Danny kicked the stone all the way down Hoyle Avenue and most of the way down Green Street only to lose it at the corner, where it bounced off the curb and into the street, disappearing down the storm drain. He stared at the drain, hearing a low echoing trickle of water, his thoughts spinning miles and years away, listening again to the Never and Always absolutes of childhood.
Never scratch bites, always use lotion. Never run into street without looking. Always look both ways. Always cross with the light. Never jay walk. Never pick scabs, always let them fall off. One he hadn’t been told by an adult but learned by experience is to never put your tongue on freezing cold iron. He had. Once. In winter. During morning recess. When he was on the big iron Climb Around and Charlotte Wing said if he didn’t, he was a big sissy. And she was pretty, so he did. He got caught when the bell rang for end of recess, and had to rip his tongue off. It hurt something fierce. Hurt worse when he’d had to go to a friend of his mother’s for lunch and she’d served him tomato soup. Always be polite. Always finish your food. Always say thank you. A bad day. But these were the absolutes of his childhood. Always be truthful, never lie. Never wipe your nose on your sleeve, always use a tissue. Always share, never steal. Never pick your nose. Always hold the door for an old person. Never sass your elders. Things adults told you. Sometimes with a smack, so’s you’d know if you peed in the river, spit in the street, stole a cookie, smacked your little brother or whatever and got caught, you’d get it.
Becoming an adult had been different, Danny thought. Seemed Never and Always had only been meant for teaching kids how to behave and survive. In the adult world, absolutes got muddied. Oh, scabs, street-smarts, gum, spitting, snot, all good practices. But lying, stealing, being rude or mean? Adults seemed to expect that these could be bent or broken with no consequences to themselves. As far as absolutes that should be honored? He learned Always was no longer in while the concept of Never might sometimes be mouthed but rarely if ever enforced. Except in traffic tickets. Or Death, one absolute they couldn’t futz with or deny. So, okay, he’d accepted the burden, in time finding that he personally could stick with his Absolutes if he wished, it was on him if he did, he just was not supposed to point at those who did otherwise. This he learned and practiced, mourning perhaps now and then in moments before sleep the clearly defined absolutes of his childhood. A greater loss to him was in the matter of friendship. A loss he’d felt but hadn’t identified until now, Danny thought, when it no longer mattered so much, was more by way of historical interest and, at that, no doubt of interest only to himself.
He now saw friendship had been the same all along, he simply hadn’t noticed. Friends came and went regularly from the time of sandbox fights to the age of yearning over girls and sneaking drinks to when he was old enough to leave home. Which was when he first felt the foundations of friendship slip under him. When he was going off, away, to be on his own, at a place where he was unknown, leaving all that was familiar, including his young self -- as he thought of it now -- behind. He can see how new friends always came along to match each new step he took. If they changed with each new job or apartment, and they had, it was fine with him because he was changing too and so all had been well. It wasn’t until he settled into a job he intended to make sure was going to grow old right along with him, right up to his retirement, which wasn’t going to be until, like his dad, he was old, that the ghosts of friendship past had come to tackle him in his dreams.
Well-established, practicing his Absolutes even in the face of a work life coded in confusing, muddied stuffs -- which he dutifully swallowed, judging not that he be not judged, managing even to make a friend from among his colleagues -- still, thought of how old friends were with him no longer bothered him. And he had worried at it for a time. But then he met Hizzy and promptly fell in love, a love she fortunately returned, and any worries over friendship beat a tactical retreat. Too much in love to wait and with nothing to stop them, Danny and Hizzy got married. And thus had begun a compiling of living proof in Danny’s own life that commonality is a requisite food for the begetting and maintaing of friendship. Proof and explanation that had eluded him until now. Or rather, proofs and explanations to which he’d paid no attention, caught up as he was in loving and being loved. It was true that friendship took a hit right off the bat. Hizzy hadn’t liked his work friend at all, a dislike the friend promptly reciprocated in equal measure, sentencing that friendship to become merely a collegial congeniality. They had taken no formal farewell of each other, preferring to share a tacit acknowledgment and -- that had been it. Over and out. Slow fade to dark.
But, busy then with being married, Danny hadn’t fretted over the loss, or connected it to his brief recurring remorse over old friends long departed from his present life.
