Every town has its stories. The urban legends, history and heroes, that set it apart from the surrounding areas. Lakeside, New Jersey, population 8,437, has some real winners.
That boarded-up brick house at the end of Miller Street? Three hundred years old and haunted as fuck. If you stand in front of it at midnight on Friday the 13th, you’ll see the ghosts of two creepy 18th- century boys looking down at you from the attic window. True story.
Then there’s the Great Goose Plague of 1922. Geese are not the friendliest of feathered beings—but they’ve got balls; you got to give them that. In Jersey, wherever you find a body of water, you’ll find geese. And wherever there’s geese, there’s an abundance of goose shit. It’s basically indestructible—if there’s ever a nuclear war, all that’ll be left are the cockroaches and the goose shit. Anyway, in 1922, either by accident or the most ill-conceived prank ever, those durable turds made their way into Lakeside’s water supply and wiped out almost half the town.
The old-old-timers still hold a grudge, so it’s not unusual to see a little gray-haired lady pause midstep on the sidewalk, to give the finger to a flock flying by overhead.
In 1997, Lakeside received the distinguished honor of being named the town with the most bars per capita in the whole US of A. We were all very proud.
And we’re not too shabby in the celebrity department. This town has given birth to five decorated war heroes, two major league baseball players, an NBA coach, one world-renowned artist, a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee and a gold-medal Olympic curler.
We keep that last one kind of quiet, though, because . . . curling.
The guy I’m jogging towards on Main Street right now is a different kind of celebrity—a local one.
“Ollie, look alive!” I call out.
He doesn’t make eye contact, but he smiles and lifts his hand from the arm of his folding chair so I can slap it with a high-five, like I do every Sunday morning I run past.
Oliver Munson. Every day he plants himself on his front lawn from morning until late afternoon, waving to the cars and people on the sidewalk. Like a Walmart greeter—for the whole town.
Legend has it, when Ollie was a kid, he fell off his bike, hit his head on the curb, and ended up in a coma. When he woke up, he had lost the ability to speak and the doctors said he’d never be “quite right” again.
Now, it’s possible that this story is bullshit—just a cautionary tale the moms cooked up to get kids to wear helmets. But I don’t think so.
Though the doctors recommended Ollie be committed—because society was a real asshole back in the day—Mrs. Munson wasn’t having any of it. She brought her son home, taught him the skills and routine he follows to this very day—one that gave him independence and dignity and, from the looks of it, fulfillment.
Mrs. Munson’s gone now, but Ollie’s neighbors check up on him and a social worker comes around once a month to make sure he’s good to go. When he needs something, there’s never a shortage of volunteers, because he’s a fixture around here—extended family—as much a part of this place as the lake that gave us its name.
Behind me, three boys on bikes whizz past Ollie in single file.
See? It’s like that Bon Jovi song that says your hometown is the only place they call you one of their own.
And Ollie Munson’s one of ours.
~ ~ ~
My sneakers slap the sidewalk as I continue to run—picking up my pace, pushing myself until sweat soaks my T-shirt and dampens the strands of my dark hair. I’m a big believer in sweat—it’s good for the body and the soul. Forget Zima, or Yogo or Pi-kick-my-ass, if you want to look and feel good? Work up a hard, real sweat once a day—doesn’t matter if it’s from running, sweeping, or screwing. Though screwing is my preference.
I am a creature of habit—most guys are.
I’m also superstitious—all athletes are. It’s why there’s so many shaggy beards in professional sports and why if you ask a player on a winning streak when he last washed his jock—hope he lies to you.
A streak trumps personal hygiene every time.
The last fifteen years of my life have basically been one long winning streak. Don’t worry, I wash my boxers every day, but the other parts of my life—the Jeep Wrangler I drive, the T-shirts I wear that will have to be pried from my cold, dead corpse before I throw them away, my workout routine—those do not fucking change.
I run this same way every day—past the string of brick capes and ranches, with small grassy yards and well-used Fords and Chevys.
