece for a pill, discovering instead the peanut butter and jelly sandwich he’s still not hungry for. Maybe lack of food is the reason for the fork of pain that’s begun to root around his head.
As he picks at the plastic wrap, he can’t help wondering for the umpteenth time: “How in the world has his life come to this?” After college, after all those low-to-the-ground, kick-back-on-the-sofa years spent slurping Schnapps and canned ravioli in their dank, off-campus apartment, the four friends returned to where they’d come from: Zac to Cleveland, Zig to Philadelphia, Mat to Ames, and Clam to El Paso. It had been at least a year since he’d heard a peep from anyone, and then, bolt from the blue, came Zig’s cajoling series of emails to the “old gang”—“I’ve gotta be in ’Rado for some biz,” and “Let’s climb Pikes Peak, you pussies” and, when Mat gently demurred, “Don’t make me come to your homes and beat you about the face.” Once or twice, Zig’s pithy messages were followed by a punctuation mark wink, just to let his “best buds” know he probably didn’t mean much harm.
Despite considerable costs— the loss of precious vacation days, the plane ticket, the unnecessarily garish hotel, the pub crawl expenses—Zac agreed to this trip readily enough. Lynn, his recently official ex, left town weeks ago for family in Kalamazoo. Daniel, his only son, is gone too, in Reykjavík chasing the sleek Scandinavian for whom he trashed his marriage. Last he heard, his brother is still hewing logs in Saskatoon, convinced that he will discover his “next and Godlier self” through the daily ritual of back-breaking toil. If all that is not enough, his mother, after three quarters of a year, is still very much deceased—lung cancer, the stupid non-smoking kind. Beyond a brain-numbing desk job, there is little to hold him to the city of his birth.
Tired, head throbbing, Zac takes a half-hearted bite of the sandwich and is surprised to find it good. Shockingly delicious, in fact. He stares at it in wonder before chomping into the swirly ooze again, feeling better, stronger, happier than he’s been since he can’t remember when. As if on cue, a few fingers of light pry open the grim gray door of sky. Mouth full, he cries, “This is fabulous!”
Clam, the trip’s caterer, nods in appreciation. “Food of the low-rent gods.”
Zac laughs. Despite his headache, that toe or hand seems suddenly within reach again.
“The Michael Stanley Band,” he declares, kicking himself for not starting his whole point there.
“The who?” Zig asks.
“It’s the rock band I’ve been talking about!”
“Sorry, champ. Does not ring a bell.”
“Well . . . they were huge. In Cleveland. All throughout Northeast Ohio.”
“Guys,” Mat whimpers. “Are we ever . . . going to get to the top?”
With marvelous clarity of tone, Clam sings the first few lines of “Helter Skelter.”
“Stanley? Stanley was the name?” Zig asks. “Maybe I heard that one song.”
“Oh, it was one of those high energy things. An anthem.”
“You did. Yes, I bet you did!” Zac remembers when the group was on American Bandstand in the early 80s. There was Dick Clark, snug in his nest of sycophantic teens, introducing the group for whom John Cougar and Billy Joel once opened. The tune was driving, and Zac, already familiar with it, showed his determination to be thrilled by keeping time on a blue-jeaned thigh. He glanced up once or twice to see Gary assiduously rolling a joint. When the song was over, his brother said, “You realize this tune pretty much blows,” before pressing the blunt between his lips.
As if reading Zac’s mind, Zig says, “It was not especially memorable.”
“But . . . but they had so many others. They really should have hit it big.”
“That’s the thing. That’s what I’ve been telling you. This is years ago. So much time has passed.”
Zac’s head is really beginning to pound. He glances up at the peak just in time to see that gray door slam upon those hard-working fingers of sun. As he works the last of the sandwich in his teeth, he feels drained again—drained and helpless, a forlorn boy.
