Outside Man

I’m surprised when Randy’s name appears on my phone. He rarely calls now except to thank me for the box of frozen steaks I send him every Christmas since my dad passed. More often, I just get a card with “Thanks for the steaks. Merry Christmas from Randy” printed in child-like block letters.

“It’s okay, Mr. John. Happens to all of us. Eat somethin’ bad and look out, you’ve crapped your pants. Now you just hang on and I’ll be there in a couple minutes.”

When I answer, his voice is broken with sobs, his words skittering across an icy surface that could crack and swallow him up at any minute. “Don’t know if you heard or not, but ma’ boy died yesterday. I come home and there he was, and the funeral home wants a deposit up front before they’ll bury him and my ex-wife, she won’t pay nuthin’ and I don’t know what I’m gonna’ do. I can get an advance from work, but they want this interest fee thing and I can’t afford that. I’m not askin’ for no charity or nuthin’ but  ma’ boy’s gone and he’s gotta’ get buried, ya’ know what I mean?”

In the years I’ve known Randy, I rarely heard him speak about his son except to say that he didn’t work. I envisioned dank rooms, reeking of stale cigarette smoke, with a TV chattering constantly in the background. A young man sprawled in a worn-out recliner, waiting for his father to come home and cook dinner. My friend who still lives in town told me she heard Randy’s son died from an overdose.

I stop Randy mid-stream, reassuring him that I will contact the funeral director  – who was a high school classmate – and that we’d work something out. I knew my dad would want me to write a check if that’s what was needed. I could see him opening the big commercial checkbook he insisted on using long after he sold his business, gripping the pen between his middle and ring finger and writing a check in his heavy-handed scrawl. The first time I signed one of those checks as power of attorney, I was shattered by the realization that my father no longer had the energy to pay his bills.

As I tried to calm Randy, I wondered if that’s how he talked to my dad on the nights he didn’t make it to the bathroom on time. I can hear Randy saying, “It’s okay, Mr. John. Happens to all of us. Eat somethin’ bad and look out, you’ve crapped your pants. Now you just hang on and I’ll be there in a couple minutes.” I picture him pulling on jeans and a sweatshirt in his little house a few blocks away and walking hurriedly through the sleeping town, using his key to come in the back door, something he only started doing in the last year of my dad’s life. Racing up the stairs to find my father like a horse, white-eyed and panicked in his stall, who can only be soothed by someone he trusts.

A small and wiry man, Randy is one of those ageless men, permanently stuck between his forties and sixties. He came from a rough crowd of working-class poor, families who scraped along the best they could but still struggled to make ends meet on wages earned as laborers at one of the two factories in town. No one in Randy’s family graduated high school.

Randy never learned to drive, so he biked to his job at the metal foundry across the river and loved walking his little dachshund mix all over town even in the coldest weather. For years, Randy was my dad’s outside man. He mowed the lawn, shoveled snow and took care of simple yard chores. Towards the end, Randy spent nights on the sofa before the nurses and hospice people swooped in, sparing me the pain of watching my father flail against the indignities of old age.

I took a leave of absence from teaching that fall to spend time with my dad. Although bedridden, his mind was still razor-sharp, and together, we worked on the to-do lists for his funeral and estate; yellow legal pads filled with notes were the life rafts keeping our OCD personalities afloat. I found comfort in the daily routine of walking to the post office and drugstore, in greeting my dad’s old friends who came to visit, in simply being present once again in the world where I grew up, all the while aware that these were fragile and fleeting moments.

Randy was around the house most days, tending a little patch of vegetables he grew every summer in a corner of my dad’s yard. By mid-September, his garden was overflowing and he would come into the kitchen carrying plastic grocery bags bulging with tomatoes and green peppers.

“Hey, can yous use any peppers? Them plants are goin’ crazy this year. I like to stuff ‘em with hamburg and whatever cheese I got. Man, that’s good eatin’, know what I mean?” Randy’s nervous tic of ending almost every statement with that phrase made him a supplicant to the world around him, always seeking affirmation.

