All Stories, General Fiction

Stars Burn Out by Fred Vogel

As a youngster, I watched as my father was electrocuted while stringing Christmas tree lights. I remember his body flopping on the carpet like a gaffed tuna before coming to rest near my little feet. My mom walked in and dropped her groceries all over my little head. I was unable to attend his funeral, having been admitted to Anchorage Memorial Hospital with a head full of lumps and a lifelong fear of colored lights.

Mom packed us up and headed south. She had intended to drive to Los Angeles to stay with my Uncle Benny, but decided Medford, Oregon would be as far as we needed to go. She made this decision one hour after meeting Jim Hutchins at the Black Bear Diner. Jim maneuvered his way into my mom’s vulnerable heart and convinced her to move us into his double-wide at the Blue Skies Mobile Home Park.

My mom is not what one would call a take-charge individual. Unfortunately, I inherited this same character flaw. I preferred to be a follower rather than a leader; to tap my toes to the rhythmic beat of every other drummer in the world.

All was fine until Jim lost his job at the lumber yard and couldn’t secure meaningful employment. I was in my room playing marbles when Jim shoved the shotgun into his mouth. Mom came home and found Jim’s head spattered all over the kitchenette. She screamed and dropped her groceries. This time I was better prepared and escaped unharmed.

We continued down to Burbank, a suburb of Los Angeles, to stay with Uncle Benny. He was my father’s older brother, a Navy man through and through. One evening, after consuming more than his fair share of alcohol, he told me why he despised his younger brother, a fact I had not been aware of until then.

“Your father, son, was a coward. Not only did he receive a questionable discharge from the military, he embarrassed the entire Warner family. Warner men are Navy men, always have been, always will be, God willing. Whenever we’d go fishing, he’d get himself seasick. The slightest motion would send him scurrying over to the side of the boat to relieve himself of his dignity. So when the time came to enlist, what did he do? He joined the God-damn Army, that’s what he did. A lot of Warner bones rattled on that day. And not only that, he got discharged quicker than you can say God-damn quitter. How? By walking in his god-damn sleep, that’s how. A sea-sick, sleepwalking, good for nothing coward passing himself off as a Warner. I know good and well he faked the whole damn thing. Why, that little jackass was just afraid of dying. It didn’t surprise me in the least that all it took was a little jolt of electricity to drain the last drops of life from his spineless body.”

My feelings towards my uncle where never quite the same after that.

Having overstayed our welcome, Mom and I moved into a garden apartment in North Hollywood (another suburb). She got a job as a legal secretary at a downtown L.A. law firm. She’d pick me up from school and we’d go for an early dinner at either Bob’s Big Boy or Marie Calendar’s. Mom didn’t feel the necessity to cook for two when there were those, such as Bob and Marie, who were more than willing to make the effort.

So it was surprising when after school one day we headed directly to the local market. She filled our shopping cart with vegetables, potatoes, a rib roast, an apple pie, and a bottle of wine.

“We’re having company tonight,” stating the obvious.

“Not Uncle Benny,” I prayed out loud.

“Not Uncle Benny. His name is George, and he’s a wonderful man. And a wonderful attorney.”

George Kelly was a partner at the law firm where my mom worked. When he arrived at our apartment, he handed her a bouquet of flowers and me a baseball glove.

George and Mom acted like teenagers all through dinner, much to my chagrin. After he left, Mom and I had a talk. Or more to the point, Mom talked and I listened.

“Honey, I know it’s hard for you to think of me with another man, but George is different. He really is. He’s not like Jim. He’s successful and has his head on straight (I wasn’t sure if this was a sadistic pun or what). You know, he didn’t have to bring you that glove. He did it because he’s a nice man. And I know you can’t understand this now, but nice men are hard to find. They really are.”

She sandwiched her hands around mine. They were big and soft. Like baseball gloves.

Mom and George Kelly were married a year later in The Little Brown Church in Studio City (another suburb), the same church where party gal Nancy Davis and faux cowboy Ronald Reagan hitched their wagons many eons ago.

We moved into George’s home in Encino (another suburb). It had a spacious backyard that worked its way up a steep hill. At night, dozens of rabbits would make their way down into the backyard, where they would spend the evening trimming the lawn.

George and I became good buddies. We played catch and rode bikes around the neighborhood. Mom quit her job and took tennis lessons. On Saturdays, she and a handful of other women would get together to play triples. They weren’t quite good enough for doubles.

In high school, my best friend was Julian Logan. We did everything together, from playing bad guitar to spending the night at each other’s home on the weekends. We were inseparable. That is, until Julian’s family moved to Culver City (another suburb). We eventually lost touch with one another. Things like that happen all the time – separations. They shouldn’t, but they do.

