Originally Posted by Robertsr
At some point there had to be a decision that would have led me anywhere but here. There had to be a point of no return somewhere – the place where I could have turned left instead of right… Could have been home with my wife instead of out here… Could have picked up anything in my hand instead of what’s there now…
That mythical moment is gone now. Any chance for things to be different has passed. Any way for me not to be in this situation is history, and all we have left is knowing how I got here, and figuring out what to do next.
Everybody has one… You know, the friend that nobody else really “gets”. For all of us, there is a person that we hang out with that our other friends, spouses, whatever just don’t understand. Not only do they not understand why we still hang out with that annoying jerk, they don’t understand what on earth we ever saw in them in the first place. For me, that guy was Zeke.
You’d have to go way back to find out where Zeke and I first met. I was 15 I guess, and he was a year older. He’d failed phys-ed the year before because he went out to the cornfield beside the school to smoke weed instead of going to Gym. His failure the year before put us in the same class for Driver Training even though he was a year older. Zeke being there was pretty stupid actually, since he’d had his license for months at that point, but you really can’t explain that sort of thing to a school official. The best you could possibly hope for would be a shrug, and a “But that’s what you take for six weeks in Gym.”
Zeke sat behind me in class, and one afternoon when we were supposed to be watching a pretty outdated film on the perils of drunk driving, he tapped me on the shoulder in the semi-darkness of the classroom. “Hey,” he whispered, “Wanna see something cool?” I nodded. I mean, there really isn’t any other acceptable answer to something like that. “No” just makes you sound like an a**, and even the most socially inept high-schooler knows that sounding like an a** is a good way to get yours beaten. I looked on expectantly as Zeke pulled a green pearl-handled switchblade out of his pocket and thumbed it open with an oily click. “My aunt smuggled it back over the border from Mexico in a box of tampons.”
At this point, I guess that I should probably mention that I wasn’t the kind of guy to get in trouble. I wasn’t a straight “A” student, but that was because I’m basically lazy. I didn’t touch drugs or beer, and I certainly didn’t hang out with the kids that did. To fix your mental image of me at that age, all I really have to say is that I was a member of the Latin Club and the president of the Drama club, and never went to a single football game. Now that you have that slightly (probably more than slightly) geeky picture in mind, you’ll understand that Zeke just wasn’t the kind of person I should hang out with, much less be the guy would become my oldest and best friend. But we did have one thing in common… We were both mad for blades. Pocket knives, sheath knives, swords, anything with an edge would put either of us into a collector’s frenzy. Over the years we’d probably sold or traded each other dozens of blades. Sold, but never given. Knives given as presents cut ties. But that’s all later. On that day, in that room, I had a secret too. That’s why the white jean wearing geek was able to surprise the black leather jacketed punk by pulling out an identical switchblade with a blue pearl handle and snicking it open.
“Looks a lot like this one…” I whispered.
I’ll never forget the look in Zeke’s eyes that day. At first it was annoyance, because after all, this was supposed to be his cool moment, but then you could almost see the wheels turning in there. It was like his brain was a slot machine that came up with,
“This guy gets me…”
From there we certainly weren’t inseparable by any means. He still smoked a lot of pot whenever he could, and snuck his dad’s liquor when he couldn’t. I was pretty busy with school plays and trips to the regional Latin convention down at the beach. We always found time to get together though. It didn’t hurt anything that his mom was hot, and mine could bake, so spending time with Zeke meant I could ogle his mom, (one lucky time in her underwear), and him spending time with me almost always meant pie.
When High School was over, I went on to college, and Zeke did a lot of other things. We’d still see each other when we could, and there were at least 2 fairly long terms where he spent time on my couch in between jobs. I got married. He got married. Mine worked out. His didn’t. Through it all we still kept in touch. Once while we were sitting on the back stoop drinking, I mused that our relationship was comprised of periods of brief activity punctuated by long pauses of abstinence. Zeke laughed so hard he choked on his whiskey. “So what you’re saying is that I’ve been around too long this time, and I need to go away so we can get on with our friendship?”
