On February 14, 2000, I took the Greyhound bus from Detroit to Buffalo to visit a girl named Lauren Hill. Not Lauryn Hill, the singer who did that song “Killing Me Softly,” but another Lauren Hill, who’d gone to my high school, and now, almost ten years later, was about to become my girlfriend, I hoped. I’d seen her at a party when she was home in Michigan over the holidays, and we’d spent the night talking and dancing. Around four in the morning, when the party closed down, we’d kissed for about twelve minutes out on the street, as thick, heavy snowflakes swept around us, melting on our eyebrows and eyelashes. She’d left town the next morning, and in the six weeks since, we’d traded a few soulful letters and had two very brief, awkward phone conversations. As Valentine’s Day came near, I didn’t know if I should send her flowers, call her, not call her, or what. I thought it might be romantic to just show up at her door and surprise her.
I switched buses in Cleveland and took a seat next to an ancient-looking black guy who was in a deep sleep. Twenty minutes from Buffalo, when darkness fell, he woke up, offered me a sip of Jim Beam from his coat pocket, and we started talking. His name was Vernon. He told me that when midnight rolled around, it was going to be his hundred-and-tenth birthday.
“A hundred and ten?” I squealed, unabashedly skeptical.
Happy to prove it, he showed me a public-housing ID card from Little Rock, Arkansas, that listed his birth date as 2/15/90.
“Who was president when—”
“Benjamin Harrison,” he said quickly, cutting me off before I was even done with my question, as though he’d heard it many times before. I had no clue if this was true, but he winked and popped a set of false teeth from his mouth, and in the short moment they glistened in his hand, it seemed suddenly believable that he was a hundred and ten, and not just, like, eighty-nine. His bottom gums, jutting tall, were shaped like the Prudential rock and were the color of raw fish, pink and red with dark gray speckles. The skin on his face was pulled taut around his cheekbones and eye sockets, as leathery and soft-looking as some antique baseball mitt in its display case at Cooperstown.
I found myself telling Vernon all about Lauren Hill and explained how nervous I was to see her—surely he’d have some experience he could draw on to help me out. I told him I thought I was taking a pretty risky gamble by popping up in Buffalo unannounced. Things were either going to be really fucking awesome or really fucking weird, and I figured I’d probably know which within the first couple of minutes I saw her. Vernon, it turned out, was in a vaguely similar situation. After a century plus of astonishingly robust health, he’d been ailing the past eighteen months, and before he kicked off he wanted to make amends with his great-granddaughter, whom he was the closest to out of all of his relatives. But, he admitted, he’d let her down so many times—with the drinking, the drugs, and even stealing her money and kitchen appliances—that she might not be willing to let him past the front door. Twice he used my cell phone to try calling her, but nobody answered. So much for sage advice.
We both got quiet and brooded to ourselves as the bus rolled off the freeway ramp and wound its way through empty downtown streets lined with soot-sprayed mounds of snow and ice. Buffalo in winter is a bleak Hoth-like wasteland, and the only sign of life I saw was a pair of drunks who’d faced off in front of an adult bookstore and begun to fight, staggering like zombies. One of them had a pink stuffed animal and was clubbing the other in the face with it. A steady snow began to fall, and I felt a wave of desperate sorrow crash over me. Whatever blind optimism I’d had about the night and how Lauren Hill might receive me had been lost somewhere along the way (maybe at the rest stop in Erie, Pennsylvania, in the bathroom stall with shit smeared on the walls). The trip, I realized now, was a mistake, but at the same time I knew that the only thing to do was to go ahead with my fucked-up plan anyway and go surprise Lauren, because once you’re sitting there and you’ve got a needle in your hands, what else is there to do but poke your finger and see the blood?
At the Greyhound station, a sort-of friend of mine named Chris Hendershot was there to pick me up in a shiny black Ford Explorer with only four hundred miles on the odometer but its front end and passenger side bashed to shit. “You get in a rollover?” I asked him, after hopping in up front.
“Naw, I just boosted this bitch yesterday in Rochester, it was already like this. Who’s your friend?”
“This is Vernon. He’s gonna ride with us, if that’s cool. In a few hours it’s gonna be his hundred-and-tenth birthday.”
“No shit?” Chris glanced in the rearview and nodded to Vernon, in the backseat. “Fuck if I make it to twenty-five,” he said, gunning it out of the lot.
