DiscoverContemporary Fiction

Better Days

By Len Joy

Worth reading 😎

Thoughtful, well-written story of a man's journey towards responsibility

Synopsis

They had a parade for Darwin Burr when his team won the state title.

He’s coasted through life on that memory. Still lives in Claxton, Illinois – but the bucolic farm town now simmers with racial tension. He has a cushy job working for his wheeler-dealer, boyhood friend, Billy Rourke. He has a country house, a healthy 401K, and still drinks for free at Clarkie’s Bar.

His wife Daina who escaped from Latvia and never looked back, disdains Darwin’s lack of ambition. She’s consumed by her job helping Claxton’s underclass and has little time for Darwin or their daughter, Astra.

When Billy arranges for Darwin to assist Astra’s high school basketball coach – the mysterious and flirtatious Fariba Pahlavi – Darwin stops coasting. He discovers a passion for coaching. And Fariba.

As Darwin is getting back in the game, Billy vanishes, the FBI wants Darwin’s help to find him, and Darwin learns his wife’s secret past has put her life in jeopardy.
Darwin knows Billy’s guilty, but he can’t betray his friend, and he’s falling in love with Fariba, but can’t abandon his wife. He has no good choices, no winning shot, and in this world heroes don’t get parades.

Darwin Burr is an easygoing, likeable character - perhaps a little sexist, but perhaps that just makes him more human. This is a story of his gradual transformation from someone who's reasonably happy just sitting on his behind to a man who achieves genuine success with the local school's girls basketball team, and who has to confront real and difficult choices.

I was hooked into Darwin's dilemma, when he finds out that his friend Billy isn't exactly who or where he thought he was. I wanted to find out what was behind Billy's mysterious disappearance, and whether Darwin's new love, Fariba, had anything to do with it. I almost felt I knew Billy personally - the characterisation was so good.

To be honest, the casual sexism was a little jarring for me, in this day and age. When Darwin cups the admin lady's butt to see if she's wearing a wire, I felt it was a sort of throwback to an earlier time in which such gestures might have been acceptable. They aren't now. My other issue was with the extended descriptions of basketball plays - but then, I'm not a sports watcher. I have to admit, I skimmed those bits.

But overall, this was a high quality read and I enjoyed it. If there's ever a sequel, I'd love to read it.

Reviewed by

I'm an author but I also read a lot. I do especially like to read books by high quality indie authors, because you often get original and unconventional work which wouldn't have been picked up by the major publishers.

Synopsis

They had a parade for Darwin Burr when his team won the state title.

He’s coasted through life on that memory. Still lives in Claxton, Illinois – but the bucolic farm town now simmers with racial tension. He has a cushy job working for his wheeler-dealer, boyhood friend, Billy Rourke. He has a country house, a healthy 401K, and still drinks for free at Clarkie’s Bar.

His wife Daina who escaped from Latvia and never looked back, disdains Darwin’s lack of ambition. She’s consumed by her job helping Claxton’s underclass and has little time for Darwin or their daughter, Astra.

When Billy arranges for Darwin to assist Astra’s high school basketball coach – the mysterious and flirtatious Fariba Pahlavi – Darwin stops coasting. He discovers a passion for coaching. And Fariba.

As Darwin is getting back in the game, Billy vanishes, the FBI wants Darwin’s help to find him, and Darwin learns his wife’s secret past has put her life in jeopardy.
Darwin knows Billy’s guilty, but he can’t betray his friend, and he’s falling in love with Fariba, but can’t abandon his wife. He has no good choices, no winning shot, and in this world heroes don’t get parades.


   Well my soul checked out missing as I sat listening

To the hours and minutes ticking away

Yeah, just sitting around waiting for my life to begin

While it was all just slippin’ away

I’m tired of waitin’ for tomorrow to come


                                                “Better Days”  by Bruce Springsteen






Chapter 1

(Saturday, October 22, 2005)


Last October, a few weeks before everything went to hell, Daina told me I lacked ambition. I didn’t argue with her. We’d been married twenty-five years and on the subject of Darwin Burr, Daina was the world’s leading authority. I always figured she had enough ambition for both of us.

