“We love those who know the worst of us and don’t turn their faces away.”
Mike Hanlon, an old childhood friend of mine, had cultivated the pot, not for kicks or profit, but expressly for relief. He was a poor and suffering soul growing a simple weed, an illegal weed that, when smoked, mercifully spared him the fantastic headaches and the terror of epileptic seizures. Light leaking around the clock from the two cloaked windows of the spare bedroom of his rented home is what likely brought the cops. The bust ushered a cascade of compounding misfortune upon Mike, leaving him broke, homeless, and alone.
Michael and I first became friends when we were eight years old. Our families had summer shacks at Minot Beach, then a minor but no less beautiful summer retreat and resort about twenty miles southeast of Boston. Michael was one of six children, third from the oldest. He had three brothers, one older and two younger, and two sisters, one older and one younger. I remember Michael then as always smiling and laughing, all boy with a real talent for harmless mischief. He was smart, witty, and a genuine joy to be around. I can still see him swimming like an otter, playful and at ease at any depth. I’d watch and marvel at his swimming prowess. It took till I was nearly a teen before I’d swim in water over my head.
By the latter part of July, Michael would be deeply tanned, and his blonde hair turned the color of pale butter. He was blessed with the body of a gymnast, and he had an extraordinarily confident disposition. He would have made any father proud, if given a father who took the time to notice. However, Michael’s father had long been too busy, nose to the stone as they say, carving out an eventually prosperous wholesale furniture business. Michael was always proud of his hard-working father and loved him dearly. Even as a kid, Michael had been grateful for his privileged life, summers at the beach, and school years spent living within a fine home in a posh suburb west of Boston.
Ironically, the end of this happy existence came when his dad, Jim Hanlon, began to hit his stride financially. Mr. Hanlon was then still in his early forties, fit, trim, tanned, and with a full head of hair. He looked the part of a man of leisure for he truly had become one. First came the fine sportswear and Cadillac, then a renewed penchant for pleasure. He decided to cast off his long suffering and supportive wife as well as his brood of six adoring children. He’d found a younger, freer, and sexier woman, a woman whose express purpose was to please the now all-important James Hanlon, man of means.
In short order, Michael’s dad and his new lady friend were living in a Beacon Hill town home while the suddenly single mother of six retreated to a home owned by her family in the gritty working-class city of Waltham, Massachusetts. Michael’s mom needed the comfort of family and long-standing friends there more than she needed the lonesome and superficial trappings of a faraway suburban home. More still, it had been her husband’s home and dream, a dream he ran out on.
Now a city kid and untethered, Michael quickly embraced a life of drug abuse and crime. His shattered mother was drinking daily, and she would, routinely and blindly, rage of her misfortune, driving her older children into the streets. Michael, a teen of fourteen, was desperately running away with nowhere to go. He was now hanging with a gang of older teens, addicts and street level dealers of heroin that supported their drug habit by stealing cars. Soon, the gang turned to burglary, and a fateful plan was hatched to break into a Moody Street furrier.
I don’t recall how the novice thieves managed to gain entry; it was lost to the serious tragedy that befell Mike that night. While they were bundling the furs, a silent alarm was tripped. They were unsophisticated thieves, blundering in a cavern of darkness without flashlights. They stuffed what they could feel and presume were luxurious furs into industrial laundry bags. The cops chose to respond in silence and darkness, springing upon the thieves in the act. Mike searched blindly for an escape, running into a frightened cop who then fired his .38 caliber pistol. The bullet struck Mike in the forehead.
Mike survived. The gunshot left his forehead forever disfigured and he ended up with metal plates where there had once been bone and a glass right eye where there had once been a once beautifully alert blue eye. The calamity of it all brought an end to Mike’s more overt criminal acts. It left him with the need to take Phenobarbital to control the resulting seizures that commonly occur from the head trauma. There were likely other meds and therapies endured by Mike during and after his protracted recovery. But he never faulted anyone, not his wayward father nor his distraught and drinking mother.