Chris was the kind of guy who always made these sorts of claims, hoping, perhaps, to sound tougher, but really he was a sweetheart with a swashbuckler’s twinkle who was rarely in serious danger and probably had decades of fun times ahead of him, if he could stay out of prison. He had pale white skin, a rash of acne on his neck, and his own initials carved into his buzz-cut hair in several places. He looked Canadian and sounded Canadian and was indeed Canadian—he’d grown up on the meanest street of Hamilton, Ontario, and, as he’d told me more than a few times, he and his older brother had stolen seventy-six cars before getting finally caught when Chris was nineteen. Chris did the time—three years—while his brother skated. Then Chris moved in with an uncle in Cincinnati and got a job as an airline reservationist, which was how I’d met him a couple of years before. He had a gregarious nature, and after we’d found ourselves in deep conversation while I was buying tickets over the phone, he’d come to Chicago a few weekends in a row and stayed on my couch while pursuing his dream of becoming a stand-up comic. The problem was that he was absolutely sorry as a stand-up comic, just woefully bad. I saw him perform once, at the ImprovOlympic at Clark and Addison, and it was one of the hardest, saddest things I’ve ever had to watch—someone’s dream unraveling and being chopped dead with each blast of silence that followed his punch lines. But where I would’ve been destroyed by this, Chris was over it by the next morning, and freshly chipper. He told me the lesson he’d learned was that he needed to focus on his strengths, and he knew himself to be an ace car thief. Before long, he’d moved to Buffalo and was working at his older brother’s “mechanic” shop. When I called and told him I was coming to town and explained why, he told me he actually knew Lauren Hill, because for a while he’d been a regular at Freighter’s, the bar where she worked, though he doubted she knew him by name, and anyway, he said, he wasn’t allowed in there anymore because he’d left twice without paying when he’d realized at the end of the night that he’d left his cash at home. “I’ll tell you one thing,” he said. “That girl’s beautiful. Every guy who wanders into that damn bar, they leave in love with her.”
Vernon had asked if he could roll with us for a bit while he kept trying to reach his great-granddaughter. If nothing else, he suggested, we could drop him off later at the YMCA and he’d track her down the next morning. He sat quietly in the backseat, looking out the window while we cruised toward the east side of town, running every sixth light, Chris catching me up on some of his recent escapades, half-shouting to make himself heard over the blare of a modern-rock station out of Niagara Falls, Ontario, that slipped in and out of range. “Hey, check this out,” he said. He reached beneath the driver’s seat and passed me a fat roll of New York Lottery scratch tickets. “You can win like ten grand!” he cried. “Scratch some off if you want.”
“Where’d you get these, man?”
“Get this—they were in the car when I got it! Just sitting in the backseat! I already scratched off some winners, like forty bucks’ worth.” He passed me a tin Buffalo Sabres lighter from his coat pocket, its sharp bottom edge gummed with shavings from the tickets he’d scratched. “Go on,” he said, “make us some money.”
I tore off a long band of tickets and handed them back to Vernon, along with a quarter from the center console, and Chris cranked up the volume until the windows shook and piloted us through his frozen, desolate town toward Lauren Hill’s apartment, singing along to the radio, while me and Vernon scratched away: “You make me come. / You make me complete. / You make me completely miserable.” I looked up and saw him grinning at me and nodding his head, as if to ask, Doesn’t this song fucking rock? I grinned and nodded back, because yes, in a crazy way it kind of did. A barely perceptible but definitely perceptible drip of hopefulness had started to seep back into the night.
No one was home at Lauren’s place; in fact, the lights were out in all six apartments in her building even though it was only seven-thirty.
Chris cracked his window and flicked a pile of my losing scratch tickets through like cigarette butts. “She’s probably at the bar,” he said. “She works every night, and she’s there hanging out even when she ain’t working. We’ll go find her.” He whipped the Explorer around the corner and we fishtailed a bit in the gathering snow.
A mile down, five tiny side streets spilled together at a jagged-shaped intersection, and from its farthest corners, two squat and battered bars glared across at each other like warring crabs, panels of wood nailed over the windows and painted to match the outside walls and one neon beer sign hanging over each door—Yuengling and Budweiser—as though they were the names of the bars.
Chris pulled over and pointed to the bar with the Yuengling sign. “That’s Freighter’s,” he said. “See if she’s in there. And if she is, see if you can call off the dogs so I can get in there, too.”
I jumped out and took a few steps, then had a thought and went back to the truck and asked Vernon if he wanted to come in with me. I was nervous to see Lauren and afraid she would find something creepy and stalker-like about me taking a Greyhound bus a few hundred miles to make an uninvited appearance on Valentine’s Day. If I rolled in there with Vernon, it seemed to me, any initial awkwardness might be diffused.
Vernon was a little unsteady on his feet, either from the whiskey or the quilt of fresh snow lining the street paired with his ludicrously advanced age, so I held him by the arm as we crossed the intersection. A plume of merriment rose in my chest that was six parts the gentle glow of heading into any bar on a cold, snowy night, and four parts the wonderful, unpredictable madness of having a hundred-and-ten-year-old man I’d just met on the Greyhound bus as my wingman. I heaved open the heavy door to Freighter’s, letting out a blast of noise and hot, smoky air, and once Vernon shuffled past, I followed him in.
