by Jon Swan
It was 2:30 in the morning, and Tom Fantuzzo was sitting in his BMW in his driveway listening to a Portuguese jazz singer's rendition of "The Girl from Ipanema." Tom smiled, bobbed his head and clicked his fingers in time with the music. Tom was drunk, but that wasn't stopping him from enjoying this private late night concert, as he seemed to every year after his company Christmas party. It would have looked strange to a passerby, that middle-aged man sitting in his driveway, bobbing and bouncing to some private serenade. Tom wasn't even aware of that possibility. At the moment, he wasn't aware of anything except the music coming out of his car speakers. How many shots of Jack Daniels had he drank? Seven? Eight? Whatever. He felt connected to that song. That car. That moment.
The holiday party was Tom's only real night out of the year. A full-time job and two kids saw to that. Oh, he and Vicky managed to steal an evening once or twice a month to go to a movie or dinner or the local jazz bar. But those dates always ended up feeling hurried or forced or uninspired or something. Tom and Vicky were like business partners. They really didn't enjoy each other's company much anymore, but they still shared common investments, common assets, common property, common goals. Life was a compromise. And like a lot of couples they knew, they smiled when people asked how they were doing, they still exchanged the obligatory hugs and kisses and fucks and meanwhile they poured their hearts and souls into the kids.
The Christmas party had been boring, as usual. Sara Jacobsen had told funny stories about the last seventeen Christmas parties. Mindy Rudolph had giggled at everything everyone said all night, whether it was funny or not. Morgan Briggs had given his annual "Rah, rah, go team," speech. And Phillip Sanderson had toasted them all for their "outstanding efforts," then passed out the bonus checks. Tom's bonus was equal to two paychecks, less than last year but generous considering the economic climate. After the speeches, Tom had hung out at the bar with his only real friends in the company, Bill Spivey and Marty Conklin. Spivey was three sheets to the wind, as usual.
It seemed like there was always one guy in every company who was expected to drink way too much at the company Christmas party. And at Sanderson Insurance Bill Spivey was that guy. Spivey was harmless, comic relief basically, although two years ago Tom had followed him out to the parking lot because he was concerned that Spivey was too drunk to drive. Tom found him bent over a car sobbing. When he asked if Spivey was okay, Spivey said, "No Tom, I'm not. I'm not okay." It was weeks later that Tom found out Spivey's wife had left him, taking their three kids with her. Apparently, the Christmas party wasn't the only time Spivey drank. Tom had spoken to him many times after that, but Spivey never mentioned his family. And when Tom asked how he was doing, Spivey always smiled and gave Tom a thumbs-up sign and said, "A-okay."
Marty Conklin was one of those salt-of-the-earth guys. He'd do anything for anyone. Always seemed to be helping out. Worked in a soup kitchen on weekends. Spent time with the sick kids at the hospital. Coached peewee football. Served as a lay minister at his church. An all-around good guy. Tom liked him a lot. Everybody liked him a lot. He reminded Tom of a priest he'd known as a kid. Father O'Conner. Another nice guy. Very quiet. Very gentle. But a helluvan athlete. Like Conklin, who'd been an All-State quarterback in high school and went to Michigan or Minnesota or somewhere on a full ride. Conklin was single. No girlfriend. Never even seemed to have a date. Tom had heard the rumors, but he didn't pay any attention to them. Marty was his friend, after all.
It was Spivey's idea to drink shots of Jack Daniels. Not that he was in any shape for it. Tom said no at first, but then Spivey and Conklin goaded him into it.
"Fine, set 'em up," said Tom.
The first couple went down easy. Marty and Tom laughed at Spivey, who was swaying back and forth in front of the bar. They told him he probably shouldn't have any more to drink, but Spivey assured them that he was taking a cab home and could handle plenty more.
"Besides," he said. "Christmas only comes once a year."
By the fourth shot, they were singing "Jingle Bells" and "Holly Jolly Christmas." Sanderson and Briggs joined them for a rousing, if somewhat off-key rendition of "Heat Miser and Cold Miser" which, though not included in the official Christmas song canon, was a favorite of Tom, Spivey and other children of the '60s and '70s. Sanderson gave high-fives all around, then looked at his Rolex and said his thank yous and goodbyes. Briggs, who looked like he was only a drink or two behind Spivey, pointed after Sanderson and said something that sounded like, "Yeah, what he said." Tom and Conklin laughed and shook their heads. Tom checked his watch. It was 12:30.