He set a bag of tomatoes down on the counter one day and said, “Do ya’ think Mr. John could eat a burger with a slice o’ one of them tomatoes on it? I could grill it up on the George Foreman and cut it up real fine, so it’d be easier for ‘em to swallow. Don’t need no roll. Might taste good for a change.”

Later, he took the burger, cut into miniscule pieces and sprinkled with bright chunks of tomato, back to my dad’s bedroom and fed it to him, and I could hear the two of them laughing. When Randy came back to the kitchen with the half-finished burger, I asked what was so funny. He said, “Mr. John said that burger beat the hell out of that Ensure stuff them nurses make him drink.” I wanted to hug him.

Randy would show up each evening after his shift washing dishes at a retirement home to watch Emeril on the Food Network with my dad. He’d bring his dog, who would leap onto the bed and lick my dad’s face while Randy chattered. “Was just takin’ the dog for a walk and thought I’d stop in. Man, those assholes in the kitchen out at St. Anne’s, they don’t know how to clean nuthin’. You wouldn’t believe the messes on them trays today.” His rat-a-tat rhythm of speaking punctuated with the occasional “Bam!” from Emeril.

One evening, after my dad was settled for the night, Randy and I sat on the battered aluminum chairs on the back porch, his most recent harvest of peppers and tomatoes lined up on a nearby windowsill. He was quiet for a while, then lit a cigarette and blew out a stream of smoke. “Been workin’ for your dad a long time. I’ll tell you what, we had some rough nights before them nurses got here.” He paused, gazing out at the makeshift ramp he’d constructed to help get my dad’s wheelchair into the house. “God, I’m gonna’ miss this place.”

I replied gently, “Randy, until the house sells, I’m going to need you to check on things and deal with the lawn and the snow just like you always have.”

“Yeah, but it won’t be the same without Mr. John here. I know I ain’t smart, but your dad, he always treated me like I was somebody. Been like another pop to me and ma’ boy. Feel like I owe him somethin’.” He stubbed out his cigarette, nodded toward the peppers and said, “Take some along. Them up there are about ready.”

On the night of the town’s Halloween parade, blocked streets delayed the arrival of the hearse. The efficient scurrying of the nurses, their final ministrations to the patient now complete, vanished with a discreet closing of the back door. Randy waited with my husband and me in the unaccustomed stillness, absent the oxygen machine’s constant and dreadful purr. There was none of his typical chatter. He stayed until we heard the zip-zip of a bag being closed and watched with us as the gurney bearing my father’s body, cocooned in its green plastic shroud, was steered through the house like an overloaded shopping cart.

Before he left, Randy said, “Yous let me know when the service is n’ all. I’ll be there and I’ll just keep mowin’ the lawn n’ all and whatever yous need, just call me,” the words he’d held in for the last few hours gradually tumbling into tears. He handed me a bag filled with the last of the peppers and wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “I meant to give you these before and with Mr. John passin’ an’ all, I just forgot about it, and I dunno’ if you can use ‘em right now but I didn’t want ‘em to go to rot. I dunno’ what I’m going to do without your dad, ya’ know what I mean?”

I still get a Christmas card from Randy, but otherwise, I don’t hear from him. I wonder how he’s managing, living alone since his son died. When I drive through town, I occasionally see him hustling along the sidewalk in that sort of rolling gait he has, a little dog straining on the leash ahead of him. My dad left a bequest for Randy in his will, and he told me he was going to use it to fix up his house and yard. Maybe put in a garden and covered back porch where he could sit in the evenings.

When my cousin decided to restore one of the old Victorians facing the river, I recommended Randy to do her yard work and watch the house when she’s away on business. She’s originally from the city and not used to honest workers, so she raves about him. Says he’s the best outside man she’s ever had.

Anne Moul is a retired music educator now pursuing her second act as a writer. She has had essays published in Hippocampus, Episcopal Café, Mused Online Literary Journal, Kitchen Work and others, and won first place for Nonfiction in the 2018 Pennwriters writing contest. She lives in southcentral Pennsylvania.
Photo by Oziel Gomez


At first, I didn’t see you, as I walked uphill from the Spuyten Duyvil station under the early darkening five o’ clock skies. A large woman stood by the playground gates, bellowing over horns that honked in and out of unison, waving her arms wildly towards the road. I couldn’t recognize her words, only the chaos; it took a few moments to pull me out of the calm of left foot right foot left foot right foot up Independence Avenue, thighs tired and thoughts swirling, settling after a long day’s work.