It had been years since I had seen or spoken with Michael. I was at an “early-bird” meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous in South Boston one day at 7 am. I heard him speaking before I saw him. He was sharing his experience, his strength, and trying his best to impart some measure of wisdom and gratitude to the assembled afflicted souls. When we saw each other, we rushed to one another and talking boisterously, enthused by our chance meeting after so many years. We were quickly hushed by some members and asked to take our conversation outside.
He was dressed badly; pants too big and too long, rolled up in a bunch at his ankles, and just a windbreaker to ward off the early December chill. I brought him to a nearby Goodwill that I favored and bought him sweaters, pants, and a winter coat. We then went to where I was living on Park Street in Dorchester. After a hot shower he got into some of his newly acquired clothes and truly beamed of renewal from his one bright eye and still beautiful smile.
By late morning, it had warmed into the 50’s. We chose to take a ride to dear old Minot Beach. We stopped at some fancy deli in Cohasset Center and got lunch to go. In addition to our sandwiches, we bought expensive gourmet sodas as well as large homemade brownies for dessert. We then drove the remaining short distance to Minot and parked at his family’s former cottage. We walked out into the marsh and found a welcoming granite ledge bathed in sunshine. The spot had hardy cedars, flourishing bright blueberries, and leafless windswept scrub oaks, settled till spring. After eating, we had a fine day of hiking over and around the wooded islands amid the tidal marshes just as we often did as kids. We were two old friends, still young and struggling, yet we recalled the Minot of our youth as if from the distant vantage of advanced age.
During the course of the day, Michael told me at length of his grow-room, of how marijuana had proven to be an effective treatment for his ills, and then of the ensuing raid, arrest, and downfall. He told me of his now living in a homeless shelter in Boston’s South End. The day’s light was showing signs of concluding as early as 3 pm, as December days will. Time had come for us to depart. Just as school had once ushered us away from Minot, we had to leave again our beloved sanctuary. Our realities dictated such.
The last time that I saw Michael alive was that day when I dropped him off at the shelter; a dismal, harsh, and discordant place that would leave even the most fortified of souls with deep foreboding. The shelter was situated amid a no man’s land ringed round with ugliness and despair. It was located at the most forgotten of places amid the industrial fringe of Boston’s South End. The place, this residence for the down and out, was alongside the ever-busy Southeast Expressway, perhaps a mile from his father’s opulent Beacon Hill townhouse. The two overpasses, one leading in and one leading out of downtown Boston, literally throbbed and shuddered constantly with the drone of heavy traffic, ever punctuated with the alarm of horns blowing, brakes screeching, and sirens blaring.
We arrived at the shelter just as night was snuffing the last light out of the early evening. The sound of rush-hour traffic was incessant and nearly deafening as it resounded among the huge structures of the teaming overpasses. The roar of it was such that we had to shout our goodbyes as we gave each other a parting embrace. The building itself loomed large, all brick, edges, and industrial, still announcing “Rapid Service Press” from a long since extinguished neon sign atop its ten or more stories — a defunct enterprise now housing defunct lives.
There was not a single tree or shrub, no outside lighting or amenity of any kind, just the massive and forbidding cube of brick and glass atop slopes of strewn rubble and debris. Near the door, two men sat in the dirt, a couple of others huddled for a smoke. As I turned my car in retreat and arced my headlights across the fearful blight, I at once felt impotent concern for my long-lost friend and an enormous sense of gratitude for my cozy attic bedroom at “The Condor House,” a sober house for men in recovery. More, I was grateful for that brief, beautiful, and precious, early December day with Michael. He was for a few hours the boy I knew and loved. Minot, with its everlasting beauty, worked its magic and delighted as ever.
Bio: Paul McWilliams is a retired RN living in central Florida. He spent twenty years working as a psychiatric and substance abuse nurse. Prior to the virus, he had been a member of a writers' group that met twice a month. His life presently is very stable and he’s now ready to commit significant time to reading and writing. He also enjoys walking, cycling, and golf. His great ambition as a writer is to recreate, in fiction, the summer beach community he knew as a child through young adulthood.
“We love those who know the worst of us and don’t turn their faces away.”