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.
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 looked over to Vernon, waiting for him to respond. She was in maybe her early fifties. 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. You know my whole situation. I got all kinds of shit to deal with tonight. 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.
Think I can get a jump? I felt his weight on the engine block as he bobbed deep within. A ping and a clatter. Tonight, though, no tools? Usually I can get anything moving. I climbed from the car and joined Chris and Darla. Vernon was sitting in the Explorer, keeping warm up front, scratching off lotto tickets. She looked back and forth between us. But Darla saw through it. 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. She turned back toward us. Larchmont, just the other side of Lake Avenue. Darla had four children, she told me. 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.
It was time for her to pay a visit, Darla said. She coached Chris through a few turns. 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.
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. She closed her door, picked her way across the lawn to the side of the house, knocked a few times, and disappeared inside.
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. 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. I powered my window down a few inches so I could hear his pitch. 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. Wanda May. Fifty years we were married. Marry her right away.
Tomorrow, if you want. She gets a say. 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.
But one tiny girl pointed out that the snowman had already gotten too big for them to add a middle and a top. 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. 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. 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. Darla and her two companions crossed the yard toward us. Vernon turned to me and Chris.
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.
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. 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.
Liu just had some extra costs this winter. Second of all, he do go out of business? I wondered if bringing Lauren a carton of Chinese food would be a sweet gesture or just seem demented.
Chris nodded. Question is, he gonna take after his mom or his dad? He reached for the radio, turned the volume back up, and sank into his seat, eyes out the window.
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. 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. My brother loves this place. He always gets takeout here.
The place had an odd, foul, but unidentifiable smell. Anthony asked the girl if her dad was still around, and the girl told him he was. That reminds me, I need to check my e-mail.
The three of us found a table that the girl had already cleared and sat down. And that baby will be my grandson. They are not organized with argument and evidence. They are not heavy on reflection or philosophical musing. They feel more like stories than essays: yarns, and ripping good ones. Tales told well, full of plot and personality, humor and high jinx.
My own dreams seemed hazier and more impossible. The essay ends: A year later, when I left Chicago and drove to New Mexico to follow my dreams of being a writer, I was wearing those boots with the red laces.
On my dashboard was the picture of John Molloy at the edge of the canyon, fists raised against the sky. If this piece were a work of fiction, it would be sentimental hokum. The same adjectives apply to the book in general. Part of this brand of storytelling is exaggeration. And the stories Rothbart tells do have that tall tale feel at times.
So Rothbart starts sending the guy bottles of urine. As you do, right? Too weird to be true, or so weird it must be true? Look, any binary definitions of fiction and nonfiction are sure to break down.
Lines will blur, walls crumble, art will exist in the overlapping cross-hatched areas of the Venn diagram. Memory is flawed. Perception is idiosyncratic by definition. Every area is gray. Fiction draws its strength from being believable; nonfiction gains power from being unbelievable.
Unbelievable yet believed. I met Rothbart a few months ago when he visited the school where I teach. The kind of cool guy who wears a cool hat, and cool clothes, and knows other cool people, and after five minutes in his presence, I was pretty convinced of the truth of the essays in My Heart Is an Idiot.
The dead body in the swimming pool? The bus rider who claims to be years old? The guy who pretends to be a girl named Nicole so he can have phone sex with random men in a Motel 6? I believe all of it. Rothbart is also editor of Found Magazine, which publishes reader-submitted notes and letters and other odds and ends found in random places.
And again, the power comes from knowing that these found items are real. How easy would it be to make up an abandoned love letter that makes its sender look silly?Liu, no ambition, shouting back. They all made bad essays, or else had some bad snow waiting for them. Share this:. The davit roused Vernon from his mini-nap, and davy going a beat he resumed work scratching off the essay gender gap modern society of each lotto ticket. Hailstorms are shaped when you call a variety true, when you claim a space within first for your writing.
Write an essay that explains the benefits of a collectivea group of people support the position using your own reading, observation, and experience.
A small heap of losing tickets gathered at my feet.
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. Vernon tore off a few scratch tickets for himself, passed me the rest of the roll, and we both went to work. Eavy hulking, tattooed guy on a stool was asking me and Vernon for our IDs. And again, the power comes from knowing that these found items are real.
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. It makes perfect sense.
The characters are no longer acting of their own volition, and the story dissolves. Finally they ran out of juice and came to a stop, slumping against their massive boulder of snow, tall as the oldest boy. 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.