By Joel Allyn
|A successful man struggling with a childhood trauma revisits all the sites of his hometown, which he has ignored for years.|
I’m sitting atop the Ferris wheel Mark, Richie and I used to ride as boys. The view is still the same, the city to my left, the lake to my right. Everything else has changed, but it’s still a pretty good place to die.
I have been sick for some time. I have no proper diagnosis, and you won’t see anything on an x-ray or CAT scan, but I’m just the walking dead at this point. I went around today getting reacquainted with the city of my childhood. Went and visited almost every place I’d hung around with Mark and Richie. All the spots we later abandoned as we got older, realized our haunts were known as tourist traps, and therefore not cool. I’ve walked by several of these places since on an almost daily basis, never sparing a second glance.
Once, Mark and I grabbed a beer right across the street from where it happened, and we didn’t mention Richie at all. Come to think of it, since he was killed I don’t know that we have ever spoken of him. I know that besides giving statements to the cops that day, and later explaining things to our parents, we’ve never talked about Mark’s choice, but it still weighs on me every day. Even now, some twenty odd years later, I still second guess every decision, wondering what Richie would have done in my place. But Richie’s gone, and I’m not, not yet.
Called for an ambulance a few minutes ago – once I see those flashing lights I will finish out this wasted second chance, but at least I’ll go out with a bang. Just have to make sure my aim is true. I am, after all, an organ donor. I have plenty of regrets, but there are two things I know I can say I did right, what I’m about to do and how I spent today.
It wasn’t even the typical ‘last day’ stuff I got to do, like quit my job. It was more about finally abandoning all my fear and absurd reservations and hardened opinions. Finding joy in things I’d dismissed long ago, never bothering to grant them even a second thought.
After coffee and making a call into the office, I stopped over and visited with Mark for a while. He looked like shit, but despite everything he was his typical ever-optimistic self. I pried for details but he was concerned with more important matters – how funny the pudding looked, and whether or not I’d seen the young nurse, the cute one, with the great tits. I hadn’t, but nodded and we laughed together. Then at last, we got on with it. No donors so no chance, but no big deal, he made sure to add. He’d done plenty, most of it good, said I was living proof of that. We didn’t mention the flip side of that coin, but for just a moment Richie hung between us in the silence.
Told Mark the news about Dave Duerson, the former Bear had shot himself the day before. Duerson had been one of Mark’s favorites, and I wanted to tell him first, to gauge his reaction. I explained how he’d shot himself in the abdomen, in order to preserve his brain so it could be donated for research. He wanted it studied for evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. I only remembered the name because brain changes associated with it have been found in over twenty athletes who died relatively young.
Mark’s sadness was clear, but he admitted, “Well that’s pretty damn noble of him. I mean god damn.”
I was relieved that he agreed with my view on the whole idea. We played a few games of scrabble and a couple of games of chess. I went out and snuck him in some real food before leaving. Gave him a big hug, said my goodbyes and started towards the door. Halfway across the room I stopped, turned back and mentioned to Mark that I planned to swing by the Ferris wheel at the pier.
“Jesus, man. I don’t even remember the last time we went down there,” he said.
But he did, we both did. How could he forget, everything from that day is still etched in my memory like stained glass – from breakfast at Lou Mitchell’s Restaurant, to the Ferris wheel, the boat downriver, and the tragic ending.
I knew I’d never get another chance, so I put aside all the fear and guilt that had kept me mum for decades. I let myself blurt out the question which has plagued me for so long. Since the day Mark made the choice which saved my life, my life instead of Richie’s.
“Do you ever regret it, Mark? Ever think you made the wrong choice?” I said.
There, it was out, the worst was over, I thought. I had asked, and no matter what else, I could have some peace after letting that albatross fall away.
Bless him, he looked me square in the face and lied, “No, never.”
After leaving the hospital I headed straight to Gino’s East. I felt guilty, thinking of the grub Mark would be stuck with for a while after his transplant surgery. The day was about indulging guilt free though, and nothing says indulgence like a deep dish pie from Gino’s. Sounds like a commercial slogan. I hadn’t visited our old favorite pizza joint in close to fifteen years, since I’d taken some girl from college who I’d wanted to impress with my local eatery knowledge. I craved it often enough, but never quite enough to deal with the mandatory forty-five minute wait just to place your order, and good luck grabbing just a slice.
After passing through the double glass doors, I was greeted by a woman old enough to be my mother and seated at the bar. I ordered a beer and sat there with a big dumb smile on my face. The place hadn’t changed a bit. Still dark, still filled with graffiti, red booths lining the room, the air filled with garlic and the smell of old beer which has seeped into the wood over the years. It was packed as usual, but I felt like it was all just for me, and I was right at home. The only thing different was the pizza – it was even better than I remembered.
I only made it through three slices, but took the rest to go and gave it to the first homeless guy I came across. He looked at me like I was a god and seemed lost for words. I just smiled and walked on.
I thought I was just walking around at random, but when I found myself standing before the imposing dark tower, I suspected I knew better. As I ascended all one hundred and eight stories I was giddy, no other word for it. On the elevator, I couldn’t even hold still and must have looked like I either really had to pee, or was just mental. I noticed a woman who seemed to be attempting to merge with the corner of the lift.
The view was one I’d seen dozens of times. I knew I’d enjoy it, but hadn’t expected to be quite so overwhelmed. In the midday quiet of the observation level, looking over everything, I held out my arms and cupped my hands, as though I could cradle the entirety of the cityscape below. If ever the full weight of Mark’s choice – and now my own – weighed down on me it was then, as I was far removed, above it all. I actually surprised myself when I felt a tear or two cascade down my cheek. I started laughing. I turned and saw the woman from the lift, hurrying away.
Hours went by without notice. I walked from one glass wall to the next, soaking up every bit of the place that held my birth, my adolescence, my manhood, and soon, my death. It should have been a priority to go there once a month, hell, maybe once a week. The view somehow helps put it all in perspective. It’s all so small from up there. You almost believe you could put it in your pocket and take it with you. Of course, once you’re back on the ground, the feeling first slips and then fades, and then you forget. It’s like a near death experience. You promise that you’ll make the most of every moment of your second chance and you recite carpe diem, and for a while it works, but nobody can really sustain that attitude every day. You forget to remember, and then you lose it.
Today, at least, I managed to hold onto it.
I visited quite a few other places before coming to the Ferris wheel, but time is short, and I think I’ll keep those for myself. Mark will know what they were, I’m sure, and that’s really all that matters. Some places better than they were, some worse, some gone, but they were all great. The trip down river, at sunset, is still the most spiritual experience I’ve ever had.
Mark won’t go on to change the world. I can’t be certain of that, but I don’t see him selling his dad’s bar to go off and cure cancer or anything. He will go on though, and better him than me I feel. I like to think this is what Richie would have done. Though of course, he would have thought of whoever will have to clean the mess off this Ferris wheel, and found a better way. He was always the better of us.
The lights are coming around the corner, that’s my cue. Thank you for everything, Mark. I didn’t deserve any of it, and I wish I’d done more with it. I wonder what Richie would have done?