Marriage demands sharing, so, there was a new home, a new neighborhood, new neighbors and, naturally, new friendships. All new friends were either married or long-term couples. Which only made sense. There were interests in common and new interests to learn. Ordering in soon became dining out, while grabbing something to eat now was more often to be entertainment of guests in their home. In sum, they were a couple among other couples. Then the children began to arrive. Another shift in friendship, this time toward couples with kids. Seemed natural. Only other parents understood the explosion of competing needs that occurs inside a marriage with the arrival of a baby. Then, in due course the children got older, their needs and wants first growing, then falling away. And Danny and Hizzie had achieved balance. As a couple they weathered all the changes quite well. Their friendship for one another offering affection and support, their love of each other adding intimacy and warmth. Then the kids left. One by one. So, with no kids left, there was freedom to resume a social life. But with whom? Her gym buddies? His poker buddies?
The question of long-time friendship raised its head in Danny once again. But before he geared up to face his own questioning, retirement arrived. Now again the question of moving arose. But after much back and forth conversation they agreed they were just too comfortable for such an upheaval. Or were they too old? For in what seemed just a short time, after a spattering of new friends and interests that came and went, the last card in the deck was played. Accompanied by Hizzie’s bad arthritis and his dickey heart, they had arrived at Aging. Aging. Phew. Danny looked at his hand, veins prominent on the back, fingers thickening at the base. This is when you remember all the things you promised yourself when you were young, he thought. The promised list of always and never things: I’ll always eat right, always keep in shape, always stay sharp, always keep up with the times. I’ll never let myself go, never complain, never get crabby, never think life in the past was better for its innocence and that today is not as good.
Yeah? You think? He stared at the storm drain, wondering where the stone would go when it went and how it would get there. Next time it rained, the water would lift it free and carry it off. He wondered how far and how long it would be before it was spit out of some sewer pipe, liberated, ready for a kid to find for playing kick the stone. Maybe never.
He thought then of what still were Never’s in his life. Never owned land. Never got rich. Never played league ball. Or won anything, not even a raffle let alone the lottery. Never played poker for more than $50 a game. Hizzy would’ve killed him if he had and she’d found out. He’d never cheated on Hizzy. Not even in his mind. Walked his eyes right straight away from temptation. Like with Hizzy’s best friend of a few years ago. Hizzy’d caught on finally. Stopped hounding him about acting friendlier. Had gotten that, ‘oh, how well I know you Danny Hart, and how much I love you’ look. He and Hizzie, best of friends now.
He thought again about friendship and felt that at last he understood what had previously eluded him, a thing that had bruised his heart like a pebble in his shoe. He saw now how friendship is not meant to be an absolute in the sense of always. Except in those extraordinary circumstances where something - a common passion, a common threat survived, a common perspective or belief -- will so bond you that a passage of years or change in circumstance poses no threat. His grandfather had had a friendship like that, he thought. And maybe always living in the same town or community would build such friendships. He didn’t know. But for present day nomads, born here, schooled there, first job here, next job there, marrying and parenting with circumstances or jobs that moved you about, like checkers on a giant checker board? Nope, conditions prevail, he thought. Any sense of permanence, he mused, had been altered, hadn’t it. Narrowed, in its application. He’d been slow to see that. Friendship grows out of and feeds on commonalities more often than not. Proximity, shared circumstance -- he nodded in silent agreement with his thought -- will beat out many another contender. When he looked back, he saw that with every significant change in his life, friendships had changed. Probably still would. Probably a few more yet to come. You never know.
Smiling, he thought of how his grandmother always said that you only find what you look for. Well, he thought, let me see. What is still an Always in my life? The kids, of course. They’re for always, even when grown and gone. Family too, even if gone. He thought of his brother who had died at age 8 of pneumonia. And his folks, both dead now. And Hizzy’s mom, dead these last 10 years, her father dead in the Korean War. But for the living, his kids for sure and Hizzy. Hizzy his constant, a part of him now. So as long as he was around, she would be, too. And he thought, there’s good food. And sound sleep. The four seasons, weird as they’ve gotten to be. Weather. All the different kinds. Stars. Color. Shape. Sound. Hell, he thought, that can make for a pretty decent life. Oh he had regrets, too. The other Never’s of his life. Never drove a race car. Never ran with the bulls. Never got to eat dinner with Anthony Bourdain. A real regret, that one. Never saw Tibet and the Himalayas. Never beat his new friend, Harvey -- a friend whom Hizzy did like and who liked Hizzy right back -- at finishing the NYT Sunday crossword puzzle first. In ink. Never learned to sailboard. Never got to own a Harley. Still, he guessed, there was plenty enough of Always on offer to balance out the lost Never’s.
He stepped back to start walking again. Good luck little stone, he thought. And spying a pebble ahead, he gave it a first bunt, heading back for home.