Chapter 23: The General Assholery of the Holiday Season
After a month or so, Donny checked out of the American Motel and rented a small apartment on Lake Shore Boulevard. It was just down the street from his childhood home on Rosecliff Drive. He tried to convince himself that the proximity to that house was just a coincidence, but deep down, he knew that was a lie. He got into the habit of waking up early every morning and making the ten-minute walk down his old street.
It was eerie to see the younger versions of the neighbors he had known from his childhood. He remembered Mrs. Zodowski as the grouchy old woman who lived at the top of the street, but in this universe, it was 1974, and she was a stone-cold fox. She was usually out early raking leaves, and she'd wave to Donny as he strolled by. He'd smile and wave back, and when he was sure she was out of earshot, he'd hum the Twilight Zone theme song.
He saw a man stuffing some letters in his mailbox at the end of his driveway, checking his watch impatiently, and then speeding away in his black Cadillac. Donny realized that was Mr. Tedesco, the father of his good childhood friend, Tim. Mr. Tedseco ended up losing his job and relocating to Atlanta in the summer of 1987 or 1988. He couldn't remember which.
Then there was Mr. Wetzel, the successful orthodontist, who lived two doors down. He had a beautiful Chevy Nova that he kept finely tuned and shining immaculately at all times. He had a reputation as a very good mechanic, and friends and neighbors were always bringing over their ailing cars for advice. Mr. Wetzel would roll out his big toolbox and, more often than not, he'd have the car running like a top by the time it backed out of his driveway. He never took money for the work, claiming it was just a hobby of his. He'd mention that he would have become a mechanic if his father wasn't so adamant about him going to dentistry school. Then he'd sigh, pop open the hood of that Nova, and look for a bolt to tighten or a hose to replace.
When Roy was a sophomore in high school, Mr. Wetzel's wife of twenty some years up and left him. Rumors started circulating around town that Mrs. Wetzel had returned home much earlier than expected one evening after some suspect crème brûlée brought the weekly book club meeting to a screeching halt. In a crazed sprint for the toilet, she burst through the bathroom door, only to find it was occupied by her husband and a strange man who were either in the middle of a fiercely-contested Greco-Roman wrestling match, or who were deep in the throes of passionate ecstasy.
Less than a month later, Mrs. Wetzel would move in with her sister in Connecticut, and Mr. Wetzel would be taking his last toxic breaths. His secretary notified the authorities when he failed to show up for work one morning, and around noon that day, the police kicked in the side door to his garage and found him dead in the driver's seat of that Chevy Nova. The coroner would later confirm it was carbon monoxide poisoning.
Roy wondered if these people he remembered from another life were bound to the exact same destinies in this universe. He wondered if the man who would eventually become his father would meet the same woman who would eventually become his mother, and together they would buy that same house at the same address at the end of Rosecliff Drive. He wondered if he would be born again in this universe as the exact same person.
Roy had read enough of those popular physics books about Quantum Mechanics and the Chaos Theory to know that the cosmos wasn't a clockwork machine of Newtonian gears and springs. Any minor variation between this universe and his native universe would yield drastically different realities.
Maybe, in this universe, his father would get drunk at a sleazy strip joint in Topeka, Kansas and knock up some skanky cocktail waitress before he ever had a chance to propose to the woman who Roy knew as his mother.
Everything that ever happened, beginning with the Big Bang, would have to repeat itself exactly as it happened to yield the exact same circumstances that would yield the exact same Roy William Ingersol. It didn't seem possible.
But then again, every historical event he could think of was precisely replicated in this universe. George Washington was the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. He became the first President of the United States in 1789.
The attack on Pearl Harbor was perpetrated by the Empire of Japan on December 7th, 1941.
The Ford Model T was produced by the Ford Motor Company from 1908 to 1927. Assembly line production of the Model T drove costs down, making it the first car that was affordable to the middle class.
Donny/Roy tried not to think about the ethical implications of his situation. If the future could be altered, was he obligated to try to change it for the better? Could he save newborn Roy Ingersol from the same fate that had befallen him? If he were to meet himself, would the very fabric of space and time come unraveled?
Donny/Roy stood there at the end of Rosecliff Drive as the questions paraded through his mind. It was the ugly part of autumn -- the part they don't put on postcards. Freezing rain was falling hard as dead leaves scuttled over the sidewalk. There was nothing left to do except go back to his dreary apartment.
He cracked open a bottle of bourbon and took a long draw. It had a good burn going down. He opened his dresser drawer and picked up a nickel plated .45 pistol.
He wanted out -- out of this body, out of existence. He wondered what might happen if he turned the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. It would certainly scramble old Donny boy's brains. And when the eventual stench finally made its way through the air ducts, and the neighbors complained enough, his very cantankerous landlord would key himself into the apartment and curse the rotting heap for ruining the carpet.
