I’m old and late in the evening comes pretty early for me. Those few folks who might consider contacting me know this so it came as something of a surprise when the phone rang at 8:30 pm. An hour later I had traded sleep for a dark room and a rare glass of brandy. Bad news will do that to you.
I have had in my long life but two of what the kids would call BFFs. The first was Spike. A lot of what I became in life was because of him. He died, what, eight, ten years ago now? I’m not sure. The old memory isn’t what it once was. The second was the focal point of the phone call. Richard’s daughter called to tell me he had passed several days before. She was sorry to break the news to me so late, that the funeral had been the day before but she’d had a hard time tracking me down. I took down the information she gave me and we said our awkward good-byes.
Passed. Never grokked that term. Passed what? Gas? We old folks do that a lot so it doesn’t hold a lot of emotional meaning for us. I’ve always been partial to ‘Gone to blue’ from a novel I once read or, better yet, ‘crossed the Rainbow Bridge’ but that’s likely because I’m more a critter person than a human one.
Okay, I’m deflecting. It hit me hard. Harder than I would have expected considering I haven’t seen Richard in over ten years. But age gives one a different perspective on death. We-were-immortal-once-and-young morphs into reading the obits to see who you know or being keenly aware of your musical and literary idols falling by the wayside. Richard was younger than me by five years. One would think it’s not suppose to happen that way. By and by I fell asleep, though by the level of brandy left in the bottle, passed out might be a more apt description.
“Hey man, got your message on the machine. What’s up?”
“New guy. In from Chicago. Hell of a Foosball player. Beat Dave. Dave, man, 3 to 1. Thought you should know. He’s good, man. Maybe as good as you.”
The young man brushed the long hair from around his face and pushed through the bodies crowded around the Foosball table. The room smelled faintly of weed and patchouli (the stuff never did work as advertised, he thought), the only sound the sharp clacking of the metal rods on the table and the small ball being smacked around by the players. Just as he pushed through, a loud roar went up.
“Damn,” said the stranger, a wide grin on his bearded face. Congratulations were offered, fist bumps, high fives and pats on the back. Someone offered the stranger a joint. Someone else knocked his hand aside.
“Not here, idiot. No dope allowed inside.”
The young man stepped to the table, met eyes with the stranger, the stranger extended his hand.
“Richard,” he said.
“Spider,” said the young man, reaching out his hand.
“Really?” said Richard.
“Long story,” said Spider.
“You play Foosball?” asked Richard.
The crowd chuckled.
“Yeah,” said Spider. “You could say that.”
The game went on for an hour, each man scoring twice. As the game stretched toward the second hour without a third score, it was decided between them to call it a draw.
“Good game,” said Spider.
“You, too, man,” said Richard.
“Wanna go hit a bar, smoke a joint?”
“Thought you’d never ask.”
“Yeah,” he said, turning to the voice. “What’s up?”
“We’ve got an OD. Down by the park.”
Spider looked at Richard. “I’ve gotta go man.”
“Cool. I’ll go with.”
The kid was laying on the ground, propped against a tree, his friends nervously milling about.
“Dude’s fucked up.” said Richard.
“Ya think,” said Spider. He grabbed one of the kids, shook him. “What’s he on? And when?”
“Downers, man, 714s, he took like 4 of them or something.”
Turning to Richard, “Get him up. We need to walk him around.”
“Why not call the cops, get him to a hospital.”
“Trust me, the system won’t help this kid. I’ve seen it before. We get him up. We walk him. We get him straight. We get him straight this time and maybe, just maybe, he won’t go down this path again. You good with that?”
“Yeah. Hey. I could use a walk.”
They picked the kid up, started walking.
I awoke fuzzy headed and sad, the last shreds of a dream melting away. Stumbling into the kitchen, I managed to spill Peet’s coffee beans all over the floor while filling the coffee grinder. Had to fight the dog to keep her from eating them. She’s hyper enough and doesn’t need added chemicals to get her going.
Once I had my cup in hand I called the local car rental place and ordered something big and roomy with all the doodads. If I was going to drive to Chicago, I was going to do it in style, not in my beat-up Nissan which probably wouldn’t make the trip anyway. I could have booked AmTrak but considering all the miles I’ve put on various cars over the years driving to Chicago to party with Richard it seemed the fitting way to go.
When the young man from Enterprise showed up with the car I had to spend several long minutes biting the inside of my cheek as he did what the young so often do, treat the old as if they are feeble children, explaining every little detail. In my head I was screaming ‘I was driving cars before your daddy was an itch in your grandfather’s shorts’ but I just smiled and thanked him until he went away. I know some of them are just trying to be courteous but I still find it annoying.
I puttered about the house for a bit, made a couple of sandwiches, loaded up the thermos (gas station coffee sucks), rolled a couple of joints and tossed two bags of Lentil chips into a sack along with a change of clothes. I had one stop to make downtown. Two hours later I was rolling West on I-94, the AC blasting, a Muddy Waters tune drifting in the air.
“Jesus I’ve gotta pee,” said Spider.