Lakeside started as a brick town—back when communities sprang up around the mills, factories, and industries that offered employment. California had gold in its hills; Jersey had red clay. The demographics really haven’t changed. Most of the people around here work with their hands—proud blue collars, union members, and small business owners.
It was an awesome place to grow up—it still is. Safe enough to be stupid, big enough not to get dangerously bored, small enough that every street feels like yours.
I finish my five-mile run, like always, at the corner of Baker Street, and walk the last block to cool down, stretch my hamstrings, and wipe the sweat from my forehead with the bottom of my T-shirt.
And then, I walk through the door of The Bagel Shop. This place is never empty—besides the bagels being awesome, it’s where old guys shoot the shit all day and young guys come to hide from their wives.
I grab a bottle of water from the cooler, next to a table filled with locals.
“Hey, Coach D!”
Not to go all Ron Burgundy on you, but . . . I’m a pretty big deal around here. I think I’ll run for mayor after I retire, erect a statue of myself in front of Town Hall to replace the one of old Mayor Schnozzel. He was an ugly son of a bitch.
Anyway, long story short—I’m a history teacher at the high school, but more importantly—I’m the head coach of the best football team in the state. I know they’re the best because I made them that way. I was the youngest head coach ever hired and I have a better record than anyone who came before me.
Those that can, do; those that can’t, teach . . . those who know how to play football like a fucking god but have a bum knee—coach.
“How’s it going, fellas?”
“You tell us,” Mr. Zinke replies. He owns Zinke Jewelers—which gives him the inside track on almost every relationship in town. Who’s getting engaged, who’s coming up on a big anniversary, who’s in need of an “I screwed up” two-carat apology tennis bracelet. The man’s a vault—what gets sold at Zinke’s stays at Zinke’s. Figuratively. “How’s the team looking this year?”
I swallow a gulp of water from the bottle. “With Lipinski starting quarterback, we’ll take states—no doubt.”
Brandon Lipinski is my masterpiece. I’ve coached him since he was a small pop warner player . . . that’s peewee or youth league football to you non-New Jerseyans out there. And like God made Adam in his own image—I made Lipinski in mine.
“Justin’s been working his butt off all summer,” Phil Perez tells me. “He drills every morning—throws fifty passes every day.”
I keep a mental catalog of upcoming talent. Justin Perez is a seventh-grader with a decent arm and good feet. “Consistency is key,” I reply. “Gotta build that muscle memory.”
Mrs. Perkins calls my name from behind the counter, holding up a brown paper bag. “Your order’s ready, Garrett.”
The Perkins family has owned The Bagel Shop for generations—Mrs. Perkins and her two brothers run the place now. Her oldest daughter, Samantha, was a gorgeous, wet dream of a senior when I was a freshman. She took my buddy Dean to the prom—they got wasted in the limo and missed most of the dance screwing in the bathroom—forever solidifying Dean’s player status.
“Have a good day, guys.” I tap the table and head over to pay my bill.
Mrs. Perkins hands me my sack of carbs and my change. “Is your mom going to Club this afternoon?”
Ah, the Knights of Columbus Ladies Auxiliary Club—where the women plan bake sales, get buzzed on sherbet-topped alcoholic punch, and bitch about their husbands.
“She wouldn’t miss it for the world.” I give her a wink and a smile. “Have a good one, Mrs. P.”
~ ~ ~
With my bagels tucked under my arm, I walk down Fulton Road and cut through Baygrove Park, which takes me to Chestnut, around the bend from my parents’ house. Theirs is the dark-blue colonial with the white shutters . . . and practically neon-green lawn.
Retirement hit my old man hard.
In the winter months, he spends hours in the garage, working on classic car models. But the minute the frost breaks, it’s all about the grass—trimming it, watering it, fertilizing it . . . talking to it.
He’s spent more quality time with this lawn than he ever did with me and my brothers—and there were four of us.
I walk through the front door that’s never been locked and step into chaos—because the gang’s all here.
