Fragment of Short Story “Michael & Walt”

June 14, 2014

Michael and Walt

They were both 25 and unemployed and they’d reached the first destination on their pilgrimage: A bronze plaque in a big park. They’d come this far, a two-and-a-half hour drive, from Morristown, New Jersey, and they shivered in a cool morning late April breeze. In the distance a maintenance crew rode mowers and raked ochre-colored dirt and dropped white lime foul lines on a little league baseball diamond. The crew worked robotically in a shimmering pointillist haze of pollen and every few minutes wind and clouds dropped a veil of shadow upon them and they dimmed like lost souls in Hades.

Brian Farrell and Vince Strollo stared at the plaque, at the relieved bronze curls and smile of hammered metal. It wasn’t a compelling or precise representation but the face was recognizable to anyone who’d ever watched “Little House on the Prairie” or “Bonanza” or “Highway to Heaven” and “I was a Teenage Werewolf” all those years ago. “He” was no longer here of course. You would find him buried out in Hillside Cemetery in Southern California. “He” had forsaken his roots in 1956 after graduating from Collingswood High School where he’d shined as a javelin thrower on the track and field team, winning an athletic scholarship to USC. He was known as Eugene Orowitz back then.
The memorial plaque read:

A MAN WHO TOUCHED THE HEARTS OF SO MANY,
BY TEACHING US HOW TO LAUGH, CRY,
AND LOVE ONE ANOTHER —
AND WHOSE SPECIAL LOVE FOR CHILDREN AND
STRONG BELIEF IN FAMILY VALUES
TRANSCENDS FUTURE GENERATIONS

Brian’s gaze took in the level expanse of the park.

“Where are we? It’s so flat around here. Kind of depressing.”

“South Jersey, like the seashore, only inland,” Vince reminded him. “You don’t know your geography, do you? Ever been to Philadelphia? The birthplace of our nation?”

“Philadelphia’s in Pennsylvania. This is New Jersey.”

“But that’s not what I’m talking about. Philadelphia’s only a few miles away from here. Ever been to Cherry Hill Mall?”

“No”

“’Great Adventure’?”

“’Great Adventure is flat?”

“Jesus. . . .”

“Drove all the way here from Morristown because you watched a cable show on this guy. What was I thinking?”

“A prophet is never recognized in his home town,” Vince said in a tone of reverence. “On the documentary I watched with Andrea last night they talked about how Michael, or Eugene, had experienced anti-Semitism after his family had moved to South Jersey from Queens New York when he was four. His mother was Irish like you—a difficult woman, suicidal—but he also had that last name from his father and I guess he looked a little Jewish and that was a problem back then for small town America. He had an unhappy family life, and years later, though he’s rich and famous he still talks of those early days, and he talks about it publicly, on Carson and shit. He still carries with him that pain, that sense of being the outsider, the minority, the pariah, and he’s never quite experienced what it’s like to grow up in a place called home and that alienation is what drives him to create a family-values kind of entertainment, his own little house on the prairie, a pure fantasy of the good America. Michael was looking for that all his life, always carrying that pain inside him. He descended into alcoholism, smoked like a fiend, and his self-destruction ended in pancreatic cancer and death at age 54 . . . tragic . . . .”

“I’m hungry. Let’s go.”

“We should try and find the house.”

“Hey, didn’t Patti Smith grow up around here?”

“Think so. . .”

“Jack Nicholson?”

“The shore. I think in Spring Lake. We should try and find the house.”

“What are you talking about? What house?”

“The house where Michael Landon grew up. The Little House.”

“Now?”

“Yes, now. You got something better to do?”

“You obviously don’t. I could be checking in with the electricians union. See if anything’s opened up yet.”

“Maybe you should give up on that pipe dream.”

“Ha, that would be the plumber’s union, ‘pipe’ dream.”

“How lame.”

“And my uncle said I could be accepted any day now.”

“When’s the last time you delivered pizza?”

“I don’t know. A couple months?”

“You should have gone to college.”

“Like you, huh? And how long have you been looking for work?”

“A year and three months . . . At least I achieved something. I graduated. I have a bachelor’s degree in English. You went one semester to community. If you don’t get into the electrician’s union, you’ll be screwed for life.”

“Talk about screwed. I’m not 50,000 dollars in debt. How’s that bachelor’s degree working out for you? Where did all the time and money get you, huh? I’ll tell you where it got you. A mountain of debt and no job to help pay it off.”

“But when the economy eventually improves I’ll find work sooner than you will, and it will be a better job with better pay.”