We met in Chicago in the spring of ‘79 at Faces on Rush Street. Billy Rourke, who had been my best friend since he moved to Claxton when we were ten, convinced me there were better places for a couple of twenty-two year old guys to spend a Friday night than Clarkie’s Bar in downtown Claxton. We started making the sixty mile drive to Chicago.

Daina and I were married the next spring. Billy was my best man. That same year, AutoPro, the nationwide auto parts retailer, opened a distribution center in Claxton. Billy got a job in the shipping department and they hired me as an assistant store manager for one of their ten thousand stores.

Billy Rourke, with the quick comeback, the bullshit stories, the stupid jokes, was a natural for the frat-boy corporate culture of AutoPro. When Fred Langdon dropped dead from a heart attack on Christmas Eve in 1985, the corporate bosses surprised everyone by making Billy the general manager of the Claxton distribution center. I was the store manager for the AutoPro store out on Dillon Highway. Billy transferred me into the DC as his assistant. And that’s what I’ve been for the last twenty years.

AutoPro became the largest employer in Claxton. Billy sponsored softball teams, bowling leagues, flag football and the summer basketball leagues where my team dominated for fifteen years until my sore knees made me give it up. If someone needed funding for their walkathon or Toys for Tots or church camp, Billy took care of them. When we were growing up, Billy was sort of a joke. But not anymore. In Claxton, Billy Rourke was The Man.

My official job was to make sure that the fifty million dollars of auto parts we shipped each month made it to the right AutoPro stores. My unofficial job, which as far as Billy was concerned was more important, was to be Billy’s golf partner when he was being wined and dined by AutoPro’s suppliers. For a vendor, Billy’s support could mean the difference between being a twenty thousand and a twenty million dollar account. Most of the vendor sales reps had one job — keep Billy happy.

      After I passed up a couple opportunities for new assignments, Daina became convinced Billy was bad for my “career,” so conversations about Billy always ended up being Daina-lectures. Daina escaped from Latvia when she was nineteen and had this American dream notion that I should be trying to get ahead. The thing was, I didn’t know what “ahead” was. Running the distribution center wasn’t bad work, and while Billy could be a pain in the ass, if he pissed me off, I could tell him to fuck off and he wouldn’t fire my ass. Most bosses, at least at AutoPro, wouldn’t let you do that.

Billy took care of me. I got regular increases, max bonus, and pocket money just for my signature on some of his real estate deals. In one of his early deals I ended up with two wooded acres, a half-mile off Hoover Road, five miles south of Claxton. With Billy financing I built my dream home — a brick fortress with four bedrooms, three full baths, gleaming oak floors, granite countertops, ceramic tiled bathrooms and a paved driveway with a basketball hoop.

Billy tried to convince the county that the unnamed gravel road that led to the house needed to be paved, but back then he didn’t have as much influence. He did put up his own road sign — Rourke Road — at the intersection with Hoover Road, so he could tell it from the half dozen other roads that were simply turnoffs for hunters and snowmobilers. But kids stole the sign years ago and he never replaced it.

 It was a beautiful location, especially in the fall when all the trees turned colors. And quiet — my only neighbor was reclusive Ed Mackey who lived a mile down the road.

I owned the house free and clear and I had nearly two million dollars in my 401k (all invested in AutoPro, which had been a highflying stock the last two decades). Thanks to Billy and AutoPro I was in good shape to retire at 55.

Daina’s remarks about my lack of ambition came up while I was waiting for Billy to pick me up for a golf match. We were being entertained by Bob Collins, senior sales manager for SunCal Oil Company and some guy named Blainey who had tried to make it on the PGA tour and now was SunCal’s designated golfer. SunCal was one of Billy’s major suppliers.

It didn’t take long for suppliers to figure out that a golf outing at Pheasant Run or Cog Hill could help them build their relationship with Billy Rourke. Billy sucked at golf, but he loved the game. He had the best equipment the vendors could provide, but he could barely break a hundred. It killed him that I thought the game was boring.

“Goddamn it, Darwin,” he said after an unusually tight match. “You’ve got a fucking five handicap. If you practiced a little, you’d be scratch. We’d never lose.”

