Friends After Fifty – Jane DIESEL

Dan moved on Sunday. He came by to say goodbye on Thursday. He said he would be too busy packing during the weekend to drop by again. He was moving to be closer to his daughter, Pauline, who had just given birth to the first grandchild last August. John gave him a bottle of cognac and slapped him on the back a few times. 

Few words were exchanged between the two men. Dan recalled a time they went bowling and John had nearly bowled a perfect game, but slipped up in the 7th set. John laughed and said that’s what Coors will do to you. 

They watched a college hockey game, neither of their teams playing. Both were sipping Miller High Life out of cans. When he got to the fourth can, John knew Dan would be leaving soon. He left a sip in the can, hesitating to finish it, to end the ritual.

But Dan got up a few minutes later to take a piss, and when he got back, he said he had to get going. No doubt Katrina would be anxious at home, with all those boxes left to pack. John smiled and tutted, and Dan made a ball-and-chain joke. 

Then he put on his boots and his paint-stained jacket, and gave John a handshake and a final goodbye before he walked back to the truck.

John thought about waving, but decided it felt wrong, so he nodded and Dan nodded back from behind the windshield as he backed out of the driveway and disappeared into the forest-lined streets.

Three days ago he moved, and left the state, and John knew that he would never see him again. No doubt he’d get a Christmas card, or a call on his birthday, but when the truck left, his best and only friend went with it. Gone to a family he had built in the 24 years John had known him, the family that John sometimes closed his eyes and imagined as his own.

In those three days, John had not spoken to a soul. Sure, he could have gone out, taken his truck down to the gas station, shot the shit with the disaffected teenager they had working there weeknights. But the teenager would have that dead look in her eyes when older people talked to her, and that would make everything worse.

Maybe he could have gone to the bowling alley, talked to one of the guys that Dan was friendly with. But it would have been wrong. Those guys were Dan’s friends, not John’s friends. It didn’t work like that. There was no transition period after someone left the group, where the friends could be transferred to the next of kin. They just went back to their own world, and John stayed in his. 

John didn’t work. He was technically disabled—he had a limp and a bulging disc from a bad spill off a low roof when he used to lay shingles on the big warehouses those developers built on the outskirts of town. The other roofers had stopped talking to him after the accident. It seemed like he had bad luck, and you can’t have bad luck around you in dangerous places. John hadn’t minded much though, because he still had Dan at that point. Now he wondered if he might actually have bad luck.

John had been engaged once, as a young man, in his 30s. Her name was Marie, and she was simple, and she was good. He had met her out with her group of friends when they went dancing at Buck Hall and he had been sitting alone at the bar. She was flighty and wouldn’t look you in the eye, but smiled constantly. She was smiling when John first kissed her, and he felt her teeth through the kiss.

Marie had gotten pregnant during the 11th month of their relationship, and John was scared. But he had talked to Dave, who was his one and only friend at the time, and Dave told him to do the right thing. So John asked Marie to marry him. He did it with a ring he bought from the pawn shop for $360 on his front porch, and her smile filled up her face.

But in the 13th month of the relationship, Marie lost the baby, and John lost Marie. Marie went to her aunt’s house out west in Ohio and he hadn’t heard from her since that day. 

He could have called her, if he had looked for the number. He could have called her, but he didn’t. He didn’t call any woman after her, really. It was too hard to try to put together a new romance when he had seen what Marie had given him laid out like a completed puzzle on the kitchen table. He put together a few pieces here and there, but most of his attempts with women remained in the box.

Dave had moved on too after things with Marie ended. Dave was a mechanic and found a better job in another town three hours away. So he took it. That’s what you do.

John was alone for 4 years before he met Sam, who came and left, then Artie, who came and left, and finally, Dan. That’s how it was really. You find a guy at the bar some night, and you get to talking, and they become your one and only friend, until they aren’t your one and only friend anymore. 

This time, it felt harder. John wasn’t old, but he wasn’t young. His limp aged him, and he puttered around the house. His joints creaked when he walked up the stairs. He had a paunch, and a rasp in his voice. He wouldn’t wear glasses, but he knew he needed them. He could take himself down to Buck Hall, and nurse a drink, and wait for the new friend. But how many months of that would it be until he met someone again?

