Fortnightly/Chicago Literary Club

Friday, March 6, 2009

“A Bump in the Road”, approx. 2111 words

© Vic Zast, 2009


On the morning of January 5th, with the new year so new that most people were still writing the old year on checks, Detective Julian Williams, a soft-spoken, athletic young man, bereft of the look of a gumshoe, led a small band of Evanston, Illinois police officers into the second floor apartment of Michael Dane Allen, and found Allen passed dead away, fully-clothed in a comfortable chair. On Allen’s wrist was his gold retirement watch; on his feet, a pair of wool socks and sandals; on his lap, an I-Mac computer. There was a half-constructed sentence, not nearly as put together as he, on the screen.


“It appears as though the deceased was in the middle of sending an email,” Williams said. “I’m sorry, but you’re not allowed in,” he explained.  “A representative of the department will contact you in about an hour. Until then, please keep what you know private.”


Allen, age 63, had suffered from juvenile diabetes since he was five. But Williams’ findings revealed a more benign end. There were no clues to indicate a seizure resulted from a shortage of insulin.  No evidence suggesting suicide or foul play.  Allen was simply dead, gone from this world forever, removed from human interaction in a manner totally  unremarkable, until one - not the police, as a matter of fact - looked into the man’s life and death closely.


Consistent with absolutely nothing associated with a Type 1 diabetes sufferer, Allen had managed his career as a Leo Burnett advertising executive while accommodating repeated trauma.  He served his employer and clients for 30 years admirably, despite countless acts of aberrant behavior.  Memories of Allen, flopping around on the floor with his teeth clenched, swinging wildly from his heels at his rescuers abound.  The story of the time he commandeered the door of a departing jetliner to leap 30 feet from the floor of the aircraft to the tarmacadam to avoid demons remains.


That being said, I have a reason for telling you about Mike Allen that goes beyond the sensational. Apropos to this evening’s theme, Allen considered his frequent interruptions of peace exceptional – that they, in no way, defined him for who he was, but were “bumps in the road” that would come and go, allowing his true self to carry on in between the frequent episodes.  


Despite how often he became compromised, despite that he never saw a normal day, Allen – a man apart from the rest of the world in many ways - believed that the times when he was unaffected by his illness were representative of who he was; that his wild transgressions of decorum, although daily, were minor aggravations; that once overcome, would be quickly forgotten.  A shrug of the shoulders, a snip-eating-grin on his face - that’s how he put forth on the rebound after finishing a drink-box of OJ or having the paramedics prick his skin with some revitalizing elixir. He had learned to live with his “bumps in the road” in a way that made them unnoticeable – or so he thought.


Admittedly, before Allen passed, I was at wit’s end over what sort of precipitating experience might constitute a “bump in the road” worth talking about.  Then two weeks later, on Sunday, the 18th of January – on the eve of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, approximately 48 hours prior to the day that a new president was sworn in – the “bump in the road” theme popped up in two separate places that made me certain of what I wanted to write. It was the way Allen had lived his life, and two separate incidents of coincidental reference, later met by a third, and then a fourth, that impressed me even more.


That morning, while reading the Sunday newspaper, I happened upon an article by sportswriter Chris Kuc about the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team.  The Hawks had defeated the host St. Louis Blues the night before in a 2-1 overtime shoot-out.  The Hawks didn’t register a shot on goal until the 10-minute mark of the first period, and then forward Troy Brouwer scored the team’s only goal in regulation time at 12:56 on a power play.


For those not familiar with hockey, power plays are what give teams the best chance of scoring.  By definition, most power plays constitute two-minute stretches of play during which a team has a man advantage because the opposing team has been penalized for committing an infraction.  In effect, power plays are unanticipated incidents which result in anticipated scoring success.  But Brouwer’s goal with the man advantage was only the Hawks’ third in their last 27 power play attempts. The lack of productivity, in turn, was something their coach, Joel Quinneville, seemed mildly concerned with.


“You’re going to have bumps in the road where your power play isn’t going to be productive,” Quinneville told Kuc, as if the 24 times when the Hawks didn’t score with the man advantage were the exception and not the rule.  He was, in effect, like Allen, ascribing a cliché that, according to most users, described an action that was anomalistic to a pattern of routine behavior.  The Blackhawks, a team with one of the nine best won-lost records in hockey, was only twenty-fifth in power play efficiency during this span.  Their inability to score on the power play wasn’t an anomaly, at all.  It was what to be expected of them.  If there were any “bumps in the road” encountered by the team’s scoring drought, the bumps represented an inherent problem and should have been categorized thusly.


Later that same morning, I heard the term “bump in the road” used again.  And, again its usage gave me pause to think twice about what is a “bump” and what is common “road.”


New “Meet the Press” host David Gregory asked a panel of Washington reporters if they believed that the revelation of Secretary of the Treasury designate Timothy Geithner’s failure to pay $36,000 in federal income taxes was a “bump in the road” for the new Obama administration. 