Inside, it was so dark and hot and loud it took me a few seconds to get my bearings. People shouted over the thump of a jukebox and the rattle of empty bottles being tossed into a metal drum. Directly overhead, two hockey games roared from a pair of giant TVs. It smelled like someone had puked on a campfire. All of which is to say, just the way I liked it and just like the 8 Ball Saloon back in Michigan where Lauren had worked before moving to Buffalo for school.
A hulking, tattooed guy on a stool was asking me and Vernon for our IDs. I flashed him mine, while Vernon pulled out the same fraying ID card he’d showed me earlier. The doorman plucked it from his hand, inspected it, and passed it back, shaking his head. “Nope,” he shouted over the din. “I need a driver’s license or state ID.” At first I laughed, thinking he was just fucking with us, but then I saw he was serious.
I leaned to his ear and protested, “But he’s a hundred and ten years old! Look at the guy!”
The doorman shook his head and pointed at the exit. It was useless to try to reason with him over the din, and I figured once I found Lauren, she’d help me get Vernon and Chris in.
“Wait in the truck,” I shouted in Vernon’s ear. “I’ll come get you guys in a few minutes.”
He nodded and slipped out into the cold. I took a few steps further in. The place was packed, mostly older, rugged-looking dudes—factory workers, construction workers, bikers, and their equally rugged-looking girlfriends—with a sprinkling of younger indie kids and punk rockers mixed in. All of a sudden I caught sight of Lauren Hill behind the bar and my heart twisted like a wet rag—she had her back turned to me and was getting her shoulders thoroughly massaged by a tall, skinny, dark-haired guy in a sleeveless shirt, dozens of tattoos slathered on his arms. My first thought was to immediately leave, but I also knew that would be silly—this was surely just some guy who worked with her, not a true threat. The guy finished his little rubdown and they both turned back to the bar. Lauren’s beauty made my stomach lurch. She had long, straight hair, dyed black; big, expressive eyes; and her usual enormous, bright smile. I made my way over, feeling stupid for having spent the last eight hours on buses without the foresight to dream up a single witty or romantic thing to say when I greeted her.
I edged between a few guys at the bar and pulled a ten-dollar bill from my back pocket. When Lauren came close, I called out, “Can I get a Bell’s Amber?”—a local Michigan brew that wasn’t served in Buffalo—my spontaneous, wilted stab at a joke. Even Chris Hendershot could’ve conjured up something funnier.
She looked at me and the smile drained off her face. “Davy? Oh my God, what the hell are you doing here?” There was no way to hug across the bar; instead, Lauren offered what seemed to me a slightly awkward and tepid two-handed high five.
I slapped her hands and said, “I came here to surprise you,” feeling suddenly lost in space.
“Oh, that’s so awesome,” she said, sounding possibly genuine. “But what are you doing in Buffalo?”
“No, I came to Buffalo because I wanted to see you.” I shrugged and heard the next words tumble out of my mouth, even as I instantly regretted them. “Happy Valentine’s Day!”
Just then, a bar-back rushing past with a tub full of empty glasses crashed into her, knocking her a couple of feet to the side. Now she was within shouting range of a few guys further along the bar, and they started barking out their drink orders. She leaned back toward me and hollered, “I’m sorry, Monday nights are always like this, and we’re short a guy. Can you come back later? It’ll be less insane.”
“Sure, no problem,” I said, putting both hands up idiotically for another slap of hands, but she’d already turned and was cranking the caps off a row of Yuenglings. I slowly lowered my hands, waited another fifteen seconds or so until she happened to glance my way, and gave her a little wave. She flashed a polite smile in return, and I whirled and slunk out the door, utterly defeated, making a promise to myself not to come back later in the night unless she called my phone in the next few hours and begged me to. It was just past eight o’clock. I’d give her till midnight.
“Should we come inside?” Chris asked as I climbed in the backseat; Vernon had made it back to the car and was up riding shotgun.
“It’s kind of busy in there. Let’s get some grub and come back later.”
“Well, how’d it go?” asked Vernon, once we were moving again.
“Not too bad. I don’t know. Not too good, either.” I told them what had gone down. They both tried to reassure me that Lauren was probably really excited I was in town, but that it’s always hard when someone pops in to see you and you’re busy at work. I granted them that, but it still seemed like she could’ve maybe flipped me the keys to her apartment, in case I wanted to take a nap or chill out and watch a movie until she got home. Or really had done anything to give me the sense that she was happy I’d rolled in.
“Don’t worry, man,” Vernon said. “Trust me, it’ll be cool.” This from the guy who was now using Chris’s cell phone—and had been the whole time I was in the bar—to try to reach his great-granddaughter, to no avail. He was hoping we could stop by her house, which was on the west side of town, about a twenty-minute drive.
“I’m down,” I said. “Chris?”