“Yep. Go the hell away so I can start liking you again.” That started us both laughing so hard that my wife came out to see what the fuss was. Tina didn’t hate Z. If he was on fire and she had a bucket full of water, she wouldn’t pour it on the ground in front of him just to watch him burn. I’m just not sure how far she’d go to get water if she didn’t have any handy. That night she just smiled and shook her head at the two drunken idiots on her back porch.
“Both of you need to shut the hell up before the neighbors call the cops.” Of course, she set us off even worse, and by the time the we realized that we’d both had too much to drink, there was only that much left in the bottle, and it would be silly to put it back in the cabinet with just those last few drinks in it. When I surfaced the next afternoon with the jackhammer hangover, he was already gone. That time I think I didn’t see him for almost a year.
And on it went. He’d breeze into town with little to no warning. We would hang out for lunch, or for an afternoon or weekend… However much time he had to spend, and however much time Tina would let me go. Tina and I were trying to have kids by that point, and it wasn’t working out at all. There was a lot of stress there, especially since I had tested fine for good swimmers, and Tina was the one with the baby maker problems. It didn’t help any that Zeke had already had 2 kids with a couple of different women. Hell, there were probably more than that out there to be honest, but there were two “confirmed kills” as he liked to put it. So the visits began to get more strained. I took to meeting him away from the house so Tina wouldn’t get so upset. She cornered me after I met him at Riggers downtown one Thursday night. Riggers was a bar a couple of steps below a dive. The clientele was rough to felony assault, and the décor mostly consisted of aged, homemade, nautical knick-knacks, with the notable exception of a blown-up glamour shot of the owner Sally in skimpy lingerie that was thankfully about 25 years out of date. Sally makes a mean burger though, and they had a pool table, so it was good enough for me. Probably not the place you’d expect to meet your HR manager, but most of the folks I worked with wouldn’t have stepped foot in there anyway, so it was pretty safe from a career standpoint. Zeke was only in the area for a few hours, so we had met for dinner and a couple of rounds of 9 ball.
I came home about 10:00 reeking of beer and grilled onions, and Tina was waiting for me at the door.
“The least you could goddamned do is call.”
Ah crap. I hadn’t called... Zeke’s bike had been by my car when I left the office, and it had totally slipped my mind once we’d gotten to Riggers. “I’m sorry sweetheart, I forgot. Zeke was passing through and…”
You could almost see the storm clouds gather. Zero to gale-force in a second and a half. “I’m doing my best here Joe. “ She was working up to a good one. You can tell the signs. That red spot that she gets between her brows when she’s really pissed was starting to fill in. Her Mom always called it an “Angel’s Kiss” because she had been born with it, but I don’t think it was going to have anything to do with angels or kissing tonight. She also hadn’t let me in the door yet. “I’m off caffeine. I’m off alcohol. I quit smoking for Christ’s sake! I take my basal temperature every morning, and I’m diddling myself practically every day to chart cervical mucus, just so we can try the best few days a month to get this baby!”
She wasn’t screaming yet, but it was coming. If I didn’t get her out of the doorway and inside the house soon, the whole neighborhood was going to hear it. Mrs. Reynolds next door is a sweet old lady, but since Mitch died, she doesn’t have anything to do but spy on the neighbors, and if she knows about it, you might as well print it on the front page. “Honey, let’s talk about this inside.”
For a minute I thought that she wasn’t going to let me in. She slumped then, and I knew it was going from angry to crying. I’m a big softy, so waterworks are actually worse than getting a verbal beating. She stepped aside so I could come in to the front room, and collapsed on the uncomfortable, but pretty couch we’d bought for company to sit on. “I mean I’m trying so goddamned hard Joe. I want this baby so bad I can taste it, and I know it’s starting to get rough.” I sat down beside her. “We can’t even make it through month of sex every other night like the book says…” She looked up at me from where she was sprawled with shiny eyes. “And then the one night all month when the temp is right, and the goo is right and I’m sure I’m ovulating, you go out to that disgusting bar with your stupid friend, and eat a f***ing burger !”