He is reminded of Daniel, specifically the younger and more palatable version of his son, navy blue slacks and Oxford shirt, strolling up the street for the school bus, backpack throbbing like a heart against his shoulders. All those gloriously indistinguishable mornings, white toast and butter, a tumbler of whole milk. Brush your teeth? Got your bag? Here’s your lunch—crackers, strip cheese, a comically unripe banana. Standing on the porch after Daniel had turned the corner, cup of coffee to his lips. Stepping inside for a refill. Playfully dodging Lynn back-and-forthing through the house, in a charming panic about where both keys and time have gone.
Snap of the fingers and the boy was a gangly teen, pierced nose and baby beard, flirting with cute girls at the Great Northern food court. Snap of the fingers and he was a young man, strolling with his new wife down the aisle, Zac and Lynn sporting happy faces throughout almost all of the festivities. Snap once more and the boy was a divorcee, a member of the club. Like father, like son, unless you count the sleek Scandinavian who may or may not be giving Daniel the time of day.
“Guys, wait,” Mat calls from what seems like miles below. “My calf. Ow. Is this what they mean by a hammy?”
Zig puts hands on hips. “I’m pretty sure it’s what they mean by a pussy.”
There was a point during this climb when Zac would have made room in his heart for Mat, but now he’s too busy trying to release sense from the cell block of pain inside his skull. They’ve been walking for days, it seems. For weeks or months. Years. Decades. Yet nothing at all has changed. Or everything. He closes his eyes and feels down again into the deep and dark for that unearthed toe. There’s a pair of loafers, his own, sinking into the mud beside a cemetery stone; a sheaf of papers from the lawyer, folded in the bowl where fresh fruit used to go; Daniel on the couch with a prehistoric pop-up, the listing pine tree blinking in the background; the passenger seat of Gary’s necrotic Fiesta, where his body grooved to the beat of chuckholes on the way to Record Revolution; his wedding day, kissing his supposed soulmate on the art museum steps; the aisles of a college town convenience store, searching for circus peanuts Zig was determined to soak in Absolut; Blossom Music Center, leaping around on the lawn with high school friends as Michael Stanley seized the stage; the early hours of the trip up this godforsaken mountain, his body fresh, his head free from pain. Past and almost-present, peaceful and pitiful, momentous or miniscule—everything at once is stirred up before him in one nauseating PB and J swirl.
“Headaches,” he says. “Headaches bad.”
Clam grunts and jabs his walking stick like a spear in the air. He says, “Body has mind of own.”
Zig unstoppers a water bottle. “Jesus—what did I tell you about staying hydrated?”
“Who’d you have, Zig? The bands and singers, I mean . . . in Philly . . . where you grew up.”
“Hmm, let’s see. Todd Rundgren. Hall and Oates, of course. If you want to count The Hooters . . .”
“Yes, yes. They all made it!”
“I’m beginning to think . . . we won’t . . . make it,” says Mat.
Smiling, Clam begins to dig a hole with his skull stick. Beyond his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, what does Zac know about this man of frighteningly few words? In college, Clam drank Black Label as if it were air. He peeled off cheese from his pizza and ate slices that always reminded Zac of fingers without nails. In the wee hours of the night, creepy, atonal tunes slipped through his closed bedroom door. Out and about, he wore dark clothes. Sometimes, at odd hours of the day around the house, he wore no clothes at all. Did he have family? A girlfriend? Did he go to class? Had he ever been enrolled at the university? There had been hints, allusions, traces of behaviors that might indicate yea or nay, but as Clam continues to jab gleefully into this Rocky Mountain earth, he remains an enigma—or worse.
Zig moves on. “Maybe,” he says, “your Stanley band should have gone elsewhere. To make it big. You know, New York. L.A.”
“Why?” Zac grabs Zig’s shoulder and spins him around. “It’s about the music, right? Not where you play it.”
“Rule # 1 of the universe: the people who make it are the ones who are supposed to.”