“Right”

“It’s been statistically proven.”

“Fuck statistics.”

From the park Brian and Vince drove down several quiet streets of old houses built in the early decades of the 20th Century, not unlike sections of Morristown. The car followed a road along a town lake where residents fished and paddled kayaks and picnicked. The house where Michael, or Eugene, had grown up sat on a bluff and corner lot across from the lake. It was a brick rancher, mid-century, and part of a later development—a pleasant and near idyllic location that almost anyone in post-2008 America would have been more than glad to own.

“It was more than half a century ago,” Vince said, using that same reverent tone, “and I’ll bet the house or town hasn’t changed all that much from when he lived here . . . you’d kill to have a place like this now, and yet Michael, or Eugene, wasn’t happy here.”

Brian lit a cigarette. A sarcastic look.

“So where’s the prairie?”

“Please don’t do that in the car. You should quit. You’ve got no money for smokes anyway.”

“I know. You’re right.”

“I quit in my senior year, though I’ve been tempted to start again with all the stress lately finding work.”

“I’ll quit when I get into the union.”

“You mean when Hell freezes over.”

Brian flipped his cigarette out the window and winked at Vince.

“Michael Landon dropped out of college. He did well. He did very well.”

Vince ignored the comment, “There’s something idyllic about this setting. Something so American,” he said wistfully.

“Yeah, suburban.”

The morning was nearly over. Light kept shifting. Robins and other birds scavenged the banks of the sleepy town lake. Vince said: “Listen to me. Michael Landon was just an afterthought, serendipitous, because I saw the documentary. It is not our intended purpose. It is not what we’ve come all this way to do.”

“Are you kidding? I’m done with it.”

“Don’t you remember the real purpose of our pilgrimage? We are only a few miles down the road from Camden and the greatest American poet who ever lived is buried there.”

“Ezra Pound?”

“Please. Pound spent most of his life in exile. He was practically Italian.”

“Like you?”

“Not quite. Walt Whitman, you jerk!”

“What about Emily Dickinson? Wasn’t she a great poet?”

“Yes, but not as quintessentially American as Whitman.”

“’Quintessentially’ I see, teach . . . how about Allen Ginsberg?”

“A spiritual son of Whitman.”

“Where’s he buried?”

“Ginsberg?”

“No, Walt Whitman!”

“A place called Harleigh Cemetery,” Vince pondered the map, his finger resting near Route 130. “It’s only about a mile from here. Incredible! We’ve hit the jackpot this time, the friggin’ Daily Double.”

“Fuck poets. Can’t we just go see the Liberty Bell or the place where they signed the
Declaration of Independence?”

“No, we cannot do that, at least not yet, because I want to see Walt Whitman’s grave, and house, and you are whining which I don’t appreciate.”

They punched Harleigh Cemetery into the GPS and began following the route to the burial place of Walt Whitman, Great American Poet. Vince was quiet as he reflected a moment on their pilgrimage. Once he had a job, there would be no more days to do this sort of thing, with or without Brian.

“These two…” he began.

“Which two?”

Vince adopted a pontifical tone. “Michael Landon and Walt Whitman, “. . . who were symbols of America, though in different times . . . these two are buried or commemorated near or in Camden New Jersey, a giant sewer . . . One was a 19th century homosexual; the other a half-Jew and victim of anti-Semitism, shunned in his hometown. The irony of this country. Its prophets, its most lyrical and spiritual voices unappreciated and marginalized at the end . . . Kerouac, miserable and dying of drink in the factory town of Lowell Massachusetts . . . Woody Guthrie who crossed the entire land and memorialized it in song, winds up in some Newark VA hospital . . . Whitman, the visionary poet of the United States, planted somewhere among the factories and mills along the Delaware River in Camden.”

“That’s all well and fine, but what about us? We’re nobodies. We’ll never be famous.”

“You don’t know that.”

“We can’t even get a job. How long has it been now? A year and a half?”

“Stop being negative. It’s never been easy. Never. Do you know there were times these American legends were out of work too? Landon, or Orowitz, after dropping out of USC worked odd jobs. I hate the thought of a Kerouac, or Woody Guthrie, or Steinbeck, or Whitman for that matter scrounging around and taking any kind of labor—geniuses having to stoop to menial work so they could eat—but there it is. Maybe menial labor helped nurture their genius. I don’t know.”

“It won’t nurture our genius,” Brian said, “Because we don’t have any to nurture. We’re nobodies.”

“Hold your tongue.”

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