Mary and Larry: River Boats and Penalty Boxes

Thick air held a heavy scent of concrete after a real piss-down summer storm.  A few of us gathered outside KGB to take in the cool damp air before it clotted back into unbearable humidity.  Suzanne Dottino, the fiction curator, talked with a woman using a cane.  I never ask about these things.  Just then, a homeless gal came strolling up to steps of KGB.  “What happened to your leg?  Are you all right?” the friendly (and possibly deeply disturbed) the homeless gal asked the woman with a cane, who ended up being one of the readers, Mary Morris.

The woman with the cane was caught off guard, but unshaken, “I broke it.”

“Well, you should stay off of it as much as possible,” The lady in purple said.

“I will.  Thanks,” The woman said politely before turning back to Suzanne Dottino.

“Get better!”  The stranger said, walking back to the bowery waving sloppily to us as she diminished down the sidewalk.

“Well, I think it’s time to go in,” The woman said.  It was time to stay off that leg as much as possible.

Time to get lit, and a few drinks, too.  Inside, an intimate group gathered around for story time.  The mike wasn’t working, but the A/C was.  Larry read firmly from his new book, “The Penalty Box”, an interesting story about the Stanley Cup and the envoy  carrying it from city to city. Larry was not in a good mood because the Penguins just lost the Stanley Cup.  Outside, someone’s over-amped car stereo sent the windows abuzz just as Larry read a particularly lyrical passage.  The car eventually moved on, just as Larry spoke his last lines: Don’t you just love this song?

The crowd chuckles.

After the break, Mary Morris read from her travelogue, “The River Queen”.  Mary loved digression and so did I.  Her novel concerned the passing of her father, the departure of her daughter, and riding on the Mississippi while her husband drove around in an RV listening to Creedence.  As the readings winded down, I grabbed Larry for the interview.

Larry and I walked downstairs to the theater lobby for the interview.  He stood across from me with arms folded.  I started off, “I wanted to ask you a little bit more about your memoir.  What period of your life does it frame?”

“It’s from my early days until my thirties.  It’s a time when I was working in the newspaper business as something in my father’s family happened.  It’s called ‘The Tip of the Iceberg’.  It parenthesizes my life up until my thirties.”

“Now your current book, ‘The Penalty Box’ is about the escort of the Stanley cup. Is that like a full time position?”

“It’s more than that.  There are more than one person who escorts the Stanley cup.  In the summertime, the escorts take the cup to the hometown of the players who win the cup.  For a 24-hour period, he hands over the cup.  He does not go into the family home, but he does travel all over the world. Now, just because the team members may play for a North American team, they may not necessarily live in North America. “

“Now, your main character’s name is Kyle, and if you were representing yourself, as all fiction is a little autobiographical, I was curious to know if there was anything that you escort, much as your character escorts the Stanley cup.  Is there anything that you carry with you that you refuse to let out of your sight?”

Mr. O’Connor thought for a moment to say, “It’s a funny thing, because my wife stopped me from coming down here for this interview and said, ‘why are you bringing your bag?’  There is something to be said for carrying things with you that you don’t want people to touch in some kind of primitive way.  In my case, it’s my bag.  I keep my journals in it, my phone, my doodads, and things that are my totems.”

“So now I have just a few little quick questions for you,” I sensed an impatience to get this over with.  Perhaps he wanted to return to his family upstairs, perhaps his current frustration over the Penguins’ loss, or perhaps he just didn’t like interviews–I tried to keep this as smooth as possible and blow through a few stock questions.

“What is your favorite sound?” I asked.

“A champagne cork.”

“What is your least favorite sound?”

“Jackhammer.”

“If someone wanted to be your friend, what should they know about you?”

O’Connor answered immediately, “Where I come from.”

“Ok, and all theosophical debates aside, What do you want God to say when you reach heaven?”

“What book do you wish your wrote?”

O’Connor’s stumped.  “There’s so many.  I don’t have a single one, but I could say Ulysses.”

“What’s your favorite curse word?”

“I don’t wanna say,” O’Connor replied.

“That’s fine.  What is a guilty pleasure of yours?”

“Too much maple syrup.”

“How do you stay disciplined?”

“I think it’s all about routine.  About doing it even when you’re not wanting to do it.”  Larry O’Connor said.  I thanked him for his time and we went back up to the bar so I could interview his wife, Mary Morris.

Mary’s racked up quite a resume, including a Guggenheim and NEA grants, as well as a George Perkins fellowship at Princeton.  She’s written several travel memoirs and five novels, including her new book, ‘The River Queen‘.  We headed over near the women’s restroom, where we had our little sit-down.  Two prominent characters in her book are Tom and Jerry, the captains of the boat, The River Queen, which cradled her in her journey.

“So tell me a little bit about Tom and Jerry,” I start, “how did you find them?”