But what about that stubborn etheric energy of his? Would it rise from the bloody ruins and drift aimlessly on the strange currents that permeated the multiverse? He feared he might be stuck with himself for eternity -- perhaps a punishment doled out by the cosmos for his transgressions in his previous life.
Suddenly, he recalled a wine-soaked conversation he had with Sarah all those ages ago. What had she said?
If you have unfinished business in this life, then in death, your soul will remain shackled to this realm.
Maybe that was it. Maybe there was something left to do -- some unfinished business he had to complete before he could rest. He had a hunch what it was.
Donny/Roy unloaded the .45, put it back in the drawer, and opened the blind. The color had bled out of everything -- the world appeared in grayscale. But he felt his depression lift as a new sense of purpose coursed through his being.
He picked up the phone and dialed his mother.
"Hi, mom. It's Donny. What are you doing for Thanksgiving?"
Thanksgiving dinner at his mother's house down in Missouri was pleasant enough. She was seeing an affable guy named Clyde, who sold tractors to farmers. By all accounts, business was booming. But the problem with good salesmen is that their sales pitch always seems to spill over into social settings. Donny half wondered if the guy was trying to sell him a John Deere model 4020, but the beer and the bourbon made the conversation tolerable.
"Now is that a diesel engine?" Donny asked, trying to sound interested.
"We can get it in either configuration -- diesel or gasoline. Of course, if you've got a lot of acreage to work, I'd recommend diesel."
Clyde's passion for farm equipment certainly steered the conversation well away from the sore subject of his recent divorce. For that, Donny was truly thankful. Early the next morning, the three of them had breakfast together, and Donny promised to do his best to make it back before too long. He got on the road headed for Cleveland just as the sun was coming up.
With another Thanksgiving in the books, retailers ushered in the Christmas season with a never-ending parade of ads. Every newspaper, radio station, and television channel screamed at him to buy, buy, buy. It gave him a headache, and frankly, he kind of tuned out. He figured he'd just wait until the crowds mostly died down, then run up to Sears and buy a new bike for each of the boys at the last minute.
For some reason or another, he had never gotten the message that his ex-wife and the boys were going to spend Christmas at her sister's house in Cincinnati. They were scheduled to leave early on the 21st. Donny was incredulous as he argued with Shannon via the pay phone that was located in the back of Mary's Bar and Grille.
"Dammit, Shanny," you never told you were taking them out of town!" he said.
"I told you twice, but evidently, you were too drunk to remember either time," Shannon countered. "We're leaving first thing in the morning, so if you really want to see the boys, you'll have to do it tonight before their bedtime.
Donny slurred something non-committal into the phone and hung up. He looked at the clock on the wall, made the adjustment for bar time, and calculated that it was 8:36 P.M. Now, this was 1974, and even during the Christmas shopping season, store managers had enough sense to close the doors by 9:00 P.M. It wasn't at all like the madness of the early 21st century when bargain-hungry patrons might stampede inside one of those 24/7 mega superstores and trample someone to death for an Xbox.
But Donny was damned if was gonna show up to visit his two boys without any Christmas presents. Inspiration struck when a twenty-year-old blond in a short skirt and thigh-high, candy-cane-striped stockings started dancing on the bar.
"Hey," Donny yelled to the woman, "Why don't you come over here?"
The girl, though drunk off her ass, strutted across the bar in six-inch stilettos, navigating over pints of beer and shots of whiskey with incredible ease and dexterity. Donny's guess was that she was a stripper who had honed that walk on the sticky stages of Cleveland's seedier side.
"You talking to me, stallion?" the blonde said to Donny as she stood over him, legs akimbo. Her dainty red lace panties left little to the imagination.
"Yeah, sweetie. I wanna buy your stockings. Twenty bucks for the pair," Donny offered.
"Are you gonna take them home and put 'em on?" the blonde wanted to know.
"No, they're presents."
"Hey, whatever. I'm not gonna judge you, daddy. But let's see the money first."
Donny handed over a crisp Andrew Jackson, and the woman stepped out of her heels and peeled the stockings off. Donny draped them over his shoulder, took a big swig of Shlitz, and headed out.
He counted out two stacks of a hundred dollars that were a nice blend of fives, tens, and twenties. He rolled each stack up into a tight cylinder and bound them with a fat rubber band, gangster style. Then he dropped each roll into a stocking and tied them off with an overhand knot.
When he got back to his old house, the one he lost in the divorce, he laid on the doorbell for what seemed like a long time. He decided a couple good raps on the brass knocker were in order, and some pencil-neck-looking guy in light blue pajamas and matching slippers finally answered.
"Can I help you?" the guy said.
"Yeah, I'm here to see my kids. Who the hell are you?" Donny said.
