Three Parts Of The Story

Part One:

Near the corner of Fairfax and 3rd in Los Angeles there’s a K Mart that l may never  go to again. It’s not that I don’t like affordable merchandise; it’s just that I’ll have a hard time explaining why the pretzels made me so sad. This past Sunday I was walking past the K-Mart on my way home from Whole Foods.  I had no intention of going inside but this K-Mart put a spell over me because it smells like hot pretzels. You know the pretzels I’m talking about, the soft ones that spin under heat lamps at fine establishments everywhere.  When I smell hot pretzels I have to find them.  It’s been like this for years.

Growing up on Long Island there was a department store called TSS in West Babylon that had a pizza place in front that also sold those soft hot pretzels – 3 for $1 (it also had a record shop that resulted in this story). I used to beg my father to take me there so I could get a pretzel. There were plenty of stores that sold them but when I was certain that the ones at TSS were the best. For a brief time in the mid 80’s my cousin worked there and when my brother, sister and I could convince our dad to stop at TSS my cousin would make sure we got a few extra pretzels for that buck. When I went into K-Mart on Sunday to track down the pretzels I thought of my cousin.

Let me try to describe my cousin to those of you that have never met him. He was born six years before me and he introduced me to Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden and more. I appreciated him making time for me back then because in retrospect it was clear that my cousin was a troubled kid. I mean no disrespect to him by this he just was troubled; it seemed back then that there was a fight going on between him and the world and only he knew how it started. When I was 11 and he was 17 I was slightly in awe of his leather jacket, chain smoking, and heavy metal loving intensity. I didn’t care that it came with large doses of anger and occasional violent outbursts. I cared even less that he got in trouble and I didn’t care that he joined the Marine Corps for reasons other than patriotism. I just cared that I wouldn’t be seeing him for a while.

While I stood in front of the pretzel machine on Sunday I thought of all the words I could use to describe my cousin but the only one that seemed to fit was the word: Gone.

Part Two:

Here’s an understatement – The Marine Corps is not the best place for a troubled kid who has serious problems with authority. It’s been said that the Marine boot camp will break a man down and rebuild him but I suspect the Corp could not crack the kid I knew because he came home, after serving in the first Iraq War, much like he left.  When he first got home I’d see him regularly.  We’d talk music and he was always good to me but it was always clear he was still fighting the same battles with himself.  His experience overseas hardened his resolve to fix the problem through force of will.  There would be no therapy or medication.  I’m not in a place to say that these things were needed, I’m just saying they were never an option   For the next several years he walked the fine line between holding it all together and throwing everything away.  During this time I didn’t see him much beyond the occasional holiday and the night he let me into the bar he worked at to have a few beers.  I knew all wasn’t well but I was trying to navigate finishing high school starting college and wouldn’t have know what to do anyway.

Standing in front of the spinning pretzels I was trying to think of the last time I saw my cousin before I moved to New York.  I remember his wedding but the rest of the details were sketchy.  Was it at  a family party with his wife or at a concert or a bar after he separated from his wife?  I’m sure we passed each other somewhere in that time before I packed my things and left but I can’t remember when it was.

Part Three:

While I acclimated to the good life in Los Angeles my cousin was at home struggling with various issues that he was ill-equipped to handle.  I heard reports of fights, drinks and arrests but I assumed that he’d figure things out.  I figured that whatever demons he was battling would be dealt with and he might have if he had the time but sadly he didn’t. One summer night he was involved in a minor accident. While riding his motorcycle he lost control and was thrown from the bike. The light had turned green and he started to accelerate, when he lost control he couldn’t have been traveling more than 20 MPH. It seemed like a minor accident but he didn’t make it, he quietly and peacefully passed away. Finally and unexpectedly, the battle was over and his troubles could no longer reach him.

More than three years after my cousin passed away I’m thinking of him as I watch the pretzels slowly turn on the counter.  I’ve thought of him often in the years since he passed but this is the first time I’ve felt a tangible connection to him.  It’s strange how 30 years of history can be compressed into something as simple as the smell of a pretzel warming under a heat lamp but in that moment I remembered everything.  In the distance between the sidewalk and the counter our lives flashed before me. I suddenly felt like I had let a family member down by not recognizing the signs of trouble until it was too late to help.  I wondered if I would have done something had I known that his time was so limited but these are just sad hypothetical questions.  At that moment someone had a question for me:

“Can I help you?”

“What?”

“Would you like a pretzel?”

“No thanks, I’m just looking for someone”

I headed for the door and took the long way home.

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33 Comments

Filed under General Tomfoolery

33 responses to “Three Parts Of The Story

  1. newgyptian

    ooof.

    that’s all i got.

  2. Angela

    You are helping him now by writing this and sharing his memory.

  3. The glib thing to say is that you’ve made me cry. Again. And it’s not even 9 AM. But that’s not really what I want to say. What I want to say is that it’s good to know that other people have the same thoughts and regrets and what-ifs that I do, and it’s even better when those people are friends.

