It’s Bethesda Maryland back in the day: Black chucks and saddle shoes, Hot Shoppes, McDonald’s Raw Bar, Ayrlawn Rec Center. Told through the elusive lens of time, A Boy From Bethesda follows the life of Johnny O’Brien. A natural leader and gifted athlete, ten-year old Johnny’s life is forever altered by a sudden tragedy and an ensuing discovery that haunts him for the remainder of his life. Interweaving camaraderie and romance and a yearning for the past, A Boy From Bethesda will appeal to a wide audience of men and women and young and old.
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After the sudden death of his father from a rare and life-shortening heart condition, ten-year old Johnny O’Brien is diagnosed with the same fate that haunts him for the remainder of his life as we follow him through his adventurous youth of the fifties and sixties into adulthood. While his boyhood friends marry and raise families, Johnny – handsome and charming to a fault – falls in and out of relationships. As he outlives his life expectancy, Johnny looks back on his life and wonders what if while facing the realization that each day could be his last until that final moment when it all catches up with him
After eating, they approached an open-air bar on the boardwalk with a line to get in. Inside, a loud band was playing “Good Golly Miss Molly.” Most of the customers looked to be college age. Some were dancing and gyrating to the music, yelling over each other in a sweaty froth of carnal joy. The girls were tan and achingly good-looking, wearing shorts and red tank tops. Johnny felt a pang of lust as they shimmied their fannies and swayed their golden-brown shoulders to the music
“Lifeguards,” Tip said, lifting his chin toward the dance floor. “I went to a party of theirs last year.”
“Let’s see if we can get in,” Mickey said. The boys all looked at each other before Brad said, “What have we got to lose?”
They waited in line for about ten minutes. All the while, Johnny couldn’t take his eyes off the girls dancing. Something about the salty air and the breeze and the freedom he felt was shooting a wild surge of wanting to let loose, to drink too many beers and hustle up on the dance floor and show those sexy girls how to really dance.
When they got to the front of the line, the bouncer would have none of it. “You guys aren’t anywhere near twenty-one,” he said. “I don’t care what type of ID you got.” He was an older guy dressed in sandals and shorts, somewhere in his mid-twenties, who had a squinty look of someone who had been through a difficult ordeal, a man left standing at the station as the train of life had passed him by. He was ruggedly handsome, a beer-and-a-shot sort of man, with broad shoulders and a tapered waist. His arms were long and sinewy, his muscles like corded knots. Johnny noted a jagged scar across his knee and wondered if it was the source of his going-through-the-motions demeanor. “Your best bet is to find a party, or if you can’t find one,” the bouncer said through a gap-toothed smirk, “drink a cold beer where you’re staying.” He lifted his crag of a chin at the boys as though to say, That is all. There was something about the finality to his tone and confidence in his grown man physicality that caused the boys to turn without a further word, like a no-nonsense teacher dismissing class. Even Brad, who normally took an incident like this as a challenge, remained silent.
“You know who that was?” Brian said with awe in his voice
“Who?” Mickey said.
“Ray Bender,” Brian said as he turned to take one last look at the man. “All-American wrestler at Maryland who had a good shot at making the Olympic team but tore his knee up.”
“He’s been a lifeguard for the last few years down here,” Tip said.
“How’d he hurt his knee?” Johnny asked.
They were walking down the boardwalk, which was pretty much empty. “Got drunk at a party and tried to impress a girl by lifting up the rear end of a car, and his knee gave out.” Brian slowed his pace and looked at Johnny. “Dropped out of college, went into a deep funk, and still hasn’t gotten out of it.”
“Damn,” Johnny said. “Damn.”
On the ride back to the motel, Mickey, who was sitting in the third row of the van next to Tip, reached in the cooler in the rear and grabbed a couple of iced beers. “Those chicks in that bar were so fine.”
“More than fine,” Danny said as he reached back from the middle row and took a cold one from Mickey, who then leaned forward to offer Johnny a beer.
“I’ll pass for now,” Johnny said, as he heard not only Dr. Fitzgerald’s cautionary voice but also saw the image of the bouncer, studly Ray Bender, who would regret for the rest of his life having gotten drunk and ripping up his knee. Johnny had something even more valuable to protect—his heart.
Cold beers were distributed and chug-a-lugged as everyone started talking at once about the girls in the bar, shouting and screaming and trying to one-up one another. “Could you imagine having sex with one of those lifeguard chicks?” Danny said as he crushed his empty in his hands.
“You wouldn’t know what to do with it,” Brad said, turning from the front passenger seat. “Doyle, another brewskie.”
Mickey handed the beer to Danny, who offered it to Brad and then pulled back. “And you would know what to do?”
“Give me the damn beer,” Brad said in a half-kidding, half-serious growl.
“Brad and Brian are experienced men,” Tip piped in from the back. “Been dating the same chickadees for what seems a lifetime. They would most certainly know what to do with those dancing mermaids.”
Johnny, Mickey, and Danny laughed uproariously as Brad turned and scrunched his face up into a mock sneer. “Son, I say son,” he said as he glanced at Brian behind the wheel, then back, “is that any way to talk about our girls?” His voice was a dead-on imitation of his father, and Johnny saw the son in the father, the handsome, manly face. For a fleeting moment, he wondered if anyone would have seen any of his father in him had his dad lived.
By the time they arrived at the motel, which had only a smattering of cars in the parking lot, the boys had worked themselves into a loud frenzy, getting out of the van shouting and screaming over each other.
A light was on in the office, and the proprietor came storming out when Danny screamed above the fray, mimicking a beer vendor at Griffith Stadium. “Cold beer! Get your ice-cold beer here, brother! Cold beer! Get…”
“I just threw a group out of here for excessive noise.” The old man pulled his stogie from his mouth, flicked an ash, and scratched his stubbly chin. “Want to make it a twofer?” He took a pull on his cigar and blew a gust of smoke out the side of his mouth, his eyes saying, Your move.
“We haven’t done anything,” Brad said in a challenging tone.
“You,” the old man said accusingly, “are lucky I even let your ass back in here.”
Even in the dimly lit parking lot, Johnny could see the back of Brad’s neck redden. “We’ll be no problem, sir.” Johnny stepped forward, his hands open in a conciliatory fashion. “Won’t we, boys?” Johnny said as he turned, his eyes on Brad, eyes that said, Do not mess this up. The rest of guys were watching, waiting for Johnny to spin his charm on this cantankerous geezer.
Johnny turned back to the proprietor. “I promise you, sir, there will be no more disturbances.”
The old man was sizing Johnny up with a flinty look. “Do you, now?”
“Yes, sir. We recently graduated high school and are going inside to discuss our plans for the rest of our lives.” Johnny’s tone was utterly sincere, his stance straight and respectable.
The old man took a slow, thoughtful drag on his cigar, his gaze softening.
“I give you my word, sir, there will be no problems from us tonight.” Johnny turned back to the boys. “Will there?”
“No, sir,” the boys said in unison.
The old man took a short drag on his cigar. A thin smile creased his lips, a congenial smile, a smile that said, This one I trust. This one I like. “Alright.” He turned from them and then stopped, his sharp gaze on Brad. “But if I so much as hear a peep”—he jerked his thumb over his shoulder—“you’re outta here.”