During my senior year, George Kelly was killed in a midair collision somewhere over Kansas while flying home from an East Coast business trip. His death had a tremendous impact on both my mom and me. George had taken the time to make me feel special. I didn’t attend my high school graduation, opting instead to visit George at the cemetery, thanking him for being such an important part of my life, however brief.

After graduating, I was unsure what to do with my life. Uncle Benny took me to a hockey game and then out for a burger.

“Josh, think back to that game tonight. Those boys from Montreal kicked our butts because they played as a team. They knew who their leader was and they knew what each and every one of their jobs was. Our boys lacked leadership. We were just skating around in circles without a plan. How do you think we won all our important wars? By not following orders? By God to our fine country, no. We had leaders who knew how to lead and followers who knew how to follow. For the sake of the good old U.S. of A., my boy, join the Navy, be a leader, and make us proud.”

I joined the Army.

But after two weeks at Fort Lewis I knew I had to escape. All that training was basically not conducive to my health.

One night I snuck into the hallway and plopped down. I was discovered there in the morning and sent to the base psychiatrist.

“Son, why were you sleeping in the hallway?”

“I’m not sure, sir.”

“Were you there all night?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

“Have you ever walked in your sleep before?”

“Not to my knowledge, sir.”

“Do you know of any sleepwalkers in your family?”

“Yes, sir. My father was a sleepwalker.”

I was given an Honorable Discharge. The Army said my fellow teammates would be jeopardized by my wandering around enemy lines like a zombie.

Uncle Benny died two days after hearing of my discharge. In his sleep.

In the fall, I enrolled at UCLA. I visited the campus a week before classes were to begin to acquaint myself with my new living quarters. The main doors were locked but I found a side door held open by a dirty sneaker and snuck inside. I wandered down a darkened corridor and entered what appeared to be the front lobby. It consisted of a metal desk, metal folding chairs, pamphlets stacked on a carved-up wooden table, a wall of windowless mailboxes, and a bulletin board, covered with tidbits of information.

One message read:

Fellow residents: Please remember our ‘Get Re-Acquainted Night’ on Friday, September 18th. We will have coffee, snacks, and interesting conversation. Eve Cochran, Hall Supervisor

I continued down another corridor and noticed a light coming from under one of the doors. I rested my ear against it and heard what appeared to be moaning. As I started to walk away, the door opened and a shadowy figure appeared.

“Josh?” the shadow asked.

“Yeah?” I said, not recognizing the bearded one’s voice.

“It’s me, Julian.”

It was Julian Logan, my best friend from high school. We exchanged a bear hug, then went into his room to catch up. He said he was enrolled in a few classes and was helping out the hall supervisor. “I’m the keeper of the keys when she’s away,” he explained. I asked him what all the moaning was. Meditation.

For me, friends are hard to come by. Having Julian back in my life meant an awful lot.

My mom had taken a job with an insurance agency in Tarzana (another suburb). When I visited one day, I could plainly see her boss had big eyes for her, a notion she quickly dismissed. But knowing my mom’s desperate need for a man in her life, I sensed it would only be a matter of time before she would become Mrs. Leonardo Lazarowitz.

A week later, I found myself standing in front of Eve Cochran, hall supervisor. Her cleavage was covered with tiny freckles and I so much wanted to play connect-the-dots.

“May I help you?” she asked, interrupting my fantasy.

“Josh Warner. Julian said we could room together.”

“Well, Josh Warner,” she said, smiling. “We can’t room together, but I have you with Julian, if that’s OK with you.”

Embarrassed, I took my room key and left well enough alone. When I got to the room, I heard the same moaning as before. I took my key and opened the door. I was greeted by the sight of Julian’s bare butt staring at me. Rolling onto his side, he just smiled.

“Josh, I’d like you to meet Tess,” he said, gesturing to the exposed young lady in his bed.

“God, I’m sorry,” I said, “I thought you were meditating.”

“Not to worry. Make yourself at home. It’s going to be fun, my friend.”

Julian made some noise on his guitar while Tess immodestly dressed and left the room.

“Josh, I want to do three things,” Julian said. “I want to write. Poetry, fiction, non-fiction, whatever. I want to write about everything I experience. The good and the bad. I also want to touch a burning star and feel its fire inside me. I want to ride that star until it breaks into a million pieces.”

He never did mention the third thing.

When we weren’t in class, Julian was reading up on various Eastern cultures and philosophies, while I was writing god-awful poetry, trying my hand at illustrations, and failing miserably to connect with the coeds. My continued attempts at flirtation with the hall supervisor were met with rolled eyes and swift rejections.