… but I knew what you had seen and why you cried and so I hugged you tighter, crying with you, for the fear I couldn’t rid you of, the relief in his darting eyes, and all the playground gates that have stayed closed and locked around my children.”

When the scene came into focus, you appeared: plain ponytail, legs kicking inside a maxi dress as your little boy waddled just out of reach. And then, your nightmare swelled before me as he made his way onto the crosswalk, the gap between your bodies amplified with honks and screams. I couldn’t see your eyes, but I watched your arms, how they turned into reaching miracles as they lifted him up just before the brown sedan could meet his tiny frame.

And when you scurried to the sidewalk holding him hard and close like a bag of groceries with ripped handles, I couldn’t make out your words, but I watched the way you pressed his head into the space above your shoulder, elbows shaking as you sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. I didn’t know your name, so I’m sorry I came so close and held you as you held him, your neck the scent of soap and sweat — my limbs became extensions, and there you were with everything you could have lost: his tiny jeans, his Velcro shoes, the heat of his pulsing, pristine skin. I hugged you to give comfort, and to try and take some too, to help me wade among the sea of what those seconds had exposed. The savage secret that I try each day to bury, mash down deep. It whispers: this is fleeting. They can leave. As simply as an unlocked gate, a broken tree branch or unassuming drive to the other side of town.

It’s okay, I told you, he’s okay. Over and over and over, the black skirt of your dress now ballooning in the wind. And he was, but I knew what you had seen and why you cried and so I hugged you tighter, crying with you, for the fear I couldn’t rid you of, the relief in his darting eyes, and all the playground gates that have stayed closed and locked around my children. But mostly for the future days with doors I’ll try and fail to shut, when their hands no longer reach for mine at the lip of a busy road, their legs strong and tall and walking in their own direction. And all the nights I’ll sit at home, open-eyed among the quiet of a midnight house, hoping to hear a garage door growl, hoping they’ll come home.

When I left you and continued walking, I saw my little girls atop the hill, and they began to tumble towards me, all squeals and bulky helmets strapped beneath their chins, and I did not tell them to be careful, I did not tell them to slow down. I let their legs fly like spokes on wobbly wheels and stood salty-faced and grinning among the wind-blown leaves, my arms outstretched and ready for their bodies to bang and fall into my knees, to collapse into my desperate grip – the only moment I knew I owned. And when the dark skies released into thunder and light rain, wetting our scalps and lashes, we held each other’s waists and laughed and rocked and squeezed. And I thought of you, not knowing I will always think of you, as we tried to make our six feet heavy on that stormy sidewalk, to keep rooted on the ground.

Emily James is a teacher and writer in New York City. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Guernica, River Teeth, CHEAP POP, Pithead Chapel, Pidgeonholes, Hippocampus, the Atticus Review, The Rumpus, JMWW Journal and elsewhere. She is the recipient of the 2019 Bechtel Prize from Teachers and Writers’ Magazine. 
Photo by Aaron Burden

Duck and Cover

“In case of an atomic bomb attack, duck under your desk and cover your head.”

Today, that advice seems ludicrous. Anyone familiar with the pictures of post-attack Hiroshima knows how futile such a ‘protective’ action was much less against the more powerful bombs available in the early 1960s. The Civil Defense training videos featuring Bert the Turtle, and related practice sessions, are now a source of ridicule. However, I know, that on at least one occasion, those drills actually saved lives.

A jagged, cracking sound was quickly followed by a loud metallic and glass explosion as the middle fluorescent light fixture slammed down onto a row of desks.”

At the height of the Cold War in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, America was in high anxiety about the imminent threat of a Soviet atomic bomb attack. One response was training school children to slide under their small wooden desks for protection if a nuclear bomb was detonated nearby. Therefore, several times a year, teachers and students across the nation dove and curled up on the floor to perfect this maneuver.