“We don’t lose now,” I told him. “None of these guys are stupid enough to beat us.” That always got him agitated. He hated the idea we weren’t winning on our merits. Or my merits. But that was Billy. He had no problem encouraging a supplier to “loan” him state-of-the-art golf clubs and golf balls and invite him to play on the most exclusive golf courses, but he couldn’t countenance someone taking a dive. I was glad I wasn’t one of his suppliers.

I was buttoning my AutoPro golf shirt and admiring my physique in the bedroom mirror. Don’t look a day over thirty, I lied to myself. I stared out the window at my forest. The maples had turned red and orange and yellow, while the oak trees stubbornly refused to change colors and most of the elm trees had given up and dropped their leaves. In the driveway, my daughter Astra was shooting baskets. Girls varsity basketball practice started today.

I had been working with Astra on her game all summer. She had developed a decent three point shot, could dribble with either hand and played tenacious defense. She’d been a second string jayvee player as a Freshman, but this year because of budget cuts there wasn’t going to be a jayvee team. If Astra didn’t make the Varsity she’d be out of luck.

Astra was blonde and pretty like her mom, but had been gangly and self-conscious about her braces when she started high school. But now the braces were off and she had grown up a lot in the last year. Making the varsity would do wonders for her confidence. One thing I learned from Billy was that confidence was as important as ability. Maybe more.  

I was brought back to reality by the sound of Daina coming up the stairs. “Darwin? Darwin!” The double Darwin call. She wasn’t coming upstairs to wish me good luck on my golf match. “Darwin, did you see this “Management Opportunity Posting” the company sent you? You put your name in, yes?” She marched into the bedroom clutching one of those useless AutoPro HR bulletins.

“Hey babe, how do I look? These pants make my ass look fat?” I struck my best boy-toy pose, but she had smelled “management opportunity” and was locked in like a cruise missile.

“Ass looks great. What about job? Listen, ‘AutoPro has a position available for Territory Sales Manager in the Midwest Region. AutoPro seeks to fill this position from qualified associates within the AutoPro family.’ Darwin, this is management opportunity?”

“Those bulletins are just HR bullshit. Jack Donley’s not going to hire some clerk from Distribution. This shirt go with my pants?”

“It’s white shirt. Goes with everything. Why do you always diminish yourself? You run that distribution center. You could do this job.”

“I just have to hang with Billy five more years and I’m home-free. I don’t want to work for some prick like Donley. Besides, where’s Billy ever going to find a clerk with a five handicap? He’d lose every match.” I grabbed for her ass, but she knocked my hand away.

“Five more years.” She spit the words at me. “Look at you. You’re in prime of life. You think you will stop work and play games like child? I don’t understand you Americans. You are schoolboy hero. That’s supposed to be enough? You play games as boy. You play games at work. Now you want play games all the time? You have no ambition.”

It amazed me that Daina could sustain her passion for the same goddamn argument month after month, year after year. It must have been something in her Latvian heritage. The determination that drove her to claw her way over the Iron Curtain, brought her to America where she learned English, passed her GED and completed her nursing training in five years, now compelled her, after a full day on the job as a public health nurse, to take courses at the community college so she’d be qualified to take her boss’s job when he retired in three years.

The kitchen door slammed announcing Billy’s arrival. “Hey Dar, get your ass in gear. The battle awaits. Daina, this coffee smells great. Must be a special Russian blend, eh?” He knew confusing Russians with Latvians was a surefire way to piss off Daina. I grabbed my golf shoes and headed for the door, hoping to escape.

“I’ve got to run, babe. You working tonight?”

      “Without you, Billy lost. You know that.” She followed me out of the bedroom.

I stopped on the landing and pulled her toward me, nuzzling the soft hairs on her neck. She tried to resist, but not much. “Daina, Daina, if Billy lets me move on I’d have to start working again. I’ll be home by five.”


As expected, we won our golf match. At the club bar, Bob Collins counted out ten crisp hundred dollar bills for Billy, and as a special kicker for “continued success,” handed him a box of Cohiba Habanas.