The Sunday morning talk shows are on TV. Volume level: blaring—because my dad has a hearing aid he doesn’t wear. Jasmine, my mother’s formerly feral, still-evil black cat hisses as I close the door behind me, foiling her perpetual attempts to escape. My dad’s in his recliner, wearing his typical August uniform—plaid boxers, knee-high white socks with sandals, and a T-shirt that says: If lost, return to Irene. My mother’s in front of the stove, with the vent fan clattering above her head, wearing a shirt that says: I’m Irene.
I pass the bagels to my mom with a kiss on her cheek—’cause out of the four of us, I’m her favorite. Sure, she’ll give you the whole “I love my sons equally” spiel if you ask her . . . but we all know the truth.
My youngest nephew, Spencer, my oldest brother Connor’s son, wrinkles his nose at me from the kitchen table. “You smell, Uncle Garrett.”
Puppies learn how to be dogs by roughhousing with bigger dogs. Boys work the same way.
“Yeah—like a winner.” I haul him out of the chair, lift him up, and rub my damp, sweaty head on his face. “Here, get a better smell.”
He squeals, then laughs as he pushes me away.
On either side of Spencer’s chair are his two older brothers—thirteen-year-old Aaron, whose light-brown, John Travolta, Saturday Night Fever-era hair needs a trim, and the middle child, in every sense of the word, Daniel.
Yes, they named him Daniel Daniels—I don’t know what the fuck my brother was thinking—they might as well have tattooed a target on his forehead. His middle name is Brayden, so we all call him that.
At the other end of the table are my nieces—my brother Ryan’s daughters—the pretty, perfect little girls my mother always prayed for. Thirteen-year-old Josephina and seven-year-old, curly-haired Francesca—also known as Joey and Frankie.
I pour myself a cup of coffee while my mom slices and butters bagels and passes them out to the kids.
Then my petite, dark-haired sister-in-law comes walking down the hall from the bathroom, clapping her hands at the children. “Come on, kids, eat quick. We’re going school shopping and we gotta get going.”
She’s Ryan’s wife. Angelina Bettina Constance Maria, maiden name Caravusio.
She’s just a little bit Italian.
Angela’s a Jersey transplant—her family moved here from Brooklyn her junior year in high school. Her and my brother got together that same year and haven’t been apart since.
“I don’t wanna go,” Brayden whines. “I wanna stay at Nana and Pop’s and play Xbox.”
Angela shakes her head. “Nana has Club today. Your dad’s going to pick you up at my house this afternoon after his meeting.”
That would be Connor’s meeting with his divorce lawyer.
My brother’s an attending ER doctor at Lakeside Memorial. He’s been living at my parents’ house for the last few months—since his wife, Stacey, told him she didn’t want to be married to him anymore. Ouch. Fifteen fucking years—up in smoke. While they’re separated, she’s got the house—a five-bedroom McMansion on the newer, fancier side of town—and he’s got the kids every other weekend.
My little brother, Timmy, walks in through the sliding glass door from the backyard.
“Hey, Pop.” He smirks, “You’ve got some crab grass growing out by the tree. You really should get on it.”
That my father can hear.
He springs out of his recliner and heads to the garage to get his crab grass spray.
There’s a two-year age difference between my oldest brother, Connor, and my next older brother, Ryan. And there’s another two-year difference between me and Ryan. The third time was definitely the charm for my parents, and they frankly should’ve quit while they were ahead.
But, seven years later, my mom wanted to give it one last try for a girl. And that’s how we got Timmy.
Timmy’s kind of a dick.
Don’t get me wrong—he’s my brother—I love him. But he’s immature, selfish, basically . . . a dick.
“You’re kind of a dick, man.” I tell him because we both know there’s not a blade of crab grass on my father’s lawn.
He laughs. “That’s what he gets for not letting Mom get me that Easy-Bake Oven I wanted when I was ten.”
Like a lot of guys of his generation, my father is a staunch believer in separate toy aisles for boys and girls and never the two shall meet. He thinks progressive is a brand of soup.