“Rock ’n’ roll.” He pumped up the Green Day song on the radio, zoomed through side streets to the on-ramp for an expressway, and looped the Explorer back toward the lights of downtown, slapping the steering wheel along to the music. Vernon tore off a few scratch tickets for himself, passed me the rest of the roll, and we both went to work.
Each losing ticket I scratched out socked me a little blow to the heart. Why didn’t scratch cards just have a single box that told you if you’d won or not? Why the slow build, all the teasing hoopla of tic-tac-toe game boards and wheels of fortune? You kept thinking you were getting close and then, once again: loser. All of the unanswered questions made my head hurt: Had I blown things by coming to Buffalo and putting unfair pressure on Lauren Hill? Should I simply have come on any day other than Valentine’s Day? Had she meant all the things she’d said in her letters? Some of it? None of it? And what would be the best way to salvage the night when I went back to the bar? (Because, face it, I was headed back there later whether she called me or not.) A small heap of losing tickets gathered at my feet.
“Holy shit!” cried Vernon from up front. “I think we got a winner!”
“How much?” said Chris, suddenly alert, punching the radio off.
“Wait a second. Did I win? Yeah, I did. Ten bucks!”
“Not bad.” Chris nodded enthusiastically. “That’s yours to keep,” he told Vernon. “You guys just keep on scratching.”
“You bet your goddamn ass,” said Vernon, still believing a bigger payday was near.
His minor stroke of glory made me glad, but to me, winning ten bucks instead of ten grand was like getting a drunken kiss on the corner of the mouth from a stranger at the bar that you’ll never see again. What I really wanted was to spend the night in Lauren Hill’s arms, kissing her and holding her tight; to wake up with her at dawn, make love once or twice, and walk hand in hand through the woodsy park I’d glimpsed by her apartment, which by morning, I imagined—if it kept snowing the way it was now—would be transformed into a place of quiet and exquisite majesty. That was my wish. Anything less I’d just as soon chuck out the window.
From the outside, Vernon’s great-granddaughter’s house looked like a haunted mansion out of Scooby-Doo. It sat on a wide section of an abandoned half-acre lot overgrown with weeds, brambles, and the remaining debris from houses that had been leveled on either side. Across the street, TVs flickered dimly from the windows of a low-rise housing project, and at the end of the block a closed-down liquor store with both doors missing gaped like a sea cave, open to the elements. As we pulled up in front, Vernon looked back at me and said, “Hey, would you come inside with me?” It was my turn to be wingman.
I followed him up the front walk and up three stairs to the porch, and he lifted the enormous, rusted horseshoe knocker on the front door and let it land with a heavy thud. We waited. I watched snowflakes touch down on the Explorer’s windshield and instantly melt. The knocker squeaked as he lifted it again, but then, from somewhere deep in the house, came a woman’s voice, “I hear you, I’m coming.”
Her footsteps padded near and Vernon edged back until he was practically hiding behind me. “Who’s there?” the woman called.
I looked over to Vernon, waiting for him to respond. He had the look of a dog who’d strewn trash through the kitchen. “It’s your granddaddy,” he said at last, weakly.
“Vernon Wallace.” He kicked the porch concrete. “Your great-granddaddy.”
The door opened a couple of inches and a woman’s face appeared, eyebrows raised, hair wrapped in a towel above her head. She was in maybe her early fifties. Through a pair of oversize glasses, she took a long look at Vernon, sighed, shook her head, and said, “Granddaddy, what’re you doing up here in the wintertime?” As he cleared his throat and began to respond, she said, “Hold on, let me get my coat.” The door closed, and for a half-minute Vernon painted hieroglyphics with the toe of his old shoe in a pyramid of drifting snow, looking suddenly frail and ancient. Exhaust panted from the Explorer’s tailpipe out on the street, and I could make out the hard-rock bass line rattling its windows but didn’t recognize the song.
After a moment, the door opened again and the woman stepped out and joined us on the front porch, hair still tucked up in a towel. Over a matching pink sweat suit she wore a puffy, oversize, black winter coat, and her feet, sockless, were stuffed into a pair of unlaced low-top Nikes. She gave Vernon a big, friendly hug, and said, “I love you, Granddaddy, it’s good to see you,” and then turned to me and said, “Hi there, I’m Darla Kenney,” and once I’d introduced myself she said, “Well, it’s good to meet you, I appreciate you bringing Vernon by.” She turned back to face him and crossed her arms. “What you been drinking tonight, Granddaddy?”
He flinched slightly but didn’t respond.
“Listen,” she said, “I love you, but I ain’t got no money. You know my whole situation. You’re gonna have to stay with your friend here, ’cause I can’t just invite you in.”
Vernon nodded deeply, unable to meet her gaze. “I was just hoping we could spend time together.”
“We can!” she said. “But not tonight. I got all kinds of shit to deal with tonight. I can’t even get the damn car started. You got to learn to call people ahead of time so they know you coming.” She softened. “How long you gonna stay in town for?”