 On the drive home, Billy, puffing on a fat cigar, was feeling exceptionally good about himself. He had actually parred three holes today and nearly broke 90. Of course Collins had a generous policy on “Gimmes” for Billy. He exited the interstate and turned onto Hoover Road. “I’m playing poker tonight at the Club,” Billy said. “Want to join me? Easy money.”

“I can’t afford your poker games. Besides, Daina gets jealous when I spend too much time with you.”

 “Ha! Daina should be grateful. If it weren’t for me she’d have never met the legendary Darwin Burr.”

Billy had told the story at least a thousand times of how he spotted Daina sitting alone at the main bar in Faces sucking on a swizzle stick. With shocking white-blonde hair and pale blue eyes she was so icy-hot most guys were afraid to talk to her. I know I was. But not Billy. With his red hair and freckles, Billy looked like a young Mickey Rooney with a beer gut. He was not anyone’s version of good-looking. But what he lacked in the looks department he made up for with confidence.

He walked over and started telling her some bullshit story. I figured she’d shoot him down, but the next thing I know they’re on the dance floor. He kept her out there fifteen minutes and when they finally walked off, Billy steers her over and introduces me.

“Daina, this here’s the legendary Darwin Burr. He’s the… oh my god. Will you listen to that? Get Ready by Rare Earth. Daina, that song is Mr. Darwin Burr’s most fav-o-rite song of all time. It would mean so much to him if he could have this dance with you.”

Billy pulled that kind of shit all the time. He was a good dancer, because even though he was shaped like a bowling pin, he had no inhibitions. I danced liked the Tin Man. He was setting me up just to bust my balls, but this time it didn’t work.

Daina smiled at me like she wanted to do more than dance. She leaned into me on tiptoes and whispered in my ear, “You big man, Darvin. Take me for valk, yes?” She’d had a few drinks and it was the seventies. Things were different back then.

Daina liked sex. I wasn’t used to that. The girls back in Claxton didn’t have Daina’s enthusiasm. The first weekend I stayed at her apartment we had sex seven times. That beat my old record for weekend sex by six.

Toward the end of that first summer we were taking a shower and she was scrubbing my chest with her special imported-from-Latvia loofah when she asked me, “Vhy does Billy always call you ‘the legendary Darvin Burr’?”

“You mean you danced with him for two hours and he never told you about the state championship?”

“Not two hours. Two dances. Vut championship?” she said as she kneeled down and started soaping my balls.

“My high school basketball team were Illinois state champions back in ’75. I made the winning shot. It was a big deal. Hey! Keep doing that. Feels great.” Daina had stopped her soaping and was staring up at me, with the perplexed look she had whenever I used some word she hadn’t learned yet. “We were champions. Number one in the state. I can still drink for free at Clarkie’s because of that shot.”

She stood up. “You are hero because of game?” She frowned and hung her loofah on the faucet.

“Right. Just a game. I didn’t rescue anyone from a goddamn burning building. Just a lousy fucking basketball game.” It pissed me off because she was right. The crowning achievement of my life was nothing. Just a game.

“I know games are important,” she said. She didn’t say that to make me feel better. That wasn’t in her makeup. She was simply stating a fact as she understood it. “Before I make it to America I was on Soviet girls tennis team.”

Daina was from Jurmala on the Baltic Sea. It’s supposed to be a great vacation spot, at least if you’re a Latvian. She wasn’t one of the stars on the team, more of a sparring partner for the team’s ranked players.

“We were playing a tournament in Helsinki. My roommate Pasha had an attack of the uh, appendix.

“Appendicitis?”

“Yes, that’s it. I called the team manager and the hotel doctor rushed to the room. It was very confused situation and while everyone was running about, I disappeared.”

      She just walked out of the lobby into the night. She walked away from her hotel, her country, her family, her whole damn Latvian life. A year later she had her Green Card and was driving a cab in Skokie.

We’d finished our shower with shower-sex and as Daina was sitting naked on the bed smoking a filterless Camel, an ashtray propped carelessly between her legs, I asked, “So how did you get to America? I didn’t think the U.S. government routinely gave Green Cards to runaway teenage tennis players?”