As elementary students in Framingham, Massachusetts, stern-faced teachers taught us this was an effective defense against nuclear annihilation. Memorial School was an ancient, two-story brick building in the blue-collar section of town. An outer suburb of Boston, Framingham was of no military importance and low on anyone’s scheme for targeting. Nonetheless, the Principal, teachers and students took this exercise very seriously. ‘Duck and Cover’ was not only a means to survive the attack, but was a patriotic duty so we could live to fight the godless Soviets and preserve the American Way.

In September, as we started fifth grade, our teacher, Miss Nolan, showed us the Civil Defense movies and supervised our practice drills with diligence. Fire evacuations required sirens and school-wide preparation. Not so with bomb attack preparations. At random times, Miss Nolan would jump up and command in an enthusiastic voice, “Duck and cover! Duck and cover!”

In retrospect, I suspect it was to break up a particularly boring lesson. She was at least prudent enough to shout this alarm after our bathroom trips to avoid literally scaring the piss out of her terrified wards. Appropriately paranoid from all the fear-mongering, we were certain that death and destruction from the Soviet menace was imminent.  Everyone dove for cover and cowered in fear under our desks until she gave the all clear.

She seemed to relish these training exercises.  If she had put as much energy into teaching math as she did the death drills, I might be less math illiterate today.

Miss Nolan was the nicest of young teachers and generated a crush from all the boys in the class. However, she would chastise anyone who was lackadaisical in his or her effort. She reiterated the seriousness of the threat and asserted that a student’s slow response could jeopardized the entire class. Such was our naivety, that none of us questioned how Bobby being a few seconds slow, would lead to our mutually assured destruction.

Thus, by October, we were well-disciplined and military-like in executing our response to neutralize the Russian threat. On a warm fall morning, sunlight streamed through the tall, partitioned windows of our classroom.

Suddenly, Miss Nolan looked to the high ceiling and noticed one of the fluorescent light fixtures begin to shake. When a crack appeared in the plaster, she yelled with a high pitch and urgency in her voice, “Duck and cover! Everybody, duck and cover. This is not a drill!”

We dove for the protection of our desks certain that this time the end was nigh.

“Stay down! Stay down!”

One of the students that we used to call special, Manly, often took naps under his desk independent of any drills. Usually dormant and left undisturbed by the teacher, Manly was now wide awake. He looked around and was thrown off by everyone adopting his preferred “study position.” While the rest of us cowered, his curiosity had him beginning to emerge.

Miss Nolan shouted, “Manly, stay under your desk. Now is no time to come out.”

A jagged, cracking sound was quickly followed by a loud metallic and glass explosion as the middle fluorescent light fixture slammed down onto a row of desks. It was immediately followed by the hurtling body of a man. The unexpected intruder from the sky crashed on top of the desks. He rolled off and landed on the floor between the rows.

Amidst the dust cloud, all the students stared in horror at what we assumed was a Russian invader. Beverly broke the silence with a scream. It initiated a chorus of shrieks. Chaos ensued as kids began to skittle out from under their desks to escape the deadly foreigner. The mayhem worsened when the man began to move and bellow angrily in a foreign language.

Though startled, Miss Nolan had little tolerance for such foolish panic. “Quiet!  Be still!” Such was the power of teachers in that era, that we all hushed and froze.

As we quaked in fear, we were amazed that she bravely moved forward and assisted the enemy. She dusted him off and asked if he was alright. He shook himself and rubbed his side. With her assistance, he rose and sat on a desk.

Other teachers streamed into the classroom to investigate the commotion and offer help. When the dust settled, so did the mystery. The man was not a Russian soldier, but the school’s head custodian, Louie Ferrara. He was a first-generation Italian and had reverted to his native tongue after the fall. Louie was working on the roof when it gave way and sent him tumbling.

He patted his shirt and plaster powder billowed around him. He was dazed, but apparently not seriously injured. Louie pointed to the hole in the roof and reverted to his Italian cursing.

Relieved by the lack of immediate death, the kids started to giggle nervously, then, shout, laugh and point. Miss Nolan determined it was time to evacuate her students. The move was as much to keep us from learning some colorful new phrases as for our safety. Under the direction of the other teachers, we were shepherded from the classroom and walked to the auditorium.