Vernon shrugged. “A week or two?”
“Okay, then. Look, you give me a call tomorrow, or the next day, and we’ll go for a drive, we’ll play cards at Calvin’s. He know you’re in town?”
Vernon shook his head.
Darla looked past us, to the Explorer out on the street, its motor revving, Chris Hendershot behind the wheel, slapping his hands on the dash and crooning to himself. “That your friend?” she asked me.
“Yeah. That’s Chris.”
Darla tugged her coat closed and fought with the zipper. “Hey, listen,” she said. “I got cables. Think I can get a jump?”
Ten minutes later, Chris was shouting instructions to me, banging under the hood of Darla Kenney’s ’84 Lincoln Continental with a wrench while I pounded the gas and jammed the ignition. Is there any sound more full of frustration and futility than a car that won’t start when you turn the key? Click-click-click-click-click. All I could think of was Lauren Hill’s dismayed expression in the bar when she’d first seen me.
“Okay, cut it!” Chris shouted. I felt his weight on the engine block as he bobbed deep within. A ping and a clatter. “Now try.”
I heard Chris disconnecting the jumper cables, and then he dropped the hood with a magnificent crash. “I’ll tell you what’s happening, ma’am,” he said to Darla, who stood in the street, looking on, still in her unlaced sneakers and coat with a towel on her head. “Your battery cable’s a little frizzy, down by the starter relay. We get this in the shop, it’s nothing— ten minutes, you’re on your way. Tonight, though, no tools? Ain’t gonna be easy.” He passed her the jumper cables and put a consoling hand on her shoulder. “I’m really sorry. Usually I can get anything moving.” I was touched by his level of kindness—if this was how sweetly he treated a woman he’d just met, it was hard to imagine there was anything he wouldn’t do for his friends.
I climbed from the car and joined Chris and Darla. Vernon was sitting in the Explorer, keeping warm up front, scratching off lotto tickets.
“Well, it was nice of you to try,” said Darla. She looked back and forth between us. “How do you guys know my granddaddy, anyhow?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer. “Well, we met on a Greyhound bus once; we were seatmates.” The word “once” tossed in there made it seem like this was years ago.
But Darla saw through it. “Oh, okay, when was that?”
She weighed this for a second. “Is he staying with you guys?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think he was saying something about the Y.” The way my awesome surprise had gone over with Lauren Hill, I’d probably end up in the next bunk.
“I stay with my brother,” Chris piped up. “But we got a cot at the garage, right around the corner. It’s heated. I mean, that’s where we work. Shit, he can stay in my room and I’ll stay on the cot.”
“We’re not gonna leave him on the street,” I said. I meant to be reassuring, but realized a second later that my words could be taken as an accusation.
Darla toyed with the clamps of the jumper cables in her hands; the metal jaws, squeaking open and shut, looked like angry, puppet-size gators shit-talking back and forth. As little as she seemed to want to deal with Vernon, she also seemed aware that he was her responsibility as much as anyone else’s, and she wasn’t ready to ditch him with two white kids he’d met an hour before. “Here’s the thing,” she said. “He can’t stay at my house, and I got no money to give him right now. But I’ve got a tenant that owes me four hundred fifty dollars—I was gonna stop there tonight anyhow. We get some of that money together, I’ll give my granddaddy half and put him up a week at the Front Park Inn.”
Me and Chris nodded. “That’ll work,” I said. Fuck the Y—maybe at the Front Park Inn there’d be an extra bed for me.
Darla went to the Lincoln, heaved open the back door, and tossed the jumper cables on the floor behind the driver’s seat. She turned back toward us. “Can I get a ride over to this house with you guys? It’s really close, like ten, fifteen blocks from here. Larchmont, just the other side of Lake Avenue.”
“Ain’t no thing,” said Chris.
I asked Darla if she wanted to get dressed first, at least pull on some socks, but she was already climbing into the backseat of Chris’s Explorer and sliding over to make room for me. “We’re just going and coming right back,” she said. “Come on, hop in.”
The snow kept falling. On the way to her tenant’s house, Darla filled me in on a few things while Chris blasted music up front. It both irritated and charmed me that he kept the radio going max force no matter who was in the car with him. Even when he’d stayed with me in Chicago all those weekends, every time we were in my truck he’d reach over and crank the volume. Vernon rode shotgun, dozing, the dwindling spool of lotto tickets in his lap.
Darla had four children, she told me. She’d had the same job—quality control at a metal-stamping plant—for almost thirty years, and as she was careful with her money, she’d been able to buy homes for each of her children in nearby West Buffalo neighborhoods. “Nothing fancy,” she said, “but a roof over their heads.” One daughter had split up with her husband two years before and moved to Tampa, Florida. Darla rented out one half of their house to a friend from work, and the ex had stayed on in the other half, though Darla had begun to charge him three hundred bucks a month in rent, which was more than fair, she said, and less than what she could get from somebody else. But her daughter’s ex, whose name was Anthony, and who was, overall, a decent, hardworking man, had fallen behind—he still owed her for January, and now half of February. It was time for her to pay a visit, Darla said.
