Chapter 22: The Donald of the Opera
Roy, now masquerading as Donald Harris, returned home to the address that was printed on his driver's license. Not surprisingly, it was a little house on the outskirts of that same Podunk town where Roy had spent a brief but wild time in that backwoods speakeasy.
May Harris was there to greet her son on the front porch with open arms and plenty of tears. The lines in her face were deeper than they should have been for a woman her age, but her eyes still sparkled like emeralds, and her figure was not at all shabby. It occurred to Roy that he might have a touch of an Oedipus complex going on.
"Hi, mom," he said as they embraced for an uncomfortable thirty-or-so seconds.
"Thank you, Lord ... " May whispered as she clutched Donald against her bosom.
"Well, I could eat a horse, Mother. What's cookin'?" he said as he broke the embrace.
May looked into her son's eyes, and a quizzical expression came over her face. "I don't believe I've ever heard you call me 'Mother' before."
"Well, there's a first time for everything," Donald countered, trying to sound casual. "Now I'm gonna wash up and change out of this uniform for good."
"Amen to that," May said with conviction.
After a fortnight of May's home cooking, Donny felt like he had enough meat on his bones to head up north in search of steady employment. He had heard stories about how an ordinary Joe could make a good living in the Motor City, so he hopped on a bus bound for Detroit.
During a stop in Gary, Indiana, Donny got off the bus, assessed the crumpled bills and tarnished coins he had in his pocket, and changed his strategy. He bought a ticket on an eastbound bus that would take him to Cleveland, Ohio. He wondered if it would be like he remembered it.
Cleveland, as it turned out, was a city on the rise in the years following World War II. This, of course, was long before the Cuyahoga River caught on fire, before Mayor Kucinich announced there wasn't enough money in the treasury to pay the electric bill, and before some smart-ass Pittsburgh Steelers fan printed up a bunch of t-shirts that said Cleveland, The Mistake By The Lake.
Instead of gearing down after the war, Cleveland's factories and mills were still revved up, thanks to plenty of Cold War paranoia. And family-owned machine shops were springing up all over the place, to help meet the nation's demand for parts needed to assemble automobiles and household appliances. A man with any gumption could hop off a bus in Cleveland, open up a newspaper to the classified ads, find a job, earn a good living, get married, buy a house and a car, have a couple of kids and a dog, and still manage to put a little away at the end of every month. Donny picked up a job in one of those independent machine shops on Cleveland's east side. It was owned by two Hungarian brothers, Bella and Laszlo Gaspar. They were smart, self-taught men who liked to work hard and drink hard.
They saw that Donny had a knack for the work, and they taught him the tricks of the trade. Soon he was earning good money, driving a used but reliable Buick, and renting a respectable room on the second floor of a duplex above a Polish family. He stayed on that course as the years ticked by, and one New Year's morning, a very hung over Donald Harris woke up to a new decade -- 1960. The world was passing him by. He decided he was finally going to get serious with his girlfriend -- a cute redhead named Shannon.
She was Irish-Catholic, and she had marriage and babies on her mind most of the time. Donny figured what the hell, and he proposed to her. She accepted, and Donny cut a cash deal with the priest so he didn't have to take all the pre-requisite religious mumbo-jumbo the Church required of all the heathens who wanted to get hitched within their hallowed halls. Father O'Malley took the fat envelope graciously, signed a few waivers, presided over the ceremony, and got roaring drunk at the reception along with everybody else. It was a marvelous occasion.
Soon enough, there was a baby boy on the way, and two years after that they were blessed with a second miracle -- another son. So long as Donny maintained the requisite level of inebriation, he could almost believe he was living the American dream. Of course, there were those troublesome moments of sobriety that would always throw a monkey wrench in the works. For one, the real Donald Harris was still lurking in the shadows of his mind, like his own personal Phantom of the Opera. Beer and whiskey helped soothe the symptoms, but there were times when the tormented thoughts of that pesky ghost bubbled up into his own consciousness.
The only recourse he had was to up the dosage of booze until the little demon in him went to sleep. The problem, though, was that he still had to maintain a fairly high degree of functionality to earn his paycheck.
He was able to pull it off because the three-martini-lunch was still very much in fashion. Every neighborhood had a bar, and every bar owner kept a book. Men factored their tabs into the budget just as they would the light bill or the mortgage. Society, as a whole, seemed to maintain a baseline buzz, and as long as he didn't stumble around or slur his words too bad, he was able to get by. Donny felt like he had enough left in the tank to keep up the charade for another thirty or forty years. But then, in the spring of 1974, the works got all gummed up. Shannon's father, being the hard-drinking Irishman that he was, had just about pickled his liver. He accepted the news the way men used to accept the news about their own mortality: with a shrug and a six-pack of Schlitz. He had done well in life. He served proudly on the U.S.S. Texas in World War I, manning the big guns and engaging German warships and U-boats in the North Sea. Admittedly, he raised more hell on shore leave than he ever did on the high seas, but he was never in it for the medals. He was in it to serve his country as best he could, and get the hell out before he got neutered by shrapnel from a Kraut torpedo.