When semi-calm returned, Miss Brown, our prim and white-haired principal, addressed the class to explain the incident. As Miss Nolan smiled, the principal praised our quick reaction to the duck and cover drill. She said, “You and your teacher’s quick action certainly prevented serious injury. You should all be proud.” We beamed.

There couldn’t have been a more searing example of how preparing for the Russian attack could have all sorts of side benefits. The school was dismissed early so the roof could be examined for further defects and the hole repaired.

Outside, our class were celebrities basking in the glory of the near-disaster. We bragged about our bravery in the face of an attack even if it was only by a wayward Italian-American custodian, instead of Soviet soldiers.

Today, there would have been Snapchat photos and Facebook postings. Helicopter parents and media would have descended on the school demanding an explanation and an investigation of the tragedy. Then, it only caused a minor, neighborhood stir. Most parents used it as an example of why we should always quickly follow any direction from any adult.

For me, it made me less derisive of things that with time seem foolish. Before I knee-jerk mock something, I remember how thankful I was crouched beneath the protective safety of my desk having learned to have properly executed duck and cover.

Bill Diamond is a writer in Evergreen, Colorado where the Rocky Mountains are both an inspiration and distraction.
Photo by Erwan Hesry


The Fly

Two clocks, out of sync, beat out time on the white wall. The rhythm reminds me of that tell-tale heart, driving a little crazy into my head with each stroke. I tear up toilet paper to plug my ears, to escape into white noise and imaginary music but then I stopped hiding. After a month of suspended solitude in this empty house, the beat becomes a comfort. It’s like a familiar noise, a sister or parent shuffling papers in a nearby room or the gentle scratch of a dog’s paws jogging across wood floors. It beats a measure of life into this yellow house.

He is backlit against the curtain, his body enhanced, a mutation. He is a blown-up photograph, rigorously detailed like a movie poster for The Fly.”

My husband and I moved 2000 miles away from everything we’ve ever known. He leaves the house when sanguine robins are scrounging for worms in the wet grass. Now I am alone. Carless, jobless. This isolation is augmented by not knowing anyone and having no way to get anywhere. I do alright in the mornings when the light penetrates the living room with a dust-enhancing and meditative glow. Light is always a good metaphor, a good forecast. I drink coffee and think about my situation, relive the long drive, the crying friends, the moment of exploration when we discovered this mountainous topography through the fog.

The feeling of finding stuff to fill your day is terrifying. This is my youth, this is post college, this is supposedly when I’ve arrived, but this is a barren season. I worry about meaningless things.

Is xylitol really healthy, or is IT? rat poison? Am I gonna get cancer?  

Forgot to take my boots off, now the carpet will get dirty.

Did I lock the backdoor, yes, no, did I? Stop it, I did! I did!

My bookcase is getting fat. I devour hunks of pages. The books take me out of this sphere and into another and this is the mental escapism which makes reading such an addiction. Between chapters, I think about my friends in Florida. They float in pools of blue water, under a pink-flamingo sun drinking margaritas and telling dumb jokes. (That’s not even close to what they’re really doing.)

Then I get on Facebook, that Pandora’s Box full of what ifs and highlight reel snapshots. These cyber wanderings do me no good, I just feel like I missed something: a concert, a memory, a loitering session outside of an art museum. Friends laugh in digital photos, someone gets a job, another is starting a new band and I am a billion miles away. Out of sight and out of mind. This is the irrational fear of being forgotten.

My sanity is finely balanced between the anticipation of my afternoon coffee and knowing I could phone a friend to get the right answers. Today I sink into the couch, coffee in hand, about to finish A Farewell to Arms, which holds my hand and walks me through this shadowy valley. I am in the Italian hospital, waiting for the news… a fly buzzes by my ear breaking concentration. I shut the book. I fold today. This is the fourth fly this week and I normally just keep on living and reading and forgetting but I can’t.

The sound disappears then bursts by my ear in shifts of pitch and meter. I chase him down the hall, A Farewell to Arms raised in my hand. I trap him in our bedroom and shut the door. A temporary peace descends. But panic is a wily thing. I can’t stop picturing our snow-driven bed through his baubled perspective. What if he lands on the pillow and imprints the white with his dirty feet?