She coached Chris through a few turns. We crossed a big four-lane road and the neighborhood deteriorated, making Darla’s street look regal by comparison. Every third house was shuttered or burned-out. On a side street I glimpsed four guys loading furniture out of a squat apartment building into a U-Haul trailer. “Okay,” said Darla, “take this right and it’s the first one on the right.”
We pulled up in front of a tiny, ramshackle house with cardboard taped over a missing window and its gutters hanging off, dangling to the ground. Still, the dusting of snow softened its features, and there were hopeful signs of upkeep—Christmas lights draped over a hedge by the side door and a pair of well-stocked bird feeders, swinging from low branches in the front yard, which had attracted a gang of sickly but grateful-looking squirrels.
“I’ll be back in a couple minutes,” said Darla, stepping gingerly down to the snow-filled street. She closed her door, picked her way across the lawn to the side of the house, knocked a few times, and disappeared inside.
Chris’s cell phone rang and he answered it and had a quick, angry spat with his older brother. He’d explained to me that he’d been in hot water with his brother all month. His brother had a rule that anytime Chris boosted a car he was supposed to get it immediately to their shop to be dismantled (or at least stripped of its vin) and resold. Chris admitted that he had a habit of keeping stolen cars for a while and driving around in them to impress girls. A couple of weeks before, another guy who worked with them had landed a cherry-red PT Cruiser in Pittsburgh, and Chris had whipped it around Buffalo over Super Bowl weekend while his brother was out of town. His brother found out, of course, and had been hounding him about it ever since. Now he seemed to be giving Chris grief for driving the Explorer; I could hear his brother on the other end of the phone, shouting at him to bring it back to base. “Fuck that motherfucker!” Chris shouted, hanging up and slamming his phone on the dash. “Who the fuck does he think he is?” To me, there was something ecstatically rich and appealing in someone who acted so gangsta but sounded so Canadian; at the same time, I could see in the rearview mirror that Chris’s eyes had gone teary, and I felt a guilty and despairing tug of responsibility for dragging him around town and sticking him deeper into his brother’s doghouse.
The shouting roused Vernon from his mini-nap, and without missing a beat he resumed work scratching off the squares of each lotto ticket. A heaviness had settled over him. He inspected a ticket after scratching it off, sighed greatly, and let it slip from his fingers.
In the front yard of the house next door, a band of ragtag little kids wrestled in the snow and hurled snowballs at parked cars and each other, shouting, “I’ma blast you, nigga!” The oldest of them, a boy around ten, was trying to rally the rest of them through the early stages of building a snowman. I powered my window down a few inches so I could hear his pitch. “Start with a giant snowball,” he said breathlessly, as he worked on packing one together, then placed it on the ground. “Then we keep rolling this thing, and rolling it, and rolling it, until it’s as big as a house, and then we’ll have the biggest snowman in all of Buffalo!” The other kids dove in to help him, and they slid around the yard, accumulating more snow, then breaking off chunks accidentally as they pushed in opposite directions. Everyone shouted instructions at everyone else: “Roll it that way!” “Get those Doritos off it!” “You’re fucking it up!”
Lauren Hill had been about the same age—nine or ten—when her dad was killed by a drunk driver. She’d told me the story in the most recent letter she’d sent me; her mom had appeared at the park where Lauren was playing with her friends and pulled her away and told her the news. Even though that had happened in summertime, I couldn’t help but picture a fifth-grade Lauren Hill building a snowman with her neighborhood pals, her mom galloping up, crazed and wild-eyed, and dragging her away to a sucky, dadless future in a grim apartment complex near the Detroit airport, populated by creepy neighbors and a steady stream of her mom’s low-life live-in boyfriends. When you first got involved with any girl who’d been punctured by that kind of sadness, I’d learned, you had to be extra cautious about flooding them with goodness and light. A gentle and steady kindness appealed to them, but too much love straight out of the gate was uncomfortable, even painful, and impossible to handle. I felt like an idiot for coming to Buffalo and freaking Lauren out.
“Hey, Vernon,” I said, leaning between the front seats. “Did you ever get married?”
“Yes I did. Wanda May. Fifty years we were married.” He paused, passing a scratch-off to Chris. “I think this one wins a free ticket.” Then, to me, with a sudden touch of melancholy, “She died in 1964.”
“Damn. That’s way before I was born.”
Vernon slipped his whiskey bottle out, touched it to his lips, and gave me a look. “You want some advice?” he said.
“You should marry this girl you came to see. Marry her right away. Tomorrow, if you want. You don’t know how much time you get with someone, so you might as well start right away.”