With summer approaching, Julian suggested we take a road trip to learn about the writers of the Beat Generation – Ginsberg, Kerouac, Ferlinghetti. He wanted to know more about the why, where, and how they wrote as opposed to just the what. Since it was his idea, I was more than happy to tag along as the faithful follower.

The day after classes ended, we loaded our duffle bags and sleeping bags into Julian’s VW van and headed towards San Francisco.

We stopped in San Luis Obispo for a quick bite. Little did we know what a life-changing meal it would be. A server walked up to our table, looked directly at Julian, and started smiling. Her smile and Julian’s smile merged into one powerful energy grin. I smiled, but didn’t know why. When I asked for a glass of water, we all started laughing, but I still didn’t know why. Julian and the server kept a flirtatious conversation going throughout the meal.

After finishing my sandwich, I went to the bathroom. When I returned, Julian was standing by the front door.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“She’s coming with us. Is that okay?”

“Who’s coming with us?”

“Annie, our server. Are you okay with that?”

“I guess. Where are we going?”

“To the stars, I hope.”

Annie Byrd returned in street clothes and out the door we went.

The three of us continued up the coast to San Francisco, before traveling through parts of Oregon and Washington, retracing the steps Kerouac and other Beat writers had taken during their adventures.

We dropped Annie off in San Luis Obispo on our way back to L.A. Julian said the time wasn’t yet right for them to be together.

Julian gave me a book of poetry for my birthday, Stars and Eyes, by Marie Alexis, one of his favorite poets. I read it in an hour. Then I read it over. It was as if I had written the poems, or at least wished I had. All the feelings and descriptions, the way the poems were formed, expressed what my own poetry had not been able to begin to capture.

“Well, my friend, it’s time for me to get back on the road,” Julian said, out of the blue. “You and I started something on our trip and now it’s time for me to continue on.”

“Continue on to where?”

“Well, to quote Cat Stevens, I’m on the road to find out. I’m starved for knowledge. I had a taste of something magical on our trip and now I’m ready to devour the whole meal. I just can’t wait any longer.”

“We’ve only been back a month,” I said, incredulous.

“It’s been a long month,” he said. “Remember what Chaucer said, ‘Time and tide wait for no man.’ I believe that to be true.”

Julian’s compulsive nature was beginning to drive me nuts.

And just like that, I lost touch with Julian again.

Annie Byrd would soon be taking my place as his best friend as they set out to experience their own adventures. And experience them they did. The importance of Julian’s manifesto, The P.M Connection, along with his follow-up works, cannot be overstated. They are considered gospel-like teachings by his troupe of loyal followers, though panned by critics who view the works as nothing more than idealistic hogwash. So while Julian and Annie were becoming the literary equivalent of John and Yoko, I found myself plodding through life, still a follower in a leader’s world.

Meanwhile, my poor mom had another one bite the proverbial dust. Leo Lazarowitz was gunned down in what police termed a revenge killing for his testimony against a prominent L.A. businessman for his part in a multimillion dollar insurance scam. The one saving grace was that husband number four left my mom a substantial life insurance policy.

After graduating from UCLA, I had a handful of poems accepted for publication and even saw one of my cartoons find its way into The New Yorker. But it wasn’t until Eve Cochran, the freckled hall supervisor, acquiesced after years of pleading, dare I say begging, and accepted my invitation for dinner and a Woody Allen movie, that I realized I no longer needed to live in the shadow of others. I didn’t need to be a leader or a follower. I just needed to be myself.

Years later, as Eve and I sat huddled on a desolate beach on a winter’s eve, I marveled at the world around us – the dark chocolate ocean blending with the moonlit vanilla waves, the light beams from ships on the distant horizon, the pulsating stars, the blinking red lights from an overhead airliner. And then it appeared – a shooting star racing across the infinite sky, exploding into a million pieces. I just knew it was Julian and Annie co-piloting that star, on their way to unchartered worlds.

There was a time, not so very long ago, when I would have felt resentment for not being a part of their newest adventure. But no longer. I wished them a sincere bon voyage.

Eve and I undressed and waded into the welcoming waters for a late night swim. I recalled the last line from Julian’s favorite Marie Alexis poem:

Stars burn out and so do we; the night, a massive haze.


Fred Vogel

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5 thoughts on “Stars Burn Out by Fred Vogel”

  1. Hi Fred,
    This wasn’t a common run of the mill realisation story, you took this a few steps further.The dryness and the black humour and him not taking himself too seriously added to this.
    This was very well written, enjoyable and one of those stories that made us all look a wee bit within.
    It is great to see you adding to your back catalogue.
    All the very best my friend.


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