He is backlit against the curtain, his body enhanced, a mutation. He is a blown-up photograph, rigorously detailed like a movie poster for The Fly. I stalk him. Get inches from his impeccable armor and swat. He flies and I fly after, jumping on the bed and down to the floor and around and around. I’m dizzy and thrash my book in the general direction of buzz.I’m out of my league, obtuse without wings. The fly is my new metaphor, a symbol for something poignant that I can’t pinpoint. Fear, unemployment, aging, a slaughtered lamb, a flower to be crushed?

I feel it all around me, the fevered urgency of life and death. Blind and wheeling I whack against the wall, a speck of life falls, a gleam of existence smothered. I hit him again and again into the wood floor like a neurotic movie actress in a B-grade scene about insanity. He’s beyond death now, a fossil on a cave wall, a beat-up artifact existing outside the well-drawn lines of time. Light flickers back and forth like a tide across the floor.


Kathleen McGuire lives in Denver with her husband and son. In addition to writing about real, raw human experience, she is a songwriter and fronts an indie rock band.  
Photo by Annelie Turner

Cave 7

A few weeks ago I received an unsolicited package at my door, tore open the envelope and found a 355-page, just-published paperback novel written by an old friend. It had been decades since I’d had any contact with Will, and suddenly, his book arrived at my doorstep.

From the info on the book’s cover, it was obvious that the novel is a fictionalized memoir of his life in San Francisco when we were roommates more than 50 years ago. I’d met Will in a Shakespeare class when we were English Lit grad students at San Francisco State, and from the summer of 1965 until early 1967 we shared an apartment at 814 Steiner, in the Fillmore District, opposite Alamo Square.

I turned to the book’s title page, where there was a handwritten note to me: “To my old friend Roberto, after all these years. Here you are… and here you are not…”

And just as I feel an affectionate connection to the real Frank, I also feel connected to the fictional Franco, who’s a composite based on me as much as on Frank.”

Huh? What did that mean? I quickly leafed through the book. The protagonist is called “Gil,” clearly based on Will himself, and he has a roommate named “Franco.”

Franco. As in Frank + o.

When Will and I lived in Cave 7 — what we called the Steiner Street apartment — there was a third classmate, Frank, who moved in with us for a year and slept on a couch. Even then, when weirdness was coin of the realm, Frank was in a weirdness class all by himself.

Tall, stooped, gripping a banged-up attaché case stuffed with his writings, wearing a stained black suit, dirty white shirt and tie, Frank looked like a creepy undertaker in a low-budget horror film. He stammered, with long pauses, forcing you to listen. No idle chit-chat for Frank: he was always provoking, asking oblique questions meant to teach you about life as he saw it.

Frank never stated anything directly. He’d say A, do B, then say C, and it was up to you to put them together to grasp his BIG TRUTHS, such as: There is no such thing as altruism, everything we do is a plea for attention. Whatever we appear to be doing, at work or play, what we’re really saying is: Please like me. When we say we hate something, what we really mean is that we feel threatened by it.

When Frank first came to Cave 7, he left an open suitcase with his dirty underwear at the top of the stairs. It stayed there for weeks and was the first thing you saw when you came in. He made sly references to his suitcase until we finally got the underlying message: See? I’m willing to show everyone the grubby little boy I really am. No hiding. No pretense. What about you?

The 1960s, of course, was an era of drugs, casual sex, music and radical life-changes, but it was also a time of intense psychological self-exploration, and no one was more relentless than Frank. One time, the three of us were about to board a bus when Will dropped the coins. By the time he picked them up, the bus had gone. Instead of waiting for the next bus, Frank insisted we go back to Cave 7 and explore, in depth, why Will had dropped the coins.

I remember Frank’s reaction when someone used “middle-class” as an insult. “I’d like to be middle-class,” Frank said. “Then I’d have a lot more money than I have now.” And I also remember how Frank mocked a psychiatrist friend, who, Frank said, tried to cure his patients by telling them: “Be a nice person, be a nice person.” As I said, Frank was sharp and relentless.