“The problem is, it’s not up to me. She gets a say.”
“It’s more up to you than you think.”
I let that sink in, watching the kids in the neighbor’s yard. Their snowman’s round trunk had quickly swelled from the size of a soccer ball to the size of a dorm fridge. It took all of them, pushing and shouldering it together, to keep it rolling across the lawn. Finally they ran out of juice and came to a stop, slumping against their massive boulder of snow, tall as the oldest boy. There seemed to be two opinions about what to do next. The boy in charge wanted to go down the street and recruit his older cousin and some of his cousin’s friends to keep pushing. But one tiny girl pointed out that the snowman had already gotten too big for them to add a middle and a top. Also, she suspected that if the boy’s cousin and his friends glimpsed the half-built snowman, all they’d want to do is destroy it. “We made it, we should get to knock it down,” she said.
Vernon passed his bottle to Chris, who took a long gulp and passed it back to me. I drained the last of the whiskey down and watched as the kids gave their big, round heap of snow a pair of stick arms, then collaborated on the face—two deep holes for eyes, a Dorito for a nose, and, strangely, no mouth.
By now, Chris and Vernon were watching them, too. “You want some more advice?” Vernon asked.
“Yes, I do.”
“Okay. Don’t outlive your wife.”
The oldest kid pulled off his red knit cap and plopped it on top of the snowman’s head, and at last the whole crew of munchkins stood back to silently admire their handiwork. It was surely the saddest, fattest, strangest, and most beautiful snowman I’d ever seen.
After a few long moments, there was the sound of voices, as Vernon’s great-granddaughter Darla banged her way through the side door of the house she owned. The towel on her head had been replaced by a black baseball cap, and she was trailed by two others in heavy coats with their hoods pulled up. Her appearance seemed to somehow release the kids in the neighbors’ yard from their spell. The oldest boy let out a mighty cry and charged the snowman—he plowed into its shoulder, driving loose its left arm and a wedge of its face, before crashing to the ground. The other kids followed, flailing with arms and feet, and even using the snowman’s own arms to beat its torso quickly to powdery rubble.
Darla and her two companions crossed the yard toward us.
Vernon turned to me and Chris. “That’s how long I was married, feels like,” he said, eyes blazing. “As long as that snowman was alive.”
We took on two new passengers—Anthony, the ex-husband of Darla’s daughter who owed Darla all the back rent, and his shy, pregnant girlfriend, Kandy. They squeezed in back with me and Darla, and we circled around the block and headed back the way we’d come. Our next destination was a Chinese restaurant where Anthony worked as a dishwasher, on the east end of town, not far from Lauren Hill’s bar. Anthony told us that his car was dead, too; apparently, one of the few operational vehicles in all of Buffalo was Chris’s Explorer, which he’d driven off the lot of a body shop in Rochester the night before.
Anthony and Darla continued a conversation they must have started in the house. Anthony—dark skinned, small and compact, with a thin mustache, roughly forty years old—spoke softly, but had a thoughtful, commanding presence. He was explaining why he hadn’t quit his job, even though he hadn’t been paid in a month. “Here’s the thing about Mr. Liu,” he said. “Last winter, business got so slow, sometimes there was no customers in there, he could’ve sent me home. But he knows I got bills, and I’m scheduled to work, so he gave me the hours and found shit for me to do. You know, shovel the parking lot, clean out the walk-in cooler. Sometimes he paid me just to sit on a stool in back and watch basketball. Now his wallet thin for a minute, how’m I just gonna walk out on him?”
“What if he goes out of business?” Darla asked. “He gonna pay you those paychecks?”
“That’s what I’m saying,” said Kandy. She sat on the far side of the backseat, deeply ensconced in the hood of her jacket; it was hard for me to get a good look at her, but she seemed no older than me or Chris, and was maybe seven months pregnant.
“We talked about that,” said Anthony. “First of all, we ain’t goin’ out of business. It’s slow every winter, Mr. Liu just had some extra costs this winter. Second of all, he do go out of business? Mr. Liu told me he’s gonna sell the building and all the equipment an’ shit, and he’ll have plenty enough to pay me what he owe.”
The general plan, it seemed, was for Anthony to ask his boss for at least a portion of his paycheck so he could turn the money over to Darla, who might then have enough to support Vernon during his visit and buy him a ticket home to Little Rock. My own plan was to get some shrimp lo mein and ask Chris for a ride back to Freighter’s. I wondered if bringing Lauren a carton of Chinese food would be a sweet gesture or just seem demented.
Chris had been quiet since the phone call with his brother, but now he dropped the music a few notches, glanced back at Kandy, and said, “You having a girl or a boy?”
“A boy,” she peeped.
“What you gonna name it?”
“That was her granddaddy’s name,” Anthony offered.
Chris nodded. “I like that name. Question is, he gonna take after his mom or his dad?”