"Not you too," said Conklin.
"No, I'm good for another half hour or so," said Tom, "but no more Jack Daniels for me."
"How 'bout a beer?" said Conklin.
That works for me," said Tom, "Spivey, how 'bout you?"
"Fuck yeah," said Spivey.
It was only a few minutes later that Spivey put his head down on the bar and started to snore. Tom called a cab and he and Conklin half-walked, half-carried him out of the bar. Tom told the driver where Spivey lived and handed him a ten-dollar-bill. When they went back inside, Conklin started telling Tom about high school and college and what it was like to be a jock. Tom tried to listen, but he was tired. Then Conklin said something about being glad Spivey was gone. Tom looked around and noticed that everyone else from the company was gone too. He looked at his watch and said,
"I'm about done myself."
Conklin asked Tom about Vicky, how they'd met, how long they'd been together, what their marriage was like. Tom answered Conklin's questions, then told him he had to get going. It was around 1:00. Conklin asked if Tom could give him a ride, and Tom said sure. The parking lot was cold and a little icy. Tom slipped, and Conklin grabbed his coat sleeve to keep him from falling. Tom said thanks. Conklin just smiled. Tom let the BMW warm up for about ten minutes. He could hear his father's voice in his head warning him about the danger of driving with a cold engine. Tom had a vague idea of where Conklin lived. Somewhere off the Post Road. He asked Conklin to let him know where he needed to turn. Conklin said he would. They drove in silence for several miles after that. Then Tom noticed that Conklin's head was buried in his hands.
"Marty, you okay? You feeling sick?" said Tom.
Conklin didn't answer him. He just sat there staring down at his feet.
"Marty?" said Tom.
"I'm gay, Tom," said Conklin.
"Oh, okay, well, that's alright," said Tom.
"No, it's not, Tom," said Conklin.
"Look Marty, I'm your friend. You can talk to me," said Tom.
"I wanted Spivey to leave," said Conklin, "so I could be alone with you."
"Oh shit," said Tom, in spite of himself.
"Yeah, right?" said Conklin, "That just about sums it up."
Tom sat there for a moment drumming his fingers on the steering wheel. He couldn't seem to stop himself. Couldn't figure out what else to do with his hands. It was like they had taken on a life of their own. Finally, he clasped them together in his lap, fingers tightly intertwined, squeezing his knuckles white.
They sat there in silence for three or four minutes. And for those few minutes everything stopped. The clock. The cars. The trains. The dinging, crashing, muttering, tumbling clang of a sleeping yet sleepless world. Finally there was a sound -- a long slow breath -- and Tom spoke,
"You're a good guy, Marty," he said.
"Yeah, I'm a good guy, Tom. But I'm not the good guy people think I am," said Conklin.
They sat in parking lot of Conklin's apartment complex and talked for half an hour. Tom listened mostly. Conklin shook his hand before he left. Squeezed it hard. Tom told him to take care. Conklin thanked him. Then Tom drove home. Life is strange, he thought as he watched the purple halo that glowed around the street lights. He drove slowly, thinking about Spivey and Sanderson and Briggs and Conklin and himself and Vicky and his two little boys Timmy and Jake. The road was deserted as Tom pulled into his driveway. The house was dark. Tom opened his door and started to step out, but when the cold air hit him he got back in the car, turned the engine back on and cranked up the heat.
Tom dug through the pile of CDs on the floor until he found what he was looking for: a jazz compilation his father had given him for his birthday last year. He skipped ahead to the seventh song. The melody was familiar. Tom played the song again and again, until he found himself crying, crying tears of joy at being able to have this moment -- this moment of being the only person in the world who was listening to this version of this song in this car in this driveway at this hour. And as the tears rolled down his face, Tom began to sing.
"Tall and tan and young and lovely, the girl from Ipanema goes walking..."
About the author:
Jon Swan wrote the acclaimed memoir The Napalmed Lawn and Other Memories. His fiction has been published online by The Dead Mule and Tattoo Highway and can be seen in print this spring in Gargoyle. He lives in Island Park, NY, where he shares the water with countless fish and birds and two wonderful sons, Kyle and Ben.