In the novel, Gil — Will’s alter ego — watches with increasing frustration as the fictional Franco changes Will’s life. Besides his incessant psychological probing, Franco brings in zanies, male and female, who install themselves in Cave 7’s living room or kitchen and settle in for weeks or months: a couple who always wear pajamas, in or out of the house, and paint red dots on their noses; a snarky poet/intellectual who spouts sarcasm and constantly reads The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; a biracial saint who fixes any electrical appliance with a touch; and many more. Will watches helplessly as Franco turns Cave 7 into an urban playpen/commune where just about anything goes, including periodic use of LSD. Meanwhile, Franco often disappears, leaving Gil to deal with the human zoo that Cave 7 turns into.

Gil tries to adapt, but the freakiness of Cave 7 worms its way into his soul and he’s more and more consumed by hallucinations, fantasies of grandeur and thoughts of suicide. The description of Gil’s untethered visions is unflinching and realistic, in part because the author went through the same psychological spin-out as his protagonist. In the novel, Gil, having “exhausted himself on the streets of the Haight,” ends up in a psych ward where he’s fed anti-psychotic meds and revels in therapeutic arts-and-crafts projects, like a preschooler. Will, the author, survived those same events.

The early 1980s was the last period I had any regular contact with Will, and at that time he told me that Frank, the real Frank, was the “devil,” and in the novel based on those events, Franco is indeed the catalyst for Gil’s descent into madness.

But when I think of Frank, I’m grateful that I lived with him and learned from him. I value his single-minded persistence in searching for the truth, at any cost. It was annoying, even infuriating, but enormously valuable. Frank stuck by his guns, ready to make himself the fool or the target, so long as it got him closer to understanding human behavior.

And just as I feel an affectionate connection to the real Frank, I also feel connected to the fictional Franco, who’s a composite based on me as much as on Frank. The character Franco looks like Frank, and sometimes talks like him, but Franco’s experiences are my experiences, not Frank’s. In Will’s novel, Franco leaves grad school to work as a deck-hand on ammo ships during the Vietnam War, and guess what? So did I. Between ships, Franco wanders in Asia: Indian ashrams, Vietnamese opium dens, Thai brothels and other exotic adventures. And yes, that was also me, not Frank. Franco rarely sleeps at Cave 7 because he has a girlfriend around the corner and often stays at her apartment. That was also me.

In real life, it wasn’t Frank who brought the freak show into Cave 7, it was I. They were my friends, I invited them in. I was the one who made sure LSD was part of our weekly routine. So… I’m the o in Franco, who’s based both on Frank and on me. Frank + Roberto = Franco. That’s what Will meant by the cryptic “Here you are… and here you are not.”

Spoiler alert: As the novel ends, Gil exhibits a shred of sanity, but the Franco character comes to a tragic end. Perhaps Will thought it was necessary to kill Franco so he could finally be free of Frank, who had haunted him for fifty years.

But if I’m the o in Franco, and if Cave 7 was the incubator of Will’s madness, then I’m also responsible for Will’s descent into psychosis, and by killing the fictional Franco via a drug overdose, Will exorcised both Frank and me in a single needle jab. Perhaps this was something Will needed to do, but the funny thing is, Will didn’t really have to kill me off. The doper/seaman/drifter who brought those zany characters into Cave 7, who gave Will the LSD that took him to dangerous places, I’d already killed off that person. He disappeared, piece by piece, starting 45 years ago, after I became husband/father/householder. The o in me struggled to survive but finally died so that the nice middle-class boy could live, the one always there inside me, in a virtual state, waiting to emerge, even during my freakiest days.

And what about Frank, the real Frank? What happened to him? Both Will and I lost track of him, but Will heard that Frank may have died young after spending time in a mental hospital. That may be, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Frank changed his name, appearance and way of talking, and has devoted his obsessive genius to making a fortune as a New Age guru.

Roberto Loiederman has been a merchant seaman, journalist and television scriptwriter. His nonfiction memoir pieces were nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2014 and 2015 and he is co-author of The Eagle Mutiny, a nonfiction account of the only mutiny on a U.S. ship in modern times. 
Photo by Ramin Mirz Yev