Over the weekend, a visit with one of my oldest friends. He lives in Colorado and I live in Chicago—in every sense. We met as close to the middle as we could figure: Lawrence, Kansas. We felt like talking.
[When he and I were very young, we learned, together, how to work.]
I used the 17-hour round trip to (finally) listen to Book One of My Struggle, by Karl Ove Knausgaard. My friend listened mostly to music (I think he said).
[To work is a big thing to learn, alongside another person. We were greenskeepers at the local public golf course in the town where we grew up. One afternoon he was digging a hole to replace an irrigation valve and I was taking a piss, in a breeze. Without urgent aggravation, he informed me, “I’m getting wet.”]
I’d picked a one-story Days Inn in Lawrence, like one we might have stayed in on that college summer road trip we took to Canada, in 1990. I showed up in my Red Wing boots and my Carhartt coat.
[He came to our first Chicago Thanksgivings after college, and I stood up in his wedding in Colorado. But our routes had diverged dramatically by our mid-twenties: He ran a Christian youth camp out west, while I more or less studied sin for a living, in Chicago.]
We got a corner table at a downtown Lawrence brewery, caught up on family matters and had the talk we have always had: It’s a personal and philosophical Gordian knot that we have not begun to loosen in all these years. The only variable is the urgency, which goes and comes with age and circumstances. But we turned that tangled twine over in our hands, while steadily looking each other in the eye and shaking our heads at the difficulty, and the pain of the difficulty. We will take it up again. But that was enough for now.
[We kept in touch over the years, mostly on manic phone calls where each of us strained to relate to the other’s daily life and to communicate the nature of his own—and leaned hard on a thousand old stories and punchlines to remind us of the understanding we knew we once shared, and hoped we still did. We always said, “Love you,” before we hung up.]
After our long talk, it was all coffee and beer and teasing and a childlike return to a brand of humor that was infantile even when we were twenty. Before and after 36 freezing, middle-aged muscle-seizing holes of golf, there were occasional confessions, and occasional congratulations, poetic adolescent memories and bewildered recollections of how we could have once been that stupid (and how we could have been that young).
[We would always talk about that time we were riding in a Cushman truckster and he threw a Cool Ranch Dorito straight into the wind at 25 miles an hour and I opened my mouth and it went straight in. Midnight skunk hunting, daylight groundhog chases, twilight rounds of golf with greasy, dirty hands. Singing James Taylor songs at the tops of our lungs over greensmower engines for girls we wanted but could not have. Responsibility received, responsibility abused, responsibility taken, responsibility used—all for less than four dollars an hour. And: “I’m getting wet.”]
In Lawrence, we made short stories long, and conducted cell phone show-and-tell on the general theme of, “Isn’t there just so much great stuff in the world? Have you discovered as much of it as I have?” We talked about arduous adventures we might still be tough enough to take, as long as we remembered to take Advil in the mornings. On the last night, with our drives home looming, we tried to go to sleep at 11. But he got restless and played me a John Prine tune. Did I know it? Yes, I knew it. Did he know Townes Van Zandt? Yes he did. We traded Johnny Cash, Steve Goodman, Emmylou Harris, Iris Dement and Don Williams til past midnight in the pitch black.
[Every day at the golf course we drove together in his Jeep or my Honda to the local Convenience Food Mart to buy a sandwich for lunch. Whoever had money in his velcro wallet paid. One day I tried to give him a ten-dollar bill, mumbling, “I think I’m a little behind.” He refused the sawbuck and firmly told me never to say a thing like that to him again—that there was no such thing as being behind with him.]
When I got the text that he’d pulled into his driveway in the Colorado mountains, I was pulling off the Kennedy Expressway, 10 minutes from my house. Not too far behind, anyway.