Unlike my niece Frankie, who looks at me determinedly and announces, “I want to play football, Uncle Garrett.”
This is not news to me. She’s been saying she wants to play football—like her uncles, and her cousins—since she started talking. She’s the one who watches the games on Sunday with my brother while wearing her pink Giants jersey.
“Oh yeah? Have you been working on your kicks?”
She nods enthusiastically and steps back from the table to demonstrate. And she’s not bad—the family football gene didn’t skip her.
I clap my hands. “You can play pop warner when you’re nine.”
Frankie beams, until Angela rains on our future-Heisman parade.
“Knock it off, Garrett. You’re not playing football, Francesca. I’m not spending three thousand dollars on braces so you can get your teeth knocked out of your head.”
Well, that’s offensive.
“You think I’d let my niece get her teeth knocked out?”
Angela points at me. “When you have a daughter, we’ll talk.”
Timmy checks the clock on his phone. “Hey, Mom, I have to get going. Can you get my laundry?”
Yes, my mother still washes his laundry every week. Like I said—dick.
I’m about to tell him to get his own god damn laundry, but Angela beats me to it.
“What the hell is that? Get your own goddamn laundry!”
“She likes doing my laundry!” Timmy argues. “It makes her feel needed.”
Angela sneers. “Nobody likes doing frigging laundry, Tim. And you don’t ask a sixty-three-year-old woman to haul your laundry up the basement steps. What kind of fireman are you?”
Timmy’s a firefighter in Hammitsburg, two towns over.
“Ma! Mom, tell Angela you like doing my laundry!”
Angela takes a step towards him. “I’m going to smack you upside the head.” Timmy takes a step back—’cause she’ll do it. “I’m gonna smack you in front of your nieces and nephews if you don’t move your ass down those steps and get your laundry.”
My brother throws his hands up in the air.
Then he moves his ass down the basement steps to get his laundry.
And this is my family. All the time. If they seem crazy . . . that’s because they are.
My mom helps Angela herd the kids from the table towards their shoes. As Frankie passes me, I crouch down next to her and whisper, “Hey, sweetheart. You keep working on that kick, okay? When you’re a little older, Uncle Garrett’ll hook you up.”
She gives me a full crooked-fence-toothed smile that warms my chest. Then kisses my cheek before heading out the front door.
~ ~ ~
The coolest thing I’ve ever bought is my house on the north side of the lake. Two stories, all brick, fully refurbished kitchen. There’s a nice-sized, fenced-in backyard with a fire pit next to the path that leads down the steps to my private dock. I’ve got a bass boat and like to take her out a couple times a week. My neighbors Alfred and Selma live on one side, retired army captain Paul Cahill on the other, but with the spruces and pines that border the property, I don’t see them unless I want to. It’s private and quiet.
I toss my keys on the front hall table and head into the living room to find my best friend curled up, asleep on the couch. He’s soft, snow white—like a baby seal—and weighs about twenty-five pounds. He’s a great listener, he gets fired up at the TV when a ref makes a bad call, and his favorite pastime is licking his own balls.
I found him, small and dirty, in the ShopRite parking lot my senior year of high school. Or maybe . . . he found me.
“Snoopy,” I whisper, pressing my nose into his downy fur.
His dark eyes spring open, lifting his head sharply, like my old man when he catches himself falling asleep in the recliner.
I stroke his back and scratch his ears. “What’s up, bud?”
Snoopy stretches, then steps up on the arm of the couch to wash my face with his tongue. His tail wags in a steady, adoring rhythm. Can’t beat this kind of devotion.
In people years, he’s seventeen, so not as spry as he used to be. He’s also partially blind and diabetic. I give him insulin shots twice a day.
Snoopy’s my boy. And there’s nothing in the world I wouldn’t do for him.
After a shower, I put the Steelers game on, and as I pick up my phone to order Chinese, the front door opens and Tara Benedict walks into the living room.
“Worst day ever.” She groans. “If I have to listen to one more woman tell me the size of her new Gucci boots must be off, I’ll rip my hair out. The boots are fine, bitch—your chubby Fred Flintstone feet are nowhere close to a size six!”