“Not his dad, I hope,” Anthony said cryptically.
“Well, I’ll tell you what,” said Vernon. “I’m sick of these scratch tickets.” Over the seat, he handed back what remained of the roll. “Here ya go. I’m too old for this shit.” His night, like mine, was not going the way he’d hoped. He reached for the radio, turned the volume back up, and sank into his seat, eyes out the window.
This was a song I knew: “What It’s Like” by Everlast. Chris slid us back onto the Kensington Expressway, and the swirling snow gusted this way and that, rocking the SUV like a baby plane in turbulence. I closed my eyes and let myself sway.
Then you really might know what it’s like.
Yeah, then you really might know what it’s like . . . to have to lose.
Mr. Liu’s Chinese restaurant anchored a shambling commercial strip between a Popeyes and a defunct video store. It was called the Golden Panda, though just the right letters had burned out on the neon sign in its front window to leave the golden an. “Look!” I cried, rallying from the darkness, “it’s the Golden AN!” Everyone stared at me flatly. “You know, from Sesame Street?”
“Wait a second,” said Chris. “I know this fucking place. My brother loves this place. He always gets takeout here. It’s so fucking nasty but he loves it.” He looked at Anthony in the rearview mirror. “I mean, no offense.”
Vernon and Kandy hung back in the Explorer while me, Chris, and Darla followed Anthony inside. The place had an odd, foul, but unidentifiable smell. It had just closed for the night, and a pretty Chinese girl in her late teens was blowing out red candles on each table that I supposed had been set out for Valentine’s Day, and loading an enormous tray with dirty dishes. “Hey, Anthony,” she said, tired but friendly. “If you came for dinner, you better let my mom know, she’s shutting down the kitchen right now.” She flipped a switch for the overhead fluorescents, and as they flickered on, the restaurant’s interior grew more drab and dingy.
Anthony asked the girl if her dad was still around, and the girl told him he was. “Hey, Mary, these are my friends,” he said, and told us he’d be back in a minute.
“Hi, Anthony’s friends,” she said. “You can have a seat if you want.”
“Oh,” said Anthony. “Did you hear back yet?”
“Not yet,” said the girl. “The admissions office, they were supposed to call or e-mail everybody last week, but they never called me. So that’s not a good sign. That reminds me, I need to check my e-mail.”
“Well, look, if it don’t work out, you just keep on trying.” Anthony pushed his way through a blue silk curtain at the back of the dining area and disappeared down a hallway.
The three of us found a table that the girl had already cleared and sat down. Darla lowered her voice and said, “That’s a fine young man right there. You know, that baby, Floyd, that’s not even his baby. But he’s gonna raise it and take care of that baby like it is.” She shook her head. “I still call him my son. And that baby will be my grandson.” Then, in a near whisper, “I hate putting the squeeze on him, but that ain’t right he ain’t getting paid.” She eyed Mary, the owner’s daughter, and said, under her breath, “This ain’t the plantation. This is Buffalo!”
“I’m sure the guy’ll give him some cash,” I said.
As if on cue, a sudden, jarring eruption of shouting rose from deep in back. It was Anthony’s voice, but the only word I could make out was “motherfucker.” Soon a second voice joined the fray—Mr. Liu, no doubt, shouting back. And then a woman’s voice jumped in, yelling in Chinese, followed by the sound of pots and pans clattering to the floor. Mary set down her tray and rushed through the blue curtains, and Darla said, “Oh no,” and leapt up and dashed after her.
Chris gave me a dismal look and sank his head to the table. “Today’s retarded,” he said, sounding truly pained, his voice cracking a bit. “You know what sucks?”
“Yeah,” I said, as the shouting in back increased. “That old man out there, Vernon, he thinks I should marry Lauren Hill tomorrow, but I don’t think she wants anything to do with me, and you know, she’s probably fucking this dude at her work.”
“Yeah, that does suck,” said Chris. “And I’ll tell you what else sucks. I am really, really, incredibly fucking hungry.”
“Maybe it’ll all boil over back there and mellow out,” I suggested, and again, Anthony’s timing was splendid—he came ripping through the curtain just then, shouting and cursing, Darla at his heels, tugging at his sleeve and begging him to chill out.
“Get your fucking hands off me!” he said. “Fuck that motherfucker. I’ll kill that slant-eyed faggot.” He stopped in his tracks, turned, and screamed full force, “Fuck you, Mr. Liu! Suck my fucking dick, you little bitch!” From in back somewhere, Mr. Liu was shouting in return. Anthony kicked over a chair, and said, “Come get some of this! You want some? Come out here and get some!” Darla grabbed his shoulders and steered him toward the front door. “Fuck this place,” Anthony said, deeply aggrieved, shoving her arm away. He fought his way outside.
“Come on,” said Darla to me and Chris, holding the door open. “Time to go.”