She took a deep drag, blew the smoke towards the tarnished chandelier, and then stubbed her cigarette out. An ash dropped in her tangled blonde pussy hairs. I could feel my hard-on returning. She flicked the ash away and stared at me. No smile. Her look made me shiver. I went limp.

“I did vut I had to. How not important. I made it out. That’s all that matters, Darvin.”

I never asked her again. I learned that when she put my name at the end of her speech it meant our discussion was over.

Billy took a long draw on his cigar and filled the truck cabin with the fruity Cuban smoke. “That wife of yours is something else. She’s never gotten over me, has she?”

“Something like that.”

He leaned over and studied his face in the rearview. “It’s a curse. These damn women keep falling in love with me. Maybe it’s my hair.” Billy still had a full head of hair, but the red was now a rusty gray.

“Or your money.”

His brow furrowed as though that possibility had never occurred to him. “You think?”

“You keep marrying those women you’re going to die broke.” Billy was paying alimony to two ex-wives. No children though.

“Dying broke is the plan. I ain’t taking it with me.” He started laughing and that sent him into a coughing jag and he had to drop his cigar into his chewing tobacco spit cup. I didn’t love his cigar smoke, but it was way less disgusting than his Redman habit.

“You ought to have that cough looked at. Or at least stop smoking that damn cigar.”

“It ain’t nothing. Just clearing the lungs.” He gunned his new Acura MDX and passed my neighbor Ed Mackey, who was driving his twenty-year-old pick-up his usual thirty miles per hour. Billy gave him the finger and Ed returned the salute, smiling. “Your fucking neighbor is the craziest Black man I’ve ever met and I’ve met plenty. Dude is scary-crazy, you know that, right?”

Ed Mackey returned from Viet Nam in 1972 convinced the world was going to hell. He had spent the last thirty years preparing for the journey. “He’s a little eccentric,” I said.

“No.” Billy shook his head. “Not having a telephone or TV or making your own clothes — that’s eccentric. You ever been inside his place? He’s got a fucking arsenal: automatic weapons, shotguns, grenade launchers. With real grenades! He’s got fucking live-ass grenades.” Billy started coughing again and I thought he was going to drive off the road. “Of course if the shit does hit the fan, maybe he’ll let you in his bomb shelter. But I like Daina’s chances better.”

I laughed. “Me too. Ed’s sort of sweet on Daina.” The Acura tires squealed as Billy took the curve too fast. “You can slow down now.”

Billy cackled. “I love this ride. Three hundred goddamn horses, a GPS system that tells you everything but when to take a shit. And feel these seats. That’s not some kind of cheap-ass Corinthian leather, pal.”

“I’ll bet the gas doesn’t cost much either.”

“Roger that, pardner.”

Billy hadn’t owned a car in ten years. This car was a “loaner” from SunCal. The company sold ten million cases of motor oil a year through AutoPro and they were always eager to show their appreciation. Along with the car, they furnished Billy with a SunCal credit card. It was in Billy’s name, but in the ten years I’d been taking care of the bills, they’d never sent Billy a statement for his gas or maintenance.

 “Well Dar, great match. You brought your A game today. Lucky for us that stud, Blainey missed his last putt, though, huh?”

       “We must be living right. Imagine a former PGA touring pro three-putting the last two holes. Acted as if he didn’t want to win.”

“Fuck you. They played us straight up. We were just too good for them. Ah shit!” He hit the brakes but we skidded past Rourke Road. “God damn it. Why don’t you clear away some of those trees? I always miss your fucking road.”

“Maybe you should put your sign back up.”

As we turned into my driveway, Billy pulled out a manila file folder from the console between the seats. “I almost forgot about this,” he said, handing me the folder. “This is that new company I set up, ‘Worldwide Condo Storage.’ I made you Treasurer this time.”

Billy was always setting up companies for his real estate deals. He usually made me Secretary. He needed someone who could provide a signature without bringing in a bunch of lawyers. “Condo storage?”

“I told you all about it last week. I got a partner whose buying up those private storage properties and then we’re gonna make them into storage condos. Instead of leasing a space to store all your junk you get to own the property where you’re storing your junk. It will be a fucking gold mine.”