Tara’s an online customer service rep for Nordstrom’s. She was a year below me in high school—we started hooking up a couple months ago when she moved back to town after her divorce.
I raise my eyebrows. “Sounds rough.”
Snoopy hops on the couch, stretching his neck, preening for Tara’s attention. He’s such a needy bastard.
“Sorry I didn’t text before I came over. Are you busy?”
Tara was cute back in the day, but now, at thirty-three, she’s gorgeous—an avid tennis player with long dark hair and sweet curves.
“Nope. I was just going to order Chinese. Hungry?”
She unzips her black skirt and lets it slide to the floor—leaving her thigh-high stockings and shiny black heels on. “Later. First I need to fuck away some of this frustration.”
Tara’s a great girl.
I drop the Chinese menu like it’s on fire.
“You’ve come to the right place.”
She strips her way up to the bedroom, leaving a trail of clothing behind like an awesome porn version of Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. I start to follow, but pause in the hallway—because Snoopy’s the best . . . but he’s also a voyeur.
His eyes are round and attentive as I point at him.
“Stay here, dude. And don’t listen—I told you—it’s fucking weird.”
~ ~ ~
Two hours later, a much less frustrated Tara and I sit at the kitchen counter, eating great Chinese food out of takeout containers.
Tara dabs her lips with her napkin. “The County Fair is coming up.”
The County Fair—beer, great barbeque, decent live music, and rides worth risking your life for.
“Joshua’s really excited—every time we pass a sign, he asks me how many more days until he can go.” She picks up a piece of steamed chicken and holds it down to Snoopy’s drooling mouth. “So . . . I was wondering, what you thought about you, me, and Joshua going together?” She looks up at me meaningfully. “The three of us.”
I narrow my eyes, confused. “That’s . . .”
“I know that’s not what we said when we started seeing each other . . . we agreed to nothing serious. But . . . I like you, Garrett. I think we could be good together.” She shrugs. “I’m a relationship kind of girl—and even though my marriage crashed and burned, I’m ready to start over. To try again.”
I like Tara—but even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t bullshit her. A man gets to a point in his life when he realizes that honesty—even if it’s not what someone wants to hear—is just simpler.
“I like you too. But I also like my life the way it is. A lot.” I gesture towards the next room. “I bought a Ping-Pong table last week, for the dining room. I like that I didn’t have to discuss it with anyone—that I didn’t have to consider anybody else’s feelings. I like that the only emotional worry I have is wondering how the hell I’m going to get around North Essex High School’s defense this season.”
“You should have kids, Garrett,” Tara insists. “You’d be an amazing father. It’s a sin you don’t have kids.”
“I do have kids. Thirty of them, six periods a day—and another forty every day after school during football season.”
Interest is the key with teenagers—with getting them to listen—they have to sense that you give a damn. That you care. You can’t fake it—they’ll know.
I don’t know if I’d be as good of a teacher as I am if I had kids of my own—if I’d have the energy, the patience. It’s not the only reason I’m not married with kids, but it’s one of them.
Like I said—I don’t mess with a winning streak.
Tara pushes back from the table and stands. “Well. Then, it looks like it’s Match.com for me. And I don’t suppose a new guy is going to be real keen about me keeping a piece of hot coach on the side.”
Gently, I push a strand of hair behind her ear.
“No, I don’t think that’d go over too well.”
“This was fun, Garrett.” She reaches up and kisses my cheek. “Take care of yourself.”
“Yeah, you too, Tara. I’ll see you around.”
With one more smile and a nod of her head, she picks up her purse, pats Snoopy good-bye, and heads out the door.
Snoopy watches her go, then turns to me—waiting.
I tilt my head towards the glass doors that frame the setting sun as it streaks the sky in pinks and grays and oranges.
“You wanna go bark at the geese on the lake?”
Snoopy’s ears perk high, and he rushes over to the back door as fast as his old little legs can take him.