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The Last Good Year

The house felt like Christmas, at least that’s all young Louie Laszlo could think to compare it to. Mama made a special dinner, cleaned the house more thoroughly than her nurse’s job usually allowed, and lit the scented candles. All of this was unprecedented for a midsummer’s eve, but in his trusting youth Louie had no reason to more than note the novelty of it all. He was fed but the fancy stuff stayed in the oven warming.

At nine years old Louie had at last mastered all of the boyish arts: bike riding, ball throwing, tree climbing, baiting the hook. There in that quaint, prosperous Hudson valley town he lived a Sawyeresque life tramping the woods and fields with his mates while the tests of classroom and playground passed as easily as a bag of plums. He could not have known this would be the last good year.

It was 1973. Vietnam was winding down, Watergate was heating up, and though no one knew it yet, this year would bring the end of the great postwar economic expansion that the United States had enjoyed for most of the last three decades. Louie’s experience mirrored the larger turn, and Mama’s choices had as much to do with it, but in the end Louie blamed it on the place.

He was ready for bed when the doorbell rang. Mama opened the door slowly and wide like when Willy Wonka first takes the children into the room of the Chocolate River, full of wonderment and import. At the bottom of the steps stood a handsome man, old like Mama, with a smile like a box of candy. She ushered him in warmly and they took a moment for each other before turning to acknowledge the boy.

“Louie, this is Art Dempsey. The man I was married to before your father.”

Garden of Earthly Delights drawing by Gregory Kolm

The Garden of Earthly Delights, drawing by Gregory Kolm
(click for full size)

Events moved quickly after that. The lovers exchanged a series of visits between New York and Art’s South Carolina home. These required frequent rides down to JFK and Newark to pick up or drop off whoever was on the move. Each trip was couched in the terror that a missed highway exchange would leave them trapped in the city at night, lost and at the mercy of swarming gangs of cannibal zombies that lived only to prey upon decent folk.

Louie quickly fell in love with Art, he liked to roughhouse and kid around, and his good grooming and two-way radio lent him an aura of sophistication that his own father, Big Lou, decidedly lacked. Even when he caught them fucking, barging in one Saturday morning with his usual Sugar Smack-fueled salutations, he quickly forgave Art the atrocity. When Mama sat Louie down and told him they’d be moving to South Carolina at the end of the year he was all for it but she warned him Daddy wouldn’t like it. She got that right.

Big Lou fought a bitter rearguard action from his bunker in Cleveland. “You know the cops still use dogs down there.” Louie had no idea what he was referring to. Big Lou’s true fear lay in the thought that Art would adopt Louie and change his name. Louie was the only son of an only son. The Laszlo line hung by spider’s silk.

“What’ya gonna call him?”

“Art, I guess.”

“What’ya mean, ‘you guess?’”

Summer turned to fall and an excitement set in as vivid as the maples in his front yard. The time between times, after one decides to leave but has not yet left, would be the time Louie grew to love the most. A host of unusual activities marked the period. There was a garage sale and a great sorting of things. Grandma came through on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land prior to her gall bladder operation. That meant another ride to JFK. Wheeling by Shea stadium Louie remembered catching the Mets and Phillies on a daytrip from camp. He didn’t think the city was so bad.

Grandma had barely landed in Beirut when the Egyptians breached the Bar Lev line and the Yom Kippur War brought the U.S. and Soviet Union into their most direct confrontation since 1962. The borders were closed. She spent a week on air-raid alert at the Beirut hotel before getting evacuated to Cyprus, then home. She survived the operation but never made it to the Promised Land.

The day after Thanksgiving they pulled out and left Rhinebeck behind with Art driving the U-Haul and Louie in the Impala with Mama and the cat. Two days down I-95 is enough to sap anyone’s thirst for travel. By the time they pulled into Point Arcadia, the still unfinished condominium complex they now called home, Louie had stopped caring where they were going.

Columbia, South Carolina sits on a desolate strip of sand hills that stretches from Fayetteville to Macon. The poor soil supports only the most spindly and stunted species of tree: certainly nothing worth climbing. The nearest city with a ball team was Atlanta and the Braves sucked. The new school looked like a fallout shelter. They didn’t have art or music or even a gym. None of that registered right away as Louie got settled into his new life but as 1974 wore on it became clear even to him that something terrible had happened.

Art had spent freely during the courtship and Mama said with the money he made as a radio ad exec she could stay home and keep the nice house she always imagined. That lasted about six weeks; then the bills came due and Mama went back to work, making half what she had in New York. At the June wedding in the big house of one of Art’s clients Louie gave Mama away. She became a Dempsey. He remained a Laszlo.

Big Lou came for his first visit as they left for their honeymoon. Art hit him up for a loan just before he and Mama drove away. Other than that he liked what he saw, especially the pool, where friendly college girls home on break would say, “Hey!” as they walked by in their bikinis just as sweet as you please.

They stayed close to home that week. Lines at the gas station had gotten long. The Arab oil embargo imposed for U.S. support of Israel in the late war pushed crude from $3 to $12 a barrel overnight and government missteps in response only made things worse. Louie added it to the differences he started to notice about his new home.

“They didn’t have gas lines in New York.”

Art and Mama came back from Myrtle Beach arguing. Mama found out Art hadn’t made a sale in months. With the recession that followed the oil shock no one was buying ad time. Then Mama started to wonder what he was doing on all those business trips to Atlanta. Turned out it was his ex-wife – his other ex-wife. He split rather than deal. Nixon resigned the next day. Louie cried. Everything was falling apart.

Fifth grade started and something had changed. The girls had grown taller and a creeping awkwardness had turned him from a masterful boy into a goof. Things got tougher at home too. The price of meat was on everyone’s lips. People went from steak to hamburger to chicken to tuna and still couldn’t make ends meet; Louie thought they were saying, “ends meat.” He figured the slice at the end of the roast was the best one and that’s what they meant.

The condos hollowed out into a Potemkin grotesquery. Only a couple dozen units remained occupied as jobs were lost, debts came due, and homes broke apart. Of the neighbor kids with whom Louie roamed the empty cul-de-sacs none had two parents at home.

Winter came early to South Carolina that year and it gets colder down south than most Yankees know. Louie and Mama huddled near the space heater in the kitchen of the condo they could no longer afford. Saddled with a mortgage, her credit ruined by Art’s profligacy, her nursing career derailed, Mama tightened belts until Louie howled.

“Hamburger Helper or tuna tonight?”

“I hate it here!”

But the table had already been set.

–Ray Jicha

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