Still, on the fifth day without speaking to anyone, John was starting to feel odd. So after his lunch he put on his boots and his jacket with a cigarette burn on the left sleeve, and he backed his truck out of the driveway onto the forest-lined street. He drove 25 minutes on the winding road, which opened at points to fields where deer hunters would camp in the fall. Another house or two was along the way, but in all the years that John had drove past the houses, he never saw a soul come or go. John wasn’t an artist, but he thought the view would make for a good painting.

John parked his truck in the gravel lot outside of Buck Hall, and felt a pebble hop inside his shoe as he hopped out. It dug into the side of his foot as he walked to the concrete slab where the smokers congregated outside, and dug deeper as he walked up to the bar and ordered a Miller High Life. 

He drank the beer, watching a round up of that weeks’ sports news above the bar. It bathed the gouged bar top in white and green light, turning his hands a sickly cast as he nursed the drink. When he caught himself leaving a sip behind, he killed the glass.

There were younger girls dancing in the corner to a song he didn’t know, and there were younger men who looked a lot like he used to joining in and trying to make eye contact with the girls between the guitar riffs. They were all red from the heat of the alcohol, and the dancing, and the heat of the bar itself. John felt a little pale next to them all. 

The bartender asked him if he wanted to order another round. Feeling awkward, he declined, and shouldered his jacket. He went back out to the truck, sitting there for a few moments and watching the sun begin to set.

He swore, then turned on the ignition and backed out of the gravel lot.

He did this for seven weeks. He woke up in the morning, read a bit of a science-fiction novel he had bought at an airport some time or another, watched a hockey game, then a basketball game, ate cold cut sandwiches from the fridge, drank a beer or two. All of this killing time until it was the point of the day where he would sit at Buck Hall. After a few hours of drinking in silence, he would head home, watch the news, shower and then go to sleep until it was time for the next day. The only thing that really changed was the weather, which got cold as the autumn deepened into winter. 

Some days John would go late to Buck Hall. Some days he would go early. Some days he would not want to go at all, but reckoned he should, and still went. That’s how it was. 

And some time in November, there was Ron. Ron was scrawny, and maybe 10 years younger than John. He had wiry black hair that had started to gray. His smile showed only his top row of teeth, yellowed with pointed canines. He was wearing an equally yellow jersey and blue  jeans, and looked up immediately when John walked in and sat at the bar. 

“A round for this guy,” Ron said, and John knew that this would be his one and only friend.

“Where are you from, stranger?” asked John. The question felt heavy in his mouth, heavy in the air. He wasn’t used to the sound of his own voice.

Ron’s name was Ron. He was from Massachusetts originally, moved up to New Hampshire for a job and an ex-wife. Kept the job, lost the wife. No kids, but a dog—big one, a Rottie. Small dogs are cats, anyway. Didn’t usually come out this far, but had to pick up some parts for a house call. Lady bailed so he was having a drink. 

John processed this news like scripture, and fastened it into the part of his mind where he held all his friends. He asked the right questions. He kept Ron talking, at ease. He was careful not to push too hard, to scare him away. He had done this enough to know the right process, to know how to make this all work. 

The only time Ron stopped talking to John was to look the young girls dancing up and down. He traced over every shake, every bounce. Then he’d turn back to John and say, “If I was their age, I tell you what.”

At the end of the night, Ron asked John if he would be there again on Thursday to watch college basketball. John didn’t have a team, but he said he would. Ron nodded, and closed his tab, and wished him goodnight. From the window that overlooked the smoker’s patio, John watched him reverse out of the gravel lot and disappear down the tree-lined road.

When John got home that night, he was so excited he could scarcely pay attention to the news. He was smiling when he brushed his teeth that night, and in his dreams he was watching college basketball. 

On Thursday, John forced himself to eat a late lunch, nice and slow, so that he wouldn’t be too early and waiting around for Ron at Buck Hall. He ate a ham sandwich very deliberately, and had two Miller High Lifes, and made sure that his shirt was clean but not too clean.