"Uh ... I'm ... uh ..." pajama guy stammered in the doorway.
"Todd, who is it?" Shannon called out from the top of the stairs.
"Uh ... I think it's your ex-husband. Should I invite him in?" pajama guy asked as Donny pushed past him.
"Goddammit, Donny!" Shannon whisper-screamed as she cinched up her robe and stormed down the stairway. "It's late. What the hell are you doing here now?"
"I wanna see Markey and Pauley. They're my kids, too, and I have every right in the world to see them."
"You're drunk," Shannon observed.
"And you're a bitch," Donny said. "Where's my boys? Let me see my boys."
"You're making a scene, Donny," Shannon said.
"Oh, I haven't even started to make a scene yet," Donny announced.
"Shannon, do you want me to call the police?" Pajama Guy offered.
"No, Todd," Shannon said. "Go wake up the boys. I'm gonna fix a pot of coffee. The faster we get this over with, the faster he'll be out of our hair."
The boys walked down the stairs in a zombie-like state, rubbing the sand out of their eyes.
"Look alive! Your old man's here," Donny yelled.
"Dad!" they screamed in unison and bounded down the stairs like antelope. They came in for the hug at full speed which packed sufficient force to topple Donny like a quarterback being driven to the turf by two crazed defensive linemen.
"Wow you boys are getting big," Donny said as his sons each grabbed one of his hands and pulled him to his feet.
"What are those?" Markey said, pointing to the candy-cane-striped stockings.
"Are those our presents, Dad?" Pauley asked.
"Yep. Here you go boys," Donny said.
"It smells like perfume," Markey observed.
"Yeah, and smoke too," Pauley interjected.
"Oh my God ... those things look so vulgar," Shannon complained as she shook her head disapprovingly.
"Don't be such a buzz kill," Donny cut in. "Let 'em open their Christmas presents."
The boys undid the knots, grabbed their respective stocking by the toe, and turned them upside down. The gangster rolls spilled out onto the living room carpet, and it took a few seconds for the boys to figure out what they were seeing. Finally, it sunk in.
"That must be a million bucks," Pauley calculated as he picked up his roll and considered the heft of it.
"More like a trillion," Markey estimated.
"Well, it's not quite that much, but it should last you a while," Donny said.
"Donny," Shannon said, "that's way too much."
"Dammit, Shanny, I want them to have it. I'm not gonna give in on this."
"All right," Shannon conceded. "But that's an outrageous amount."
"That's not important. The important thing is, I don't want you putting it in a savings account or any sensible thing like that. That's what their trust funds are for. This is for fun."
"All right. You win, Donny. They can spend it all on candy and baseball cards for all I care."
"Yeah!" the boys rejoiced at the verdict set forth by their mother.
"I'm gonna buy a hundred pounds of cotton candy!" Markey declared. For an eleven-year-old, that seemed like a pretty extravagant thing.
"I'm gonna buy a new bike and a leather jacket!" Pauley announced. He was two years older than his brother, so things like functionality and fashion were quickly becoming priorities.
"Me too," Markey said.
"Stop copying me all the time," Pauley warned.
"You copy," Markey countered.
"You," Pauley shot back.
That was enough to set off a melee between the two siblings -- a melee that Donny immediately quashed by grabbing them each by an ear and manually separating them.
"Now I don't want to hear any more bullshit," Donny decreed. "Come on, have a seat on the couch. I want to talk to you."
The boys did as they were told. They had a healthy respect for his authority because this was back when parents were allowed to be parents without the threat of being carted off to jail at the whim of some bleeding-heart social worker.
"You know I love you boys, right?" Donny said.
"Jeez, dad. Yeah, we know," Pauley said.
"Yeah, Dad. We know," Markey parroted.
"Good. And I want you to start looking out for each other. No more fighting over stupid things. And look out for your mother, too. I'm not gonna be around forever, so I want you two to start acting like men."
Pauley was old enough to sense the gravity in his father's voice.
"Is everything okay, Dad? You're not gonna die like Gramps did, are you?"
"Yeah, Dad, don't die like Gramps did," Markey sniffled, close to crying.
"Who said anything about dying?" Donny reassured them. "All I'm sayin' is that family's very important. It's the most important thing there is. Be good to each other."
"All right, Dad," Pauley said somberly as he got up from the couch and hugged his father.
Markey followed suit. "Okay, Dad. We'll be good. We'll help each other."
"All right, boys. I want you to remember this talk. And I want you to have a Merry Christmas. And wish everybody a Merry Christmas for me when you get to your aunt's house tomorrow."
"Okay, Dad, we will," Pauley said.
"Yeah, we promise, Dad," Markey said. "I love you."
"Yeah, I love you, too," Pauley said.
Donny ruffled their hair, made the awkward but necessary small talk with Shannon and Todd, and then steeled himself against the December night.