While Gregory’s use of the phrase was less startling than Quinneville’s, it was nonetheless equally inaccurate.  In the last 30 years, there have been more than 300 challenges causing significant appointment delays of more than one week made to presidential nominees.  Rarely, if ever, does an appointee slide by without partisan objection.  It’s far more likely for there to be a challenge than not.  Yet, Gregory disregarded this reality in favor of the “bump in the road” sound bite.


A couple weeks later, I heard the phrase “bump in the road” in the dialogue of a stage play.  The play’s lead, actor John Mahoney, who was featured as the father of Kelsey Grammer’s character Frazier in the popular TV show of the same name, uttered the words to his Steppenwolf audiences in Irish playwright Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer.”  To set the scene, Mahoney has the role of a besotted blind man named Richard, who lives with his brother Sharky in the sodden basement of a Dublin apartment building. 


On Christmas Eve, brothers Nicky and Sharky are visited by a trio of “n’er do well” friends, including the “Devil,” for a poker game, and one of the three men – a man named Ivan - is troubled that time had slipped away and it had become 7 o’clock in the morning and his wife was sure to give him the dreaded bee-Jaysus for staying out all night.


“Ah, a bump in the road’s all it is,” Richard assures Ivan, devising a plot to send Ivan home with the parish priest by his side, so that when he explains his indiscretions he wouldn’t be alone.  But it’s obvious to all in the audience that Ivan’s philandering takes place all the time.  His wife’s anger with him wasn’t occasional.  Ivan had made heavy drinking a condition of his marriage pact. Neither Richard nor he nor his wife should have expected a priest, an excuse or an apology to change things. This event wasn’t a bump, it was alcoholism – a constant in the lives of McPherson’s characters.


All told, these incidents led me to thinking of the “bumps in the road” that I experienced, and how many of them were really “bumps in the road,” or the road itself. In reviewing the path of my own life, I found a road traveled in which bumps were more common than smooth ground.  It seems “bumps in the road” constitute life’s path.  They are, in effect, the circumstances that define human existence.


Modern life has eliminated the concept of a “bump in the road,” just as the computer has made the concept of “fast” obsolete. Things occur only “too slowly.” Actions no longer take place on a pace we consider amazing for the short time it takes for them to be completed. 


Likewise, “bumps in the road” are encountered on a day-to-day basis because so few things go right.  Because of the frequency at which “bumps in the road” occur, like Allen’s diabetic episodes, they become indistinguishable from normal activity.  “Bumps in the road” have become obsolete, at least in their traditional definition, as a result of their common nature.


We make nothing of exception, because exception is our lot.  A typical 24-hours begins simply enough. The traffic en route to the office is slowed to a crawl because there’s an accident ahead.  The co-worker scheduled to help you with a time- sensitive presentation calls in sick.


You learn that a crucial shipment scheduled to go out yesterday did not.  There’s a check in the mail in payment for goods that you’ve sold to your best customer, but the check is shy a full third of the amount expected.


Next, you learn about a problem at the co-packer who’s producing your biggest open order. Then, you discover a mistake on your Visa bill that requires follow-up.  


It is lunchtime.  The Subway sandwich store has run out of turkey.  Gas has gone up fifteen cents a gallon since the day before when you drove by the station rushing home because you stayed three hours late trying to fit something in.  A snowstorm, predicted for the evening, is beginning early. Drivers are down-throttling because of a sliver of wetness on the pavement, causing everything to go into slow motion.


You stop to pick up a prescription at the local Walgreen’s, only to be told by the pharmacist that your doctor hasn’t replied to his inquiry regarding the re-fill.  It was expected a day ago, so you check and the fax number the pharmacist has been using is wrong. 


Back at work, the staff is beginning to worry about making it home in the snowstorm. The airport is beginning to cancel flights and the 15 sales people you’ve scheduled to come in for a crucial meeting in the morning are calling that they can’t get in. 


A bad day?  No, a normal day. This series of occurrences, in fact, isn’t fictitious.  “Bumps in the road” form the fabric of commerce. Beyond that, once you notice that problems no longer exist to fix, life becomes boring, empty. Having things go badly is actually good.  A guy like Allen, for whom every day posed a set of challenges, must have known this.  Now that nothing goes wrong for him, he is gone in more than one sense of what gone is.




It was not an hour, but several hours, before someone from the Evanston Police department called me as Detective Williams had promised.  Meanwhile, I had kept the news of Allen’s death confidential, resisting the urge to share what I knew with the dead man’s friends and relatives.


For the next hour, somehow, miraculously, everything began then to fall in place. My wife Maureen, a close friend named Jim and I went to the home of Allen’s ex-wife.  She was home, took the news with relative calm, called her children in California with the news and made plans for them to join her.  There’d be a family-only viewing, a visit with the mortician who removed Allen’s body from his apartment, and, alas, a cremation.


But no sooner had these decisions been taken, the chaos of life ensued.  The mortician failed to send Allen’s obituary notice to the newspapers.  The only photo of the deceased was of him in his 30s, taken so long ago that he was unrecognizable to anyone who knew him. The country club at which Allen’s family had planned an event in his memory could not accommodate the date selected.  The apartment in which he died is facing foreclosure.  There are problems with his will.  Perhaps, given such bumps, Allen lives, after all.