To his utter happiness, Ron was already at the bar when he got there, talking with one of the younger girls. She was looking bored but still smiling. Ron was rolling a lighter over the tops of his knuckles, and after a few rolls, he offered it to the girl. She gave him a politely thank you, pulling out a pack of Marlboros and walking out to the patio. 

Ron greeted John with a slightly yellowed grin, and told him it was his turn to buy a round. John didn’t mind this, and got them both a drink. Ron had lots of opinions on both of the teams playing, and while John didn’t have many opinions himself, he agreed and hummed along with Ron’s feedback. He figured at first that after a few nights out with Ron, he would understand things enough to participate in the conversation. But as Ron kept talking, he realized that it may be better for him not to have opinions, because his one and only friend wanted people to agree with him.

John had a friend like this before—Sam. Sam had big opinions that needed to fill the room, and John was happy to give them the space. Others, like Artie, needed you to take the time to research conversation topics before a night out. They were both exhausting and stimulating in their own ways. In any case, sharing conversations with a friend was what was important.

Ron talked and John listened for a while, until the girl came in and gave Ron back the lighter. Ron winked at her, and she smiled and then took the last seat at the bar, furthest from him. Ron lost no momentum, and launched back into a spiel on who was looking the strongest this year. 

The night went on for a while until the game ended and the post-game coverage ended. After the post-game coverage ended, Ron wished John a good night and asked if he would be back next week. 

John said yes, and he was, and then he was again the week after that. 

Ron would spend each night talking about the game, about the teams, about his life and his job. He would ask John questions every so often, but only basic information—who was his wife? Did he have kids? Not even a dog? Ron would laugh and shake his head at John’s answer, then eventually gave him a pat on the back. That was huge. One and only friend huge. 

That night, Ron asked him if he wanted to watch a football game at his house that coming week, and John said yes. Ron told him where he lived a few towns over, and John wrote it down on a bar napkin and put it in the front pocket of his denim shirt, close to his heart. John left before Ron that night, as not to seem too eager, and gave him a heavy pat on the back when he left. 

The week was torturous for John. He couldn’t read, he couldn’t watch the news. He paced an awkwardly on his bad leg while he ate his sandwiches, and had tried to pace in the shower, but it was too narrow. He talked to himself about the plot so far to his novel, and how to lay shingles on a big warehouse roof, and everything that Ron had told him so far about college basketball. 

Somehow, the days passed, and John got ready to go to Ron’s house. He put on the same shirt he had worn when they first met, because it seemed like it might be good luck. He drank two Miller High Lifes, and put on his boots, then his jacket. With a deep breath, he went out to his truck.

Ron lived about 40 minutes away. In those 40 minutes, John passed the hunting fields, the two houses, Buck Hall, the grocery store, another few houses, the gas station. He pulled into the gas station, and went inside to ask the disaffected teenager to put $10 on pump three. She chewed her gum and took his money. 

John went outside and filled up his tank. He was anxious. The pump stopped at $6.94, because his tank was still mostly full. He had just needed an errand, to not seem like he was trying to get there too quickly. He needed to do this all right. John closed his gas cap and got back into the truck. He drove off without getting his change.

Ron lived a little beyond John’s radius, but that was okay. It was good to have a new, one and only friend who made your world feel just a bit bigger. John had never seen the road he turned onto to get to Ron’s house, and it made his heart beat a little faster as he grew close.

At the end of the road was a red mailbox with the name “Miller,” which was how John learned Ron’s last name. He added that to the space in his mind where he held friends as well. 

As John pulled into the driveway, Ron came out onto the porch and waved. John wondered if he should wave back. Instead, he put the truck in park, and then hopped out.

“John! Buddy!” Ron walked down the packed red dirt of the driveway and gave John a pat on the back. From inside the house, a dog, Ron’s Rottie, was barking.

John greeted him in return with a smile. 

“Listen, I have to tell you something,” Ron was grinning. “Nah, I gotta show you something. You won’t believe it.”

John nodded, following Ron’s fanning gesture to go into the house. On the porch, nuts and bolts littered the concrete. A few chains were coiled up next to a small charcoal grill, rusted beyond use. 