I sat quietly. I may not be a smart guy, but I know by now when to shut up and let Tina talk.
“If it was anybody but Zeke, I could at least understand.” Now the tears were rolling. This has always been the hardest part of a relationship for me. It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong, or even what the situation is, a crying woman always makes me feel like something is my fault. “Why do you still even talk to him? He’s practically a criminal. He’s brought drugs into our house. He can’t hold down a job. He’s got little bastards spread over the tri-state area. He owes you money. Jesus Joe! I mean, what the f***?
“I’m sorry Tina.” I was too. I hated seeing her like this. We both wanted kids, and had wanted them for so long. It felt like wearing a sandpaper shirt. It hurts a lot at first, but you could get used to the pain. But then any little extra pressure makes everything else unbearable. “It’s just that you’ll never really know Z the way I do.” I got up. Somehow walking helps me think sometimes. “Sure he tokes. Sure he has a ponytail past the time any adult should. “ I looked up at the mantelpiece where there weren’t any photos of kids yet, just the kind of crap you get in a housewares department to fill up the space where you don’t have children. “But he’s also one of the most generous guys I know.” She snorted. “No really! I know he doesn’t have much, but anything he’s got he’ll share.”
“What, like weed?”
“No. Like food, or clothes.” I continued pacing. “That old leather jacket we took to Goodwill last fall? He gave that to me back when I was moving furniture for a living and couldn’t find any other job after graduation. He didn’t have any more money then than he does now, but I needed it, and he had it, so he gave it to me.” I sat back down. “…And he’s funny too. Half the stupid jokes you laugh at come from him. His dad had a big file folder where he would write down all the jokes he heard and keep them. Z ‘s got an incredible mind for that kind of thing. He never forgets stuff he’s heard like that.”
She stared at me, about as expressionless as I’ve ever seen her. “And?”
I already said I wasn’t smart… And here is where I proved it. I should have just let it go. I should have kept my damn mouth shut, but the whole situation was squeezing in around me. Tina’s baby trouble, the merger at work, the fact that I wasn’t 20 anymore… Hell, everything was pushing me further and further into a corner. Dammit, I like Zeke! Warts and all he’s been a good friend even though we’re the unlikeliest of companions. Before I knew what was happening I told her exactly how I felt.
“And he’s the last friend that you haven’t made me give up yet!”
It was like watching a horror movie. In the seconds before I spoke when I knew what I was going to say, the audience me that knew what kind of monster was behind the door was screaming at the screen, “NO! DON’T GO IN THERE!” but I did it anyway. I opened the box and let the feelings come screaming out, Pandora be damned. Once said, the words lay steaming between us like puke on the carpet. I hadn’t really realized up till then how much I’d given up to move from being “Joe the happy guy” to “Joe the husband Tina wants”. My clothes had changed. My hair had changed. She’d picked out my new car, our new friends, our house. s***, she’d picked out my whole life.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved Tina. I still do. I just hadn’t realized till then how much of her love for me was for some image of me that didn’t exist yet. She’d been chipping away all the parts of Joe that didn’t fit her ideal picture. The blame isn’t all hers though. I’d been letting her get away with it for years.
Tina was starting to ramp back from crying to pissed, but I was way ahead of her for a change. That’s the problem with the quiet guys… when we do get finally get mad, its capital “M” mad. “I can’t remember the last time I even talked to any of the old crew except for Zeke! Last I heard Jerry had gotten a job with a baseball team in Virginia somewhere. The “Generals” or some s***. That was what… six years ago? Frank’s selling cars and married to that religious girl, but they had kids too quick so of course we can’t hang around with them anymore! Alex came out of the closet four years ago. Hell, I could have told him that back in high school. Now that he’s queer he’s not fit to come over even though he was your favorite before. Still, he was my friend, and for all I know now he’s dead! I don’t even know what happened to Bill. The last time I even saw him was when he threw rice at our wedding.” Her eyes were looking a little wild, but by god I was on a roll now. “Little by little, one by one, you’ve cut me off from the pack. I’ve been sectioned out and led off to the kill! Zeke was the only one that hung with me - the only one to resist you!” Her face was turning ugly, and at that moment I hated her for what she’d done. Not just for what she’d done, but for how clearly she thought that it was her right to do it.
