For hours we listened to it on the radio, and not once did Larry Phoebus say a word. A woman walked into a classroom of a school a couple of towns over and started shooting. She killed an eight-year-old boy and wounded five other kids. She’d also, the radio said, left homemade bombs at other schools, including a school just a few blocks from where Larry Phoebus and I were parked. I could hear the frantic sirens like crazed, amplified mosquitoes. Now the radio was saying that the police had confirmed that the woman had fled across the street from the school where she’d shot the boy and was holed up in a house with a hostage. This was in 1988, when things like this still had capacity to shock. I was sitting there with Larry Phoebus, looking out the windshield of the truck, staring at the Chicago and North Western tracks, at the tall weeds that grew up between the ties, listening to all this on WBBM.
I was home from my first year at college. It was July. I’d wandered across that year, as I’d wandered across much else, incurious, biding my time. Waiting for what, I couldn’t say. My stepfather, who was mayor of our suburb, found me a job in the Streets and Sanitation Department. For a few weeks, I was proudly blue-collar. Work—who would have thought I would take it? I worked for Streets as a jackhammerer. I destroyed curbs with erotic abandon. I will make this corner handicap accessible if it’s my last act on earth. I wore a sweaty red bandanna. Rudimentary biceps were beginning to rise between my shoulders and elbows like little loafs. I’d be uptown, standing on the street, encircled by a little ring of pylons, smoking, and I would tell the imaginary pom-pom girls who thronged around me that I can’t talk right now. Look, can’t you see I’m a workingman?
Then I was late three mornings in a row and the crew boss, Miguel, said, I’m taking you off Streets. You’re with Larry Phoebus now.
No, Miguel, no—please—
And don’t run to your dad. He knows all about it. In fact, he said to go ahead and fire you, but I figure, why not let you quit on your own? Won’t be long now.
He’s not my dad.
Turn in your gloves, Hirsch. You won’t be needing them again. Ever.
Larry Phoebus worked on the Sanitation side. He drove an enormous white truck with an enormous, bulbous hose attached to the end of it. It was called the Vac-Haul. It was rumored to have cost the taxpayers of Highland Park two million dollars. My stepfather was very proud of it. The Vac-Haul was designed to suck up major sewage backups without the need to send “manpower down the manhole,” as my former Streets partner, Steve Boland, explained it. The truck was Larry Phoebus’s baby. He was long past retirement age. He’d worked for Sanitation for something like fifty years and was now refusing to leave. It was said that he didn’t trust another living soul with the Vac-Haul and when it was time for him to die he was going to drive that two million dollars straight into Lake Michigan.
Also, Larry never spoke. It was said around the lunch table that Larry Phoebus had pretty much given up communing with the rest of the human race in the 1960s, when the world, his world, everybody’s world, went so haywire. Yet the precise reason for his total silence was a mystery nobody was especially interested in solving. Only Steve Boland speculated at all. He liked to hold forth in the lunchroom. Love, Boland said, what else is new under the sun? Only a woman could numb a guy like that. I hit the mute button myself for a couple of years after my first divorce. She took all my money, the house. Even then I had to sell the boat to pay her monthly. So I mean, answer me this, you’re living by yourself in some dump-ass rented apartment in Highwood and you think you’re going to want to converse?
“What the hell are you yattering about?” Miguel said.
“I’m talking about alone,” Boland said. “Do any of you even know what it means?”