  4. That’s touching, Will. Thanks for sharing it.

  5. oslowe

    Thanks for writing this. I like the long way home too.

  6. That is really well written.

    And I always wondered about that Kmart.

  7. Thanks for sharing, Will. That touched my heart. Cyber hugs.

  8. Nicole Powers

    Here via the SM’s twitter. She’s right, this is really good and I appreciate having read it.

  9. jen

    heart. yes. awesome.

  10. He sounds frighteningly like my brother, for whom I’m going to print your story in hopes he’ll read it.

    The thing that stands out the most is that, in spite all of the problems you cite, his life takes up more column inches than his death. I’m sorry there weren’t more inches, but I’m thankful you shared them.

  11. wow will that knocked the wind out of me. really well written and really touching. xoxo

  12. kim

    The way you write- it’s like we all intimately know these members of your family. I hate everyone but your stories always make me give a shit.

  13. NovySan

    Olfactory stimulus are more closely tied to memory and emotion than any of our other senses. Science nerd stuff aside, all I can say is this is beautifully written and I understand completely. Whiffs of Irish Spring soap or Captain Black pipe tobacco can set off symphonies of memory, trapping me in mute stillness until they’ve played out, unable to move until the scrapbook of my mind closes its last dusty page.

  14. Novysan said exactly what I was going to. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m not surprised that something as simple as the smell of a soft pretzel brought back all those memories. At least you haven’t forgotten. That’s what really matters.

  15. It’s always the scents that remind me of my loved ones that can knock me to that place in an instant.

  16. Rich

    I have (had?) a cousin in the same situation. He is MIA right now, last known to be in Texas. We were closer than brothers. Good thing you didn’t buy the pretzels: I’m sure they would have not been as doughy, as salty as you remember. Somethings are best remembered and not relived.
    I think I’ll go for a walk and think of Bill for awhile. Peace.

  17. We all have at least once family member like this, which is part of the reason this is so moving.

    I love how you captured the point of view of your younger self who sensed the larger problems but focused on the immediate interactions and details. The pretzels, the music, the leather jacket, the Marines.

    A touching memory brought to life without sap and sentimentality. Nicely done.

  18. Most of my points have been touched on– the beautiful writing, tears in my eyes, memories triggered by smell, alike family member, and more.

    But what I can add is that I am now looking forward to reading that novel you are being encouraged to write. When can I expect it?

  19. Will, you blog a story like no one else. Excellent way to honor the memory of your cousin.

  20. JoAnnAttison

    Like the others, I was touched by your story. And the way you layed it out was poetry.

    Boy, I do miss that TSS.

  21. Memory is an amazing thing. How it connects seemingly unrelated things together. As you were telling that story a smelled TSS pretzels, cold air, and Christmas trees. I remembered it was because I would go Christmas Shopping after looking at an entire dead end of houses light up with lights down the block. Wow dud that story open a flood gate.

    The ironic part is after that TSS closed, it became a Smart years later. The pretzels were never as good though

  22. Jessica Gottlieb

    Oh. My.

  23. I could barely read this through my tears. Your words are so touching.

  24. Man, that hits home. As a former Marine, I know a few souls like your cousin.

    A good fiend of mine since high school had a very similar story, and it never ceases to amaze me how often I am reminded of him. Good memories, but makes this a tough read for me.

    I am really glad you wrote this, because I am really glad I read it.

  25. Wow. My heart goes out to you. I hope it might bring you some peace, to know that we can do all we can, but each person chooses their own path; and fate doesn’t respect any of those chosen paths to begin with.

    Fucking motorcycles. Hate them. I’m due to lose way too many friends to the fucking things.

  26. Your posts always make me smile, for one reason or another, but this one falls into that ‘other’ mode that I especially appreciate.

    You’re a funny guy, Will, but you’ve got a huge heart. It’s always wonderful to see you show your contemplative side; the side of you that really validates your humanness.

    Incredible story. Well done.

  27. I am just echoing the sentiments of the other comments left, but this is a beautiful piece of writing, Mr. Will. I plan on sharing it with any of my friends who can read (there are about five).

  28. vintagecaveman

    amazing.

  29. betheboy

    I need to take a second to thank everyone who has commented here. When I write these posts I try not to think too much of the reaction because it can hinder the story but it’s nice to know that this connected with some of you. This story means a lot to me and I’m glad I’ve been able to share it with you.

  30. I learned another lesson … never post a reply on your blackberry first thing in the AM!

    I meant to tell you Will that the TSS you are talking about became a KMART …not a SMART! LOL

    Either way … the pretzels were not nearly as good!

  31. So sorry for your loss. It is amazing how things, smells, sounds, whatever can trigger memories. I had the experience recently when I wore a bracelet made for me by someone no longer around. Powerful stuff.

    I know from first hand experience how badly serving in a war can fuck someone up. And then yeah, they’re ‘gone.’ I just don’t have the words or the guts to share it in such a beautiful and poetic way.

  32. k

    Thank you so much for sharing this and for sharing it so well.

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