“Oh right,” she sneered, “It’s my fault that all of your loser friends are gone.”
I’ve never hit a woman, but I was getting close to finding out what it felt like.
“You should thank me if that’s the case. I’ve never seen a more useless pile of s*** than your friends! You want to talk losers? A glory-days bush league manager, a used car salesman, a faggot, and a pothead biker. Oh you’re so feeling the loss I’m sure.”
I got up again. I couldn’t stand to be couch-close to her. “Don’t you dare!” she spat. “You’re not going anywhere. We’re nowhere close to done yet.” I stumbled over the threshold into the darkened kitchen. I’m not even sure where I was going, just away from her and towards the Scotch. “So Zeke is the last one huh? The last loser holding us back? Fantastic! Maybe when he’s gone you’ll finally be man enough for this baby, maybe you’ll…”
I think both of us were surprised to find me gripping her arms hard enough to bruise. The light in her eyes faded from anger to fear. That’s the problem with the quiet guys... I leaned in close, fighting for control every second.
I was trembling with the effort of staying out of jail. “You don’t get to say that. You don’t get to make that my fault.” My voice was quiet. The tone was flat, and each word was clear and slow. I let her go and turned my back. I walked back though the living room and out the front door on autopilot. It wasn’t till I was pulling the car out that Tina made it to the door again.
“If you want Zeke so much maybe you should go screw him!” She screamed. “A******!” She slammed the door behind her hard enough that one of the panes shattered. I drove away with the sound of breaking glass still ringing in my ears.
I guess Mrs. Reynolds gets her show tonight after all.
Zeke was still at Riggers when I rolled back in. Even through the dim light I could pick him out at the bar chatting up Sally. Charming bastard. She was old enough to be his mom… maybe even his Granny, but she was giggling like a girl at whatever line he was feeding her.
I slid onto the stool beside him. Not really trusting my voice yet I pointed over Sally’s shoulder at the liquor bottles and held up 2 fingers. Sally’s been around. She grabbed something at random and filled up a couple of shots. You don’t tend bar for 20-plus years without getting a feel for this sort of thing. I kicked back the first shot. Damn… Bourbon. I hate bourbon. As I was downing the second ghastly shot, I held up another 2 fingers. Sally glanced at Zeke. She’d never seen me drinking like this before. I always have to drive home after meeting Z, so it’s been Diet Coke and the occasional beer up till now. Whatever look Zeke gave her, she poured 2 more and pointedly put the bottle back on the wall.
“Sooo…” Zeke said. “She’s pissed again?”
“4 shot pissed?”
I nodded and kicked back the third. That Rigger-burger was starting to rumble with the bourbon, but aside from some minor tremors it felt like I wasn’t going to embarrass myself yet.
“You Z. She’s pissed about you.” Huh. Thought I was through with being overly honest tonight. Guess that’s why I never drink that much in public.
Z took the last shot and killed it. He outweighs me now by about 40 pounds, so he probably didn’t even feel it on top of the beers he’d been crushing all night. Me, I was starting to weave on the stool a bit.
“I mean, seriously man! You show up out of the blue, what? Maybe 1 or 2 times a year. We’ve got nothing in common anymore. All we do is shoot pool or catch a movie…”
You know, this drinking thing really isn’t my best side. I hadn’t been able to keep my mouth shut all night, and it just wasn’t helping. Zeke was staring at the girly pic of Sally back by the register. He wasn’t looking at me at all. “I’ve been in a stable job for 14 years, and you’re never at the same place twice. Why do we even do this?”