He came home in one piece, worked hard in the steel mill, got married to a nice lass, and paid off his home in just under twenty years. He was, for the most part, a loyal husband, and the few times he strayed, he made sure to address his indiscretions in the confessional booth. He had six kids, and eleven grandkids with more on the way.
Sure, he'd like to go on one more fishing trip or stick around long enough to see Ohio State win another Rose Bowl, but it just wasn't in the cards. Besides, the system wasn't set up like that. Social Security can't afford to pay for millions of blue-hairs to hang around and feed the pigeons until they were ninety, or even a hundred years old. The numbers just didn't add up. No, sir. He was tired. It was time to rest.
But Shannon didn't see it that way. She was inconsolable. She had always been daddy's little girl, and her father had turned into a sunken, jaundiced skeleton in what seemed like overnight. At the funeral, Shannon collapsed in the aisle and started screaming at her husband.
"It was the drinking! He had another ten good years left in him if it weren't for all the damned drinking! You've got to stop, Donny. You've got to stop with the drinking before you end up like him."
"Okay, Shannon. Okay, sweetheart," Donny said to her as he and a few helpful cousins and uncles picked her up off of the floor and restored her to her seat in the pew.
"Promise me, Donny," she cried, "No more drinking. You've got to promise."
"Okay, Shannon, no more drinking. I promise," he whispered in her ear, even as he traced the reassuring outline of the flask he had tucked away in the inside pocket of his suit coat.
But come on. Donny made that promise under duress while his emotionally-compromised wife was throwing a tantrum on the floor of the funeral home. Somehow, her black dress had gotten all bunched up around her waist, and suddenly an impromptu peep show had captured the attention of some of the younger, more distant male cousins in attendance. Surely that promise wasn't binding.
A few months later, Donny's wife called his bluff.
"You're a weak, weak, little man," she professed as she leveled a trembling index finger at him.
"What?" was all Donny could think to say.
"You're drunk. That's what," she said.
"Big deal. I stopped after work to have a couple of beers with the boys. So shoot me."
"Maybe I'll just get a good lawyer and divorce you."
Donny dismissed her threat with a shrug before making an about-face and driving right back to the bar he had just come from. After all, Shannon was Irish-Catholic, and it was still the early 1970's. She was too entrenched in dogma to lawyer up and file for divorce. There were psychological and social forces at work that were too powerful for her to overcome. It would be like a sparrow, trying to fly against a jet stream.
Then, on a bright, cool, mid-October Saturday morning, Donny got served with the divorce papers. He read over the documents while his cornflakes got soggy. That's how he felt -- like a big, dumb, soggy cornflake.
Shannon wasn't home. She had left with the kids less than an hour earlier, allegedly to go shopping for winter coats.
If she had been there, Donny would have told her everything. He would have told her that his real name was Roy Ingersol, and that he was an escaped convict from another universe. He would have told her how he had wandered the deserts of space and time, and after enough ages had passed, he had finally stumbled across this Earth, a replica Earth that was about a century behind the one he had known. But it was close enough to feel like home, so he stayed.
He would have told her how he had hijacked the body of some guy who was conceived on a rickety bed in the backroom of a backwoods speakeasy in Missouri. He would have told her that the booze was necessary because it was the only thing that could quiet the ghost of the real Donald Harris who still lurked in the machinery of his mind. He wanted to cry to her about how he needed the booze to break that pesky circuit that, for whatever reason, compelled his etheric energy to leave his body like a cat that would rather wander the streets at night than sleep next to a warm hearth. He wanted to point to the sky and scream that there were aliens up there that wanted to use him like a mule, to carry them into other universes so they could plunder them in their misguided bid for immortality.
Donny wanted to fall to his knees and profess to her that everything he needed was right here. His wife, his kids, and a good job were all right here in Cleveland, Ohio. He wanted to explain to her that people were meant to live fleeting lives, like matches struck on the darkest night, casting their light out into the inkiness, glimpsing at infinity, and trying to make sense of it all before blinking out. He wanted to say how nothing would make him happier than to spend those ephemeral moments with her. And most of all, he wanted to tell her that he loved her.
When Shannon returned some hours later, tears streamed freely down her face. She said, "I left the kids with my mom. I think that's best right now. I'm sorry, Donny."
Donny took her hand gently in his and recounted all the things he wanted to tell her, but eventually, he settled on this:
"Shannon, you're right. You and the kids deserve better, but this is the best I can do. It's gonna be hard at first, but you'll see this is the right decision. You'll be happy again. I know you will."
"What about you?" she sobbed.
"I'll be all right."
"Donny, I want you to know I hired a lawyer," she said as she looked down at her shoes out of shame.
"Well," Donny sighed, "I hope you got a good Jewish one who's really gonna stick it to me."
"Yeah. His name's Abe Lindenbaum."
Donny scratched his chin and forced a smile. "I guess I'm fucked."
They were both so sad they broke out into hysterical laughter for a solid minute. When the laughing fit subsided, Donny threw some clothes in a duffel bag and drove down to the American Motel on Euclid Avenue. He worked out a pretty good rate with the owner, paid for a week up front in cash, and walked to a little bar right across the street.
The divorce was finalized, and Donny was granted visits with the kids every other weekend. Like a ship with ruptured ballast tanks rolling in the high seas, he courageously chugged forward, trying to restore some sense of normalcy to his life.