Critical Thought: Mid Century

A good friend of mine, David Barnes, is an amazing water-colorist. It’s a hard medium to control and David has this masterful, almost Stalin-like authority over its unpredictable flow. David came across an entire filing cabinet of 1960’s mug shots from the New Bedford, MA police department. Each drawer was categorized by height. The men’s names, addresses, physical descriptions, and crimes were typed onto the back of each photo. Rape. Larceny. Lewdness. Disorderly Conduct. False Account of Oneself. Assault and Battery. Murder. It was all there. David started with the 5’5” sleeve. He brought these black and white photos of criminals back to life in richly saturated pigments. In my mind, he’d found the perfect content for watercolor. Both his technique and subject matter dealt with issues of control. I wanted to achieve something similar with storytelling. I too had sort of a card catalog of criminals in my memory bank. Growing up, my father worked out of a Quincy/Boston laborers union. He’d come home each night with all these insane stories. Most of the men he worked with had spent time in prison (as did he) for one reason or another. There was this one older guy (maybe 50) that my father would always talk about. He was a short Portuguese guy who was strong and mean as a bull. Nobody would ever go out drinking with him because if he couldn’t find someone to fight at the bar, he’d turn on you for a friendly go of it. Not everybody is into that kind of sport. The guy’s name was Freddy and he was in and out of prison the majority of his life, mostly for burglary and a few assaults. My father had dozens of Freddy stories. Most of them were extremely violent. Some of them were funny. A few of the tales were both extremely violent and funny. After seeing David’s paintings, I decided to fictionalize Freddy, combining some of his character traits and mythologies with other violent men from the Local 133 of the 1970’s and ‘80’s. I’ve built a collection of them now and David and I are thinking about combining my stories and his watercolors into book form. More often than not, my stories are inspired by art or music, not other writing. I don’t have many writer friends. Most of them are visual artists of some kind. Aside from being inspired by their work, I find them more fun than writers, less self-conscious. But really, if you want to have a truly fun night of drinking, you have to go out with guys like Freddy and the men from David’s watercolor mug shots. To view them, you can visit his website and click on Physical Character Files.

Eugenio Volpe is from the Boston area. He has published work with New York Tyrant, Post Road, Superstition Review, Thought Catalog, Twelve Stories, Waccamaw, and more. He won the PEN Discovery Award for his novel-in-progress and has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web prizes. He blogs about surfing and Don DeLillo at Me Being Brand.

Mid Century

Freddy shuffles about Franklin Park well after dark, hood up, hands in pockets, shoulders slouched. The zoo is within sight, all lit up in the distance. The dirt path he’s on? Not so much, a dull street lamp every fifty yards or so. Freddy’s somewhere in between, where he prefers. It’s a high crime area and he wants to appear weak. He is anything but and feels sworn to prove it. God can see him, and more importantly, his father too. Both men have cursed Freddy with a shortness of everything. He likes showing them what he can do with it and hence where they can go if not already there.

Freddy’s still in his work clothes. They’re caked in cement dust, his nose hairs and eyelashes too, the angry creases in his face. He’s been working at Symphony Hall all winter. Bricking up windows and doors, knocking new ones out. Freddy’s the mixer. One 92lb bag of cement. Two 70lb bags of lime. Thirty shovels of sand. All day long for thirty years, minus five for various time served. He’s turned fifty today. April 7th. The same as his father. He can’t think of a better celebration—two black dudes and a white coming towards him with devil-may-care strides and bold laughter.

Freddy sinks his chest, downplaying his stature even more. He is a 5’5” square block of crazy. He’s the first to admit it, the first to laugh about it. For the past five hours, he’s been wandering the city, a few drinks here, a few more there, pointing himself from every conceivable angle. He’s already punched out a bouncer and bit a German Shepherd. There might be fur on the front of his sweatshirt. Yes, there is. The kid closest to him sees it.

“This guy been eating animals over at the zoo,” he says, strutting up to Freddy, poking him in the chest. “You got a light, Wolfman?”

Freddy answers with a straight right to his forehead, just a little something to demean him, something he picked up from his father. The kid falls back on his ass, but gets right back up. He signals to his buddies and all three spring upon Freddy. Freddy drops to the ground. He curls up and covers his head. Kicking and swinging, the kids can’t get out of each other’s way. None of it really hurts. Freddy lay there until their blows weaken, until they are winded. Then it’s his turn.

Freddy hops to his feet. He took the beating for God and now he will deliver one for his father. The three youths are tall and lanky, not one of them weighing more than two bags of lime. Freddy rushes in low with both hands. His punches are short and wicked. He takes a few to give a few, which is all each kid needs to be knocked unconscious.

Freddy gloats over the thrumming quiet of their felled bodies (one of them wriggles ever-so-slightly). They are silent as giraffes. There are two at the zoo. Freddy can see their necks a few hundred yards away under a spotlight. God and his father can see them too. They can also hear the crescendo of violence, a birthday song of sorts, composed of dog yelps, body thumps, and dramatic pauses. Freddy leans down, picks up a rock, and takes a short spirited step towards the zoo.

by Eugenio Volpe