He turned to me. It struck me then how old we’d both become. The punk and the geek were long gone. Now here we were, however many years later, an aging biker and a gone-to-seed businessman. Zeke’s pony tail was threaded with grey, and I saw for the first time how thin his hair had gotten. We’re not supposed to be like this, I thought. We’re supposed to be those kids back in driver’s ed. He sighed, a longsuffering sigh with a bit of love in it. It sounded like it should have come from my mom.
“I come back, because we’re friends a******. I come back because I’m the only friend you have.”
He peeled a couple of bills off his roll, and dropped them on the bar for Sally. “I come back… My hand to God… I come back because I know you need it.” He looked me dead in the eye. “For decades I’ve been hearing about your dead end job and your bitch wife, and STILL I come back. You know what’s really funny?” He knocked softly on the bar. Visual punctuation. “I haven’t liked you for a long time. I consider this s*** charity work.”
Maybe I’m not the only one who gets to cut loose this night. In vino veritas.
“See, it’s like this dude. I’ve been sorry for you for a long time. You were pretty bad back in school. I’ve never seen anyone who needed to get laid as bad as you back then. Never had a head for chicks. You could have had my little sister any day of the week, but you were too much of a p**** to go for it. But, after school, you started getting less and less real. That college that cost the world, and what did you get out of it. A crap job moving sofas. Bam! A part of Joe fades away. This BS job of yours now…” He flicked my golf shirt hard enough to hurt. “Bam! Another piece gone.” He leaned back and glanced up to heaven. “…And then, Tina comes in to bat clean up. There ain’t s*** left of you bro. Ain’t nothin’ there.”
I didn’t know what to say. It was like all the words in the world were beyond me.
“So basically,” Zeke stood up. Even on the high stool it felt like he was towering over me. “Welfare is out bro. The checks are bounced. The well is dry. The bitch has the clap.” He leaned closer. “You need me more than I need this bull. I’m done. We’re done.”
I was stone. Mute, unmoving stone.
He kept staring at me, daring me to speak. Daring me to tell him he was right. That I did need him. That I was an a******, and that someone like him was exactly what would pull me back straight. God help me, it’s what I felt. It’s what I knew in my heart, but I couldn’t say the words. I couldn’t say anything. Mute stone.
His eyes never left mine. “Hey Sally? So a Priest, a Rabbi and Santa Claus walk into a bar…” She was hovering close, those hard won bartender reflexes warning her of an impending fight. “You know why that’s a stupid joke?” Out of the corner of my eye I saw her hand dip below the bar. Her voice was steady, and low, and perfectly non-threatening.
“No Z, why is it a bad joke?”
“Because it will never happen. None of those people exist.” He gave me one last chance to stop him, and then pushed roughly past me and walked away. The tinkly bell over the door even managed to sound angry for him on the way out.
Riggers isn’t all that big, but I suddenly realized how uncomfortable it could be to be outnumbered 10 to 1 in a biker bar wearing a golf shirt when everyone has heard what just happened. I wobbled off my stool and fished for my wallet. The pity in Sally’s eyes was about as tough to take as anything up to that point. Bartender Grannies aren’t supposed to feel sorry for me. I have a good job. I have a beautiful wife. I have a nice house. I’m successful.
She waved off my money. “It’s on me sweety. If you hurry, you might still catch him.
I’d heard the phrase, “Walk of Shame”, but I’d never really known what it was like. The door was miles away, and it took years to get there. By the time I made it through and around the side of the building where the bikes were parked he was gone. No bike, no Zeke.
There was something in the gravel where Zeke had been parked. Standing point down was a scuffed, beaten-up, pearl handled switch blade. I picked it up. It weighed exactly as much as a lifetime friendship, and felt just like a knife I had owned once and forgotten. Only this one was green where mine had been blue. It lay across my palm now.