Zig shrugs off Zac’s hand and continues up the path. Clam looks from Mat to his
modest hole and back again. “You in?”
Mat, finding his second wind, trudges forward. Zac follows, with Clam whistling in the rear. After an interminable time, Zac finds himself turning, following Zig and Mat back the way they came, the path higher by a barely perceptible degree. The summit is in clear view, yet it seems less a reality than a rendition. Like his son’s kindergarten drawings—those balloon-headed stick figures ambling toward pencil point peaks. “It’s good,” he’d told him every time, trying like hell to mean it. Now, metaphorically speaking, he suspects this is about the best a human can hope to do.
“Your team had the football genius,” Zig says. “Belichick.”
“Yes, yes. So?”
Suddenly, the mountain appears to stir. Zac blinks and becomes convinced it has
awakened, is trying out the first steps of some kind of groggy, lumbering dance. He walks more carefully, hands out to steady himself. His brain is nailed to his skull by a long spear of pain.
“Case in point: Belichick went elsewhere and won all those Super Bowls. My Eagles had Reggie White, only the greatest defensive lineman of all time. He had to go Green Bay to win his ring. Onwards and upwards. Have I made it clear that you do what you have to do?”
“Cabin Fever,” Zac says, flinging out the album title like a rope to himself. “That was the one that should’ve done it.”
“Guys,” Mat breathes. “My chest hurts. My arm . . . there’s something tingling.”
“My mother was alive then too,” Zac says, seeing the series of dollars she’d uncrumpled from her purse for the purchase. “She’d be alive for thirty more years. Zig, tell me, did you ever have a mother that was alive?”
“You okay, bud? I think you need some more water.”
“It’s not a chest pain, really. More like a tightening.”
Out of nowhere, a lanky teen, arms covered in arabesque tattoos, appears from above, shooting straight down from the peak, switchbacks be damned. Small rocks scramble out of the way before him.
“How do?” he calls, skidding past them, doffing his ball cap in their direction before plunging on.
Portent? Comic relief? Jackass of the Year? Zac stares after the boy for several seconds, envious of his ease.
Zig whistles, hands on hips. “That, my friends, is exactly how it’s done.”
“You know, when my mother was gone, after the first week or so, it’s like she never was at all.”
“Don’t say that,” Mat says. “She was alive. She loved you. She raised you. Don’t you have pictures?”
Zac drives a finger under each brow, attempting to at least displace the pain in his head. He thinks of his mother, his marriage, his boy scraping shoes toward school, his brother spinning that special album in his room. When has what has happened not assumed the property of air?
“And she’s in your heart,” Mat adds. “You can talk . . . to her. I do that with . . . my grandma all the time.”
“I’m not unsympathetic,” Zig says. “But what Mat just said is an especially virulent species of gay sentimentalism. I’m sorry. You both know the gay I mean. How I’m using it.”
“Our queerless leader,” Clam says.
“Tommy Dobeck,” Zac cries, the name like a shot of sunlight to his heart. “He was the drummer, the only one on the album cover who didn’t have a moustache.”
Zig smiles. “I get it: Like Paul without the shoes.”
“Yes. Exactly.” The mountain continues its lumbering dance, and Zac closes his eyes to try to stop the spinning. “Isn’t that what I’ve been saying all along?”
Mat stops, crouching now like a catcher, hands wild in his hair.
“Good God, what if your wife saw you like this?” Zig says. “What do you think she’d do?”
Mat looks up, lips tight and eyes wide. He takes a few deep breaths. “She’d . . . why she’d hold me! She’d show some . . . compassion!”
Zig shakes his head. “That is one messed up woman.”
“They were signed on Arista. Mutt Lange was the producer.”
“Don’t know him.”
“You’ve heard of AC/DC, Def Leppard . . .Bryan Adams . . . Shania Twain? He made huge successes of them all.”
“Sounds like your band had a real shot.”
“Clarence Clemons even played with them!”
