“A Shadow of Lead” (by Lou Manfredo)

Lou Manfredo has been a regular contributor to EQMM since 2006. He is best known for his series of novels featuring Brooklyn cop Joe Rizzo, a character Kirkus Reviews called “the most authentic cop in contemporary crime fiction.” That authenticity probably derives from the twenty-five years Lou spent working in the Brooklyn criminal-justice system. Fans of Rizzo can see him again in “Rizzo’s Monkey Store,” in EQMM’s next issue, November/December 2017 (on sale October 24). Lou’s post today is timely, as violence and disasters seem to be making our world an ever more dangerous place. . . . —Janet Hutchings

Some years back, my first EQMM story appeared. Set in a NYC speakeasy, circa 1928, the story was followed by a series of others occurring in a small Long Island farming community in the early 1960s. At roughly the same time, I produced three novels set in present day Brooklyn, New York. I guess it was a form of literary schizophrenia; here today, yesterday tomorrow. Or something.

My latest publications in EQMM feature that present-day novel character, NYPD Detective Joe Rizzo. But something odd has begun to happen: A close reading of each story presents a vagueness of time frame. Hints abound—public telephones, for instance, enclosed in actual full booths and sitting on random street corners. I seem to subtly be crossing from present to past. My initial reaction to this realization was pragmatic. Crime detection today in our tech savvy world differs from the struggles of Holmes, Spade, or Wolfe. Security cameras, cell towers, DNA—the list goes on. So, I believed, my slipping back in time must be a creative tool, a writer’s sleight of hand to facilitate moving the mystery along smoothly.

But—and it seems a rather significant “but”—that doesn’t fully explain the fact that I’ve written two novels of late (unrepresented and thus unsold, I should add) both of which are set in the past: one in 1980 NYC, the other in the deep south of 1960. I began to wonder: Was my subconscious at work here? Was the present simply inconvenient from a creative point of view, or perhaps was something else going on? Something less comprehensible?

Suddenly I recalled a rainy afternoon nearly four years ago.

Sitting on the double recliner in my den watching, for the tenth time, an episode of Curious George. Cuddled beside me was my grandson Robert, a battered, metal, two-tone green toy pickup truck clutched in his hands, the very same truck I myself played with as a child on the linoleum-clad kitchen floor in a Brooklyn apartment, passing time as my mother prepared a meal, an activity which usually consumed, in my memory, most of her day.

Just as George began to bury a bunch of full-grown carrots in Chef Pisghetti’s rooftop garden in an ill-conceived attempt to help the man with an emergency vegetable situation, Robert raised the metal truck to his mouth. He decided—because he was a three-year-old boy seeking illogical adventures—to lick it. I blanched.

Lead paint. The truck, always representative of a romanticized memory of an illogically happy childhood, suddenly morphed into a debilitating, perhaps deadly, weapon of antiquity. I over-reacted.

“Robert! No!”

My grandson froze then turned his head to stare at me, his Windex-blue eyes carrying puzzlement and a hint of offense. No? they ask. Pardon? Are you actually shouting at me? This, Grandpop, is unacceptable.

We resolved the matter and returned to our individual realities—Robert mesmerized by George’s antics, me silently imagining myself as The Man in the Yellow Hat. And why not? What could be better than living in a Utopian version of Manhattan Island, nestled in that wonderful apartment, driving a cool convertible to a pastoral country home. And not a single lead-paint peril in sight.

It then occurred to me that despite almost daily contact with that toy, more than a few occasions most certainly involving a lick or two, I have somehow survived. And surely Robert will, too. I relaxed a bit.

“This is my truck, Grandpop,” Robert announced with authority.

“No, little buddy, actually, it’s my truck,” I say. Just as annual bouts of blistering sunburns, multiple daily doses of sugary soda, periodic passings of drifting radioactive nuclear test clouds, and the rolling death machines we knew as automobiles were once mine, not to mention the fascinating x-ray machine at the local shoe store I slid my feet into on a regular basis.

And yet, there I was.

As Curious George proceeded to once again whip things into well-intentioned but unfortunate chaos, something else occurred to me.

What will my grandson be facing? Genetically engineered foods, climate change, terrorist lunatics, and despicable politicians posing as patriots? The list of such horrors, when contemplated, grows endless.

How sad.

But sadder than the Baby Boomer blues? Crawling under our school desks where, ludicrously, we were told we’d find safety from falling Soviet atomic bombs; waking to reports of yet another assassination; watching once great cities burn against the cacophonic roar of war in Vietnam?

So—if in fact the present day has me a bit shaky in my boots and slipping my fiction to days gone by, perhaps a close examination of the good old days is advisable. Maybe my retreat to days past—conscious or not—is nothing more than idealized escapism just as it has probably always been whenever grandparents contemplate the futures of their grandchildren. Each generation lies beneath a unique shadow of its own leaden toys, irrational nationalistic or theological insanity, disease, hatred, stupidity.

I guess Robert will be all right. It’ll all work out. He’ll grow up, gather an education, work, perhaps share his life with a loving mate, see some success, retire, and grow old. He may even become predictable enough to squire grandchildren of his own around town in a Cadillac or, as my grandson had dubbed mine, a “Cal-a-lack.”

Probably.

But as I sat that day with young Robert before the flat-screen, the magic of Curious George’s world beginning to lose its hold on me, I wondered. Why does it seem so different this time, so much harsher?

And I wonder still, am I simply facing reality or being overly pessimistic? After all, we’re not enmeshed in a Civil War or crushed by a worldwide depression. We are not being assaulted by Nazis or ravished by polio or the plague.

It was much worse for our parents and grandparents, right? We can deal with our problems just as they did. Right?

I wonder exactly what I am trying to say. I guess I’m not sure. There is comfort in the past, I guess because—hey—we got through it. The present, exactly as the future, is unsure. A phone booth just seems so much safer than a smartphone. So I’ll probably continue to write with each foot in a different era. What could it hurt?

And as to our current situation, we’ll deal with it. Of course we will. Right?

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2 Responses to “A Shadow of Lead” (by Lou Manfredo)

  1. pauldmarks says:

    Interesting piece, Lou. And I think every generation has its own things to get through. But hopefully we learn from our mistakes and forge ahead, even if it is two steps forward, one step back.

  2. Beautifully written piece, Lou. I just got back from a week with my own grandsons and your thoughts here truly resonate. I definitely had it easier than my parents and grandparents, but I’m not quite sure that my children and their children will have it better than me. I’m looking forward to reading your story, as always.

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