“How you doing there, buddy? You okay? I just came by to tell you something. Maybe you know it already. But I wanna make sure. I’m gonna kill ya.”
Elmore Leonard – Mr. Majestyk
My friends thought I snuck into my parents’ room for the magazines. Sometimes I did. My father kept a collection of Playboys, Hustlers and the odd Swank or Penthouse “hidden” in his nightstand.
“Put them nasty magazines away, don’t let the boys see them,” I heard my mother say to him on more than one occasion. She didn’t approve of them, and she wouldn’t approve of me looking at them, of that I was sure. I wasn’t opposed to seeing naked women, what twelve year-old boy is, but the truth of it was, today I wasn’t there for skin, I was there for the books.
My friends and I had tried to fit a week’s worth of summer fun in only a few hours. Summer vacation had just begun and we were like colts in a field, running around, testing our legs and wearing ourselves out. It was only around noon, but already we’d gone fishing, swimming, and played multiple games of soccer and table tennis. Out of sheer boredom I’d tormented the Nichols girls across the street but that got old quickly and now here I was, bully beef sandwich in one hand, glass of lemonade in the other, sneaking into my parents room.
The nightstand with the magazines and books, the treasure chest, as my buddy Joel called it, was on my father’s side of the bed and I sat on the floor next to it, my back against the cool concrete wall. As I took a bite of my sandwich, a big green and red lizard scurried in through the louvered window, looking for a place to ride out the heat of the hot Jamaican afternoon. If my mother was around, she would have chased the lizard out with a broom, but I didn’t mind sharing the room with him. It was hot and there was room enough for both of us.
I finished my lunch, wiped my hands on a napkin, and opened the nightstand doors, releasing the rich scent of my father’s Benson and Hedges cigarettes and revealing the familiar stack of girlie magazines and the paperbacks stacked neatly next to them. I knew each title by heart and it only took a quick glance to see that there was nothing new, just the same collection of Don Pendleton’s The Executioner books, two of Ernest Tidyman’s Shaft novels and a Tom Clancy.
I’d read them all at least twice, some more than that. I had no context for the violence in those books, we had no Internet, no DVD’s or even VCR’s. The Jamaica Broadcasting Company was the only channel and they signed on at 6pm and signed off promptly at midnight. Books were my outlet and what I lacked in context I more than made up for in love of words. I loved the language the heroes used, the exotic motherfuckers and cocksuckers and sonofabitches. I loved the tough women who hated the hero at first but soon ended up in bed with him. I loved the exotic locales like Harlem, Brooklyn and the Bronx, L.A., Entebbe and Rio de Janero. I loved the tough guy dialogue, how behind every word was a threat, and I loved that the characters sometimes did bad things for good reasons.
I closed the nightstand up again, frustrated, tempted to re-read one of Shaft books but I knew them practically by heart. The afternoon stretched out ahead of me like a hazy desert road, and I sighed and started to rise. Maybe I would go ride my bike or find my buddies and aimlessly wander through the neighborhood until some entertainment presented itself. I was almost out of the room when I remembered the empty glass and soiled napkin I’d left behind. My mother would forgive a lot, but not eating in her bedroom, so I went back for the evidence, relieved that I’d remembered. I bent over to pick them up spotted something under the bed, and reached for it. It was a new paperback but one very different from my dad’s usual fare. This one didn’t have a muscular hero on the cover, guns blazing as he stormed a Mob stronghold. There was no huge-breasted woman draped over the hero like a cheap coat. There were no cars or fighter jets streaking to deliver a payload on some desert encampment. No, just some kind of abstract scene, a man looking into the distance the title Mr. Majestyk and the name of the author, Elmore Leonard.
I lay on my parents’ bedroom floor, opened the book, and began to read. If the lizard was disappointed that he wouldn’t have the room to himself, he didn’t say a word. I hurriedly put the book away a few hours later when I heard my father’s car in the driveway, then spent the night wishing morning would come and my parents would go to work so I could read the rest.
[pullquote position=”right”]“I spent most of my dough on booze, broads and boats and the rest I wasted.”~ Elmore Leonard, LaBrava[/pullquote]
I finished the book the next day and lay there for a while trying to understand what had just happened. I knew I loved the language. I knew I was haunted by the book in a way I couldn’t yet understand. Eventually I put it away and forgot about Mr. Leonard until years later. I was in the airport in Portland, Oregon where my brother and I had spent the summer with my mom and her new husband. My brother and I were going to New York to meet my dad and start our new life in America. We were two kids who’d left the country we grew up in and were moving to strange new place. A much bigger and faster place, where the people didn’t speak like us didn’t look like us. We were scared.
We got on the plane, found our seats, and sat without speaking. Then, shortly after the flight took off, I found two abandoned Elmore Leonard paperbacks in the seat pocket in front of me. I opened the first one and began reading. Mr. Leonard’s style hadn’t changed and it took me back to the day only a couple of years before when my family was intact, when my mother and father loved one another, and where the only thing I had to think about was whether we would go for a swim before or after our soccer game.
The flight was five hours long and I read both books through. When I was done, I started the first one again and got halfway before the pilot announced we were over New York City. My brother and I looked out at the city that was to be our home with wide eyes. I was still scared, I still missed my mother and I still wanted to go home but I had those Elmore Leonard books. I had worlds to disappear into. I had good guys and bad guys and questionable women. I had fiction, and I knew I would be okay.
Mr. Leonard was my writing hero. I fantasied about meeting him and telling him how he gave a scared kid courage, how he was and remains an inspiration. I wanted to ask him how he said so much while saying so little and I wanted to pick his brain about his characters. Chances are that would have never happened but it was nice to fantasize.
RIP Elmore Leonard.