“Who’s the partner?”

“Trust me, you don’t want to know him. He’s very private.”

“Do I get paid more for being Treasurer?” I usually got five hundred bucks for being a signature on Billy’s deals.

“You cheap son-of-a-bitch, Burr.” He twisted in his seat and pulled out a wad of bills from his pants pocket and stuffed them in the console cup holder. “Here’s the grand I won from Collins today. That’s double your regular payment cause I feel sorry for Daina having to put up with a tightwad like you. Buy her something nice and sign the goddamn papers.”

Astra was back out in the driveway, in her gray sweats, shooting baskets.

“Hey, your girl has the same sweet stroke you had,” Billy said as he parked halfway up the driveway. “Is Mudge going to start her, or is that too bold a move for the fat slob? Someone ought to tell that guy it’s not illegal to score.”

Marty Mudge had been the girls’ basketball coach since Title IX had forced the school board to create a girls team back in ‘74. He graduated a few years before Billy and me, but never made it beyond the JV team. He’d been running the same 1950s weave offense for thirty years. His teams were not only bad, they were boring.

Billy jumped out of his car to greet Astra. “Hey, darlin’, that’s a great looking shot.” He held up his hand for a high-five.

Astra smiled and swished a twenty foot set shot. She liked Billy. She could be acting like a typical moody pain-in-the-ass teenager, and Billy would drop by and tell her some stupid joke that would make her laugh. She skipped over and slapped his hand. “Thanks, Billy.”

I knew I should probably at least read the documents Billy had shoved on me, but I never understood all that legal bullshit. I trusted Billy. He could be a pain-in-the-ass and a sleaze, but he always looked out for me. I signed my name by the three red arrow flags, grabbed the cash from the cupholder and left the folder on the front seat.

“Getting ready for practice, hon?” I asked.

She turned to me and her smile changed to a frown. Not the pissed frown, though. This was the worry frown. Her Daina-look. “Coach Mudge has been hospitalized with chest pains and they’re saying he can’t coach us this year. There’s a meeting at the school tonight to let us know what the plan is. Boo Boo said they might have to cancel the season if they can’t find a coach.” Boo Boo Redmond had been the team’s point guard the last two seasons. Sweet kid, worst point guard I’d ever seen. It was painful to watch her try to bring the ball up the court.

“Cancel the season?” Billy said, sputtering. “No way. We’ll find you a coach. Hey, Dar. You can coach them. I can see it now, ‘Darwin Burr, legendary high school basketball hero, leads Claxton girls to their first victory in ten years. The legend returns.’”

I glared at Billy, letting him know I didn’t need him meddling in family matters. It was pointless. Subtlety didn’t work on Billy. It usually required a verbal two-by-four to the head to get his attention. “Don’t you have to get to your poker game?” I asked him.

“I’m serious. You’d be a great coach, Darwin.”

I sighed. “You have to be a school employee.”

Billy frowned. “Says who?” He turned to Astra. “You take your old man to that meeting. I’ll make some calls. Remind some folks of their civic duty. ”

“What are you going to do, Billy?” Astra asked. She had lost her worried look. She had an overabundance of Billy-confidence.

“Play a few cards,” he said, winking at her. “Pull a few strings,” he added, because for Billy one metaphor was never enough. “They ain’t canceling the season.” And with that he jumped in his car and drove off, Acura tires burning rubber on the asphalt.

“Dad?” Astra studied me, trying to determine whether I was pissed off at Billy or just mystified — mystified being my default position when Billy got a hair up his ass about something.

I shrugged. “No telling what Billy’s going to do, but I wouldn’t bet against him.”


About the author

Len Joy lives in Evanston, Illinois. His first novel, AMERICAN PAST TIME was published by Hark! New Era Publishing in 2014. It was described by Kirkus Reviews as “a well-crafted novel and darkly nostalgic study of an American family through good times and bad.” view profile

Published on February 15, 2019

70000 words

Contains explicit content ⚠️

Worked with a Reedsy professional 🏆

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Reviewed by

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