“I had an assignment for a book to write about the Mississippi River and I really didn’t know what I was doing.  I went to a marina in Wisconsin with my nephew, Matthew.  He’s a wrestler at the University of Wisconsin, this huge guy, and we hung out at the marina until we ran across two river pilots who had a boat who were willing to take me downstream and they turned out to be Tom and Jerry.”

“Was that their real names?” I asked.

She smiled a little, answering for the thousandth time.  “It was, and it was basically why I hired them.  I have to say that the moment I met Tom and Jerry, I knew they were my story.”

“You said you grew up in Illinois…”

“I did.  I grew up in the North shore of Chicago.  I’m a writer and a mother and I love New York, but home is the Midwest.”

“Yeah, I grew up in Illinois.” I told her.

“Where?” she said with some surprise.

“I grew up in Decatur.” I said. “Me and my father used to go canoeing all the time down in Missouri.  I think at that time, it was called the Cotewois river, but it might have changed by now.  It was in the middle of nowhere.  And I know what you mean by the river folk.  We used to hang out with this married couple, Waterbug and his wife, Bronco.”  A woman coming from the restroom accidentally kicked my glass across the floor, sending ice skittering across the floor.

“I’m so sorry!” the woman exclaimed.

“It’s ok.  It was empty.” I lied.

Mary adjusts herself in the chair, “Excuse me for a moment.  I broke my leg this winter.”

“You didn’t do it on the boat, did you?” I asked.

“No, I did it ice skating this winter,” She replied.

“Do you know what type of boat you were riding on?”

“It was a 1969 River Queen houseboat,” Mary says.

“Do you know how many tributaries there are on the Mississippi?”

“Tod,” She announces, “I am going to fail this exam.”

“Naw, don’t worry about it.  Sometimes there’s a theme and other times not so much.  But tonight Larry was talking about the Stanley cup and so I picked his brain and figured I’d do the same with your subject.”

“He knows SO much about the Stanley cup.  You know I’m married to him.”

“Really?” I said.

“You don’t know that?” she said with some surprise.

“No! That’s so funny!  Because you guys were both talking about your other half and I had no idea it was an inside joke!” I said.

“My husband, Larry, knows hockey very very well. For me on the Mississippi, it was an adventure, it wasn’t about the knowledge.  For him, it’s really about the knowledge.  Yeah, we‘ve been married forever.  Our daughter‘s in there.”

“Short black hair who I saw at your table?”

“Yeah.”

I elbowed Mary and wink, “She’s a little hottie!”

“She is! What can I tell you?  You are cracking me up!  I’ve never had an interview like this before!”

“I do enjoy talking to people.” I said, “So back on track!  So one of the things that you mentioned is that your father just passed and your daughter was looking at college. It seemed to be a tough time for you.  I was curious to know how were you able to turn the corner on that?” I asked.

“A part of this trip was going to a place of understanding within myself.  And without giving too much away, I had an experience that gave me that understanding, which is built in to the arc of the father story.”

“Did it end up being a spiritual awareness or was it an emotional awareness or an awareness about relationships?”

“I’ll try an explain it as best I can. There was a moment where a kind of peacefulness came over me.  It wasn’t like I was looking for spiritual journey.  It’s not like I was on a quest, but there definitely was a moment where I felt I was able to find a certain peace in myself and move on.  There’s a whole thing in ‘The River Queen’ about my father’s ashes.  Nobody wanted my father’s ashes.  Actually, I wanted the ashes, so they came to me FedEx.  It was very bizarre.  They actually went to the chiropractor next door.  But I put them behind the piano for a year until somebody told me I could plant a tree in prospect park and put the ashes there that I found a place for him.  I thought about scattering him in the Mississippi, but I wanted to have him near me.  I understand this whole thing about making peace.  I mean, you are who they are, and making peace–everybody has to do that in our own way.” Mary said.  I agreed sullenly and didn’t want to think about dead parents anymore.

“Now the fun questions!” I said, “So what is your favorite sound?”

“The Mockingbird.”

“What is your least favorite sound?”

“Plastic bags.”

“If someone wanted to be your friend, what should they know about you?”

“They need to listen.” Mary said.  I worry suddenly about being to chatty.

“All theosophical questions aside, what do you want God to say to you when you reach heaven?”

“You did what you were supposed to do.”

“What book do you wish you wrote?”

“Anna Karenina. Or 100 Years of Solitude.”

“What is your favorite curse word?” I ask.

“I don’t know.”  Mary answered.

“What is a guilty pleasure of yours?”

“Old scotch late at night.”

“How do you stay disciplined?”

Mary answered quickly, “First cup of coffee in the morning.”

“What got you interested in writing?”

And Mary replied. “I wanted to speak.  I just wanted to speak.”

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