“Gotta lay off the beer, man,” said Richard. “That shit’ll tear you up.”
“Yeah, like I’m going to listen to you about beer,” said Spider. “Is it gettin’ dark?”
“Uh, yeah. You stoned or somethin’?”
They sat down on the curb. Richard pulled a baggy and a pack of Mr. Natural papers from his pocket.
“You rollin’ a joint?” said Spider. “Right the fuck here on Michigan avenue.”
“Yeah. Why not?”
“You’re fucking crazy, Richard,”
“No more than you, bro. Here, light up.”
Spider flicked a match, lit up, took a deep drag, handed the joint back to Richard.
“Damn, it’s hot,” said Spider, exhaling.
“Think June is hot, come around in July. Roast your ass off, man,” said Richard, cupping the freshly lit joint and taking a drag. “Hey, man, you dig the Blues?”
“Dig em? Man, I am the Blues!”
“Cool. Let’s grab a cab, head over to Old Town. I know a place you’ll dig.”
The room was small with two dozen small, round tables scattered about. They had gotten there early, if 11 could be considered early, and managed to snag a table to the right of the small stage. They’d sat through several short sets and a dozen or more very expensive Sierra Nevadas before Muddy Waters had come on stage. Spider had noted a sign on the wall when they arrived that read ‘Maximum Occupants 49’ but there were well over a hundred in the room now. Muddy Waters sat hunched over his guitar on a small stage in the far corner, strumming away. The air was thick with humidity and the smell of Marijuana.
Muddy finished up a tune and set his guitar down. A tall, lanky man with an immense Afro stepped up onto the stage, grabbing the mic as he turned to the crowd.
“Muddy’s gonna to take a little break,” he said over the increasing cacophony of the crowd. “As the hour is late and we have a special guest arriving for the last set, we’re going to do something unusual.”
This got everyone’s attention and the room went silent.
“We’re going to lock the doors and not allow anyone in or out,” he continued. “So, if you wish to leave, now would be the time. Thank you.”
There was a general clamor as chairs were pushed back, people rose and made for the doors. By the time Muddy came back on stage, the room was close to its displayed maximum capacity.
As Muddy began strumming his guitar, the lights dimmed and a lanky man wearing a wide brimmed hat and carrying a guitar stepped out from behind the curtain and joined Muddy on stage. It took a moment for recognition to kick in.
“Oh shit,” said Spider.
“Yeah,” said Richard.
The surprise guest was Mick Jagger.
A welcome to Kalamazoo sign flashed by and traffic slowed to a crawl. My bladder was pitching a bitch so I took the first exit I found, found a fast food place and pulled in.
You’re stirring up some serious memories here, Richard, I thought to myself as I picked up my order and headed to the car. That club. Man it was fucking hot that day. Or that time you brought a trunk full of hemp you picked outside Gary and we smoked that shit all fucking day. A headache, man, that’s all the fuck we got. A fucking headache.
Or that time me and Debs showed up and we free based what, six grand worth of cocaine? Man, that was a serious high. That shit was so fucking good that warning bells went off in my head. I knew that shit would bring me to my knees one day and I swore I’d never do it again. We hit the streets and partied till morning and to this day I don’t remember a moment of it. Richard, you absolute fuck.
The phone rang.
“It’s your dime,” Spider answered.
There was a long, hissing silence.
“Hello?” Spider said.
“She left, man.”
Oh shit, Spider thought. He knew who ‘she’ was, had kind of seen it coming.
“What’s up, man, where are you?”
“What’s all that noise?”
“Richard, you don’t have an outside there.”
“Up on the roof.”
“No the fuck, you’re not gonna jump.”
“Because I’m on my way.”
Four hours later he was climbing his way to the roof.
“I see you’re still alive,”Spider said.
“But a whole lot drunker than I was,” answered Richard. “What took ya? Did ya bring beer?”
“Of course I brought beer you fucking dip shit.”
“She fucking left me, man.”
“Yeah, well, shit happens. We cruise through it. Hurt like hell. Get past it. We don’t jump off a roof over it.”
“Because, if you did I’d kick your fucking body up and down the block. But mostly because I won’t let your fucking ass jump.”
“Works for me. Hand me a beer. I’m parched.”
I pulled into the cemetery. A quiet place, lots of trees. I drove around, following the map the attendant at the gate had given me until I spotted Richard’s grave. I parked the car and walked over. It would be easy to say the dust in the air was making my eyes water but you know that would just be bullshit. My head was spinning. Richard was gone and all the weight of missing him curled up hard in my heart.
We are so quick to love this beer, love that team, love that woman, love that dog but your best friend? Why is saying I love you to them so hard to do unless you’re so fucked up you can’t see straight?
I opened up the bottle of Šljivovica I’d bought in Detroit, took a sip and spit it out.
“Jesus, Richard, I don’t know how in the hell you drank this shit.”
I tilted the bottle and let it drain into the soil covering his grave.
“I love ya, man,” I said, tearing up a little. “See ya on the flip side soon enough. Sure hope they have a Foosball table over there. We need to finish that game.”