Ron opened the door and the Rottie came and jumped up onto John. John patted it once, and Ron said, “Get down, Lucy.” He shoved the dog back. 

“I love that dog, but she’s a real bitch.” Ron grinned his yellow teeth at John. 

The entryway to Ron’s house had PVC and lead pipes on either side, and more chain, and dirty power tools that looked like they had been in use since before John had known Dan. Slate tiles led to a living room with a cracked leather couch and a flat-screen TV sat on top of a rattan dresser. 

John didn’t have much time to take it all in, because Ron was giggling and going, “This way, this way.” 

Ron led him through the kitchen, down a hallway toward the back of the house. John felt a pang of unease. This was not the way it usually went. He had only seen the rooms of the back of Dan’s house once in their friendship, when Katrina had gotten sick and Dan sent John to the room to grab a towel. That was years and years in. The first time, in the private rooms of the house—that was unheard of. 

Lucy trotted down the hallway behind them, which unsettled John further. It was too crowded. It wasn’t a one and only friend situation at all. It was off. It was wrong.

Ron stopped at a door and whipped around. 

“Man,” he said, shaking his mop of wiry hair. “You aren’t going to believe this, you aren’t going to believe this at all.”

He shook his head a few more times and laughed again. Then, he opened the door to the bedroom, and Lucy ran in. He followed behind her. Then, John went to the door.

A woman was lying on the bed, wearing only a large college basketball shirt. John’s eyebrows raised. She lifted her head to look at him, and John saw she had a black eye. She was frowning, and John could see through the black eye that she had been crying. She whimpered slightly, but said nothing as John looked at her. 

Ron was looking at John, and at the girl, then back to him and grinning. His hand was on his belt buckle, fidgeting with it slightly. He raised his eyebrows in a parody of John.

“So,” he said. “You first?”

As John kept looking at the girl, he recognized her as the one with the lighter on the night that Ron had invited him over. He wondered when Ron had brought her here. He wondered how long Ron had wanted to show him this. 

Ron’s hand tightened over his belt buckle.

“I want to be a good host, but I can show you how it’s done if you need a reminder, buddy.”

He laughed. It was strained this time.

John’s jaw clenched. He bit his cheek. He felt his face grow red, and then purple. He had ruined it. Ron had ruined it. He had ruined it all! 

This wasn’t right. This wasn’t how you become someone’s friend at all.

John slid back out of the doorway, and limped down the hall, through the kitchen, to the entryway. Behind him he heard Ron leap over the bed, stumble out of the doorway, and try to catch up with him.

“John! John, buddy!”

John stopped in the entryway.

“Don’t you want her? Look at her!” Ron was calling after him, frantically. “I thought you would get it, I thought you got me.”

John said nothing.

“We’re friends John, we’re buddies. Come on, you get it.”

John stooped down, and picked up one of the lead pipes in Ron’s entryway, and with an arm made strong by hauling shingles up a ladder to lay on factory roofs, drove the pipe into Ron’s skull. Ron yelped, putting his hands up too late, and then fell to the floor.

John crouched over him and hit him again. As the pipe collided with his head, Ron said, “John,” and something else, but it was mangled.

He hit him again, and again, and Lucy barked loudly, then started to lick up the blood as it spattered from Ron onto the floor. When Ron stopped trying to reason with him, when the gurgling grew soft, John stopped hitting him. 

Lucy was unperturbed. As John pulled himself up from the crouch over Ron’s body, she wagged her stumpy tail back and forth, looking up at him emptily.

John threw the pipe down with a clang, and threw open the screen door. He stepped out onto the concrete porch, down the packed red dirt driveway, and yanked open his truck door. He hopped inside, and held the key over the ignition for a few moments before dropping his hand down to his thigh. 

He did not move, he did not speak, he did not cry. He looked straight ahead, toward the house, through it. He looked somewhere into the woods where deer hunters camped, onto the streets with houses out of paintings. He looked cities away, and saw Dan, and saw Artie, and Sam, and all the guys. They were waving, and John wanted to wave back, but his arms felt heavy and sore.

“Well,” he said at last.

Somewhere in those moments, John lost his one and only friend.