“What?” Zig stops in his tracks. “Bruce’s dude? The Big Man?”
Zac nods vigorously, even though the movement kills his head. He feels now that he’s clasping at last a whole foot now. Pull, pull—he can drag the whole body out. He can have it all back.
“Well, that is impressive. But, as I said, cream rises.”
“Smoke rises,” Clam says. “The spirit too.”
Zig puts hands on hips. “When did I suggest that cream had a corner on the rising?”
Clam waves the skull stick once in front of Zig’s face before Zig slaps it to the ground.
How did Zac ever come together with these guys in the first place? A textbook bully, a sociopath biding his time, a hypochondriac who might be onto something regarding his impending mortality. And who was he? What role did he play? The pathetic orphan? The sad sack divorcee? Zig’s wife left him as well, but how come his loss has only served to make him more of what he’s always been?
“Are you sure your friend’s up there?” Mat asks, hand to chest. “Waiting for us?”
“Yeah, yeah, don’t you worry,” Zig says. “At five on the dot, though, the spacious, air-conditioned Friendmobile leaves because it needs to get back down before the road is closed.
“So, I say to you with all the heartfelt sincerity I can muster: Let’s get a goddamn move on!”
The group shuffles forward. Pebbles spill like hard tears into the switchback below.
Above, dark birds swirl and caw. When the sun breaks through again, it feels to Zac more like a mortal blow to the head. Someone close says, “Are you okay?”
Zac swallows. His mouth is stone dry. “There’s a part of the story I’m missing.” Thirty seconds ago he’d been twenty steps back. There’d been some important discussion, but now all that remains is the misty gist. Zac moves forward, and the mountain responds by dancing. The sky growls. Zac feels a drop or two of something on his face. Wasn’t the sun just melting over his head?
“Look into the skull.”
The walking stick looms overhead: black infinity of eye sockets above bold, white teeth.
No question, Zac’s closer now to bones than to birth. Much closer.
“I’m almost there.”
“That’s the spirit.”
“Is that someone waving? That must be your friend!”
What in the end is a mountain? And when has Zac not been running out of air?
“Hey, hey! We’re coming!”
Rocks crunch like breakfast cereal beneath Zac’s boots, and the sound transports him to the butcher block table of his childhood home. There’s a half gallon of milk, a box of Lucky Charms. A Christmas wish book between him and his brother. And there’s music, his mother feeling out a soft, sad number on the upright in the den. It’s a bit lachrymose, this halting tune, the product of a few lessons she’d splurged on in the fall, but it becomes more familiar as she goes.
The Michael Stanley Band.
Not really, although Zac can’t help imagining it. He turns the thin, vivid pages of the
wish book, full of board games, action figures, and race car sets. In the other room, his mother’s fingers plink like rain, figuring it out as she goes. The chords rise through the house, into the winter air and straight up the charts. When Gary turns to him with a smile, Zac lets go of the pictures of dreamed-for toys so his heart can sled across the snow-smooth melody.
Miles and miles away his ex-wife is a little girl, wind in her hair, peddling a bike down her sycamore street.
His son dwells in the gorgeously painless great not-yet.
“Lay him down. Give him some water.”
Zac takes firm hold of that unearthed foot. It’s not a rescue but a recovery mission—
on some level, he’s known it all along. Still, he pulls and pulls until he’s falling (or is he dancing?), head over heels, into that long chasm between right now and all that then. It’s dark there, and cool, but after a moment, a flash of light streaks across the black. Maybe all he’s ever wanted to say to fellow travelers is that there was a time when there was so much time, and everyone was a cinch to make it.
Michael Cocchiarale is the author of three books of fiction: None of the Above (a novel), Here Is Ware (stories), and Still Time (stories). His work may also be found in print and online journals such as Fictive Dream, Stickman Review, Main Street Rag, Crack the Spine, Pithead Chapel, and Atticus Review.