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Friends to the End


Published May 27, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.

When I pulled into the graveled driveway in Shelburne, two men were stepping out the side door of the house. One of them, clearly the elder, was reedy and wan. Though he managed a smile, he looked positively worn out, like he'd run one too many marathons.

The other guy, carrying a luggage bag, was broad-shouldered and swarthy, with a shaved head and bushy mustache. The easy way they walked and talked together as they approached my taxi spoke of a long and affectionate history. Perhaps father and son? But they appeared so physically dissimilar...

With some parting words and a final hug, the older man shambled back to the house, while the other loaded his bag into my open trunk. On my offer, he took the front seat, and we backed out, en route to the airport.

"So, what brought you to Vermont?" I asked. "Or was that your place?"

"Nope, I was just visiting with my old pal, Charlie. He's battling brain cancer, and the prognosis isn't good."

"Oh, I see. That makes sense. I was thinking he was an uncle or your pops, even, but it's the illness taking its toll. That's too bad. Was that an old family home? Because it sure doesn't fit in with the modern, spacious homes in the neighborhood."

"Yeah, it's an old one, all right. Charlie's folks bought it years ago, and he inherited it. He told me it was one of the first buildings in this part of Shelburne, constructed before all the surrounding upscale development. I think he said it was originally a farmhouse."

"Where you flying today?" I asked.

"Back home to LA. I have a four-hour layover at JFK, which I'm not looking forward to. But that's how the flights lined up."

"Do you have a good book to read?"

"Nope, but I have plenty to do."

Duh, I thought to myself. Computers. It's crazy that, 25 years into the digital age, the reality still hasn't sunk into my daily consciousness.

We drove with the windows down, and the verdant aroma of spring filled the vehicle, a visceral delight after a winter notably frigid even by Vermont standards. The buds on the trees had just blossomed into lime-colored leaves, and the effect was life affirming, almost thrillingly so. I felt like stopping and running out into a field, arms stretched to the sky like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption, newly escaped from prison.

"Charlie's just a few months older than me," my customer said, picking up the conversation unprompted. "We grew up together in Queens and have been best friends since high school."

"Didja play sports together or something?"

"Not team sports, but we're both addicted to the outdoor stuff — kayaking, hiking, camping. That's probably why I've always visited him up here in the summer, while he comes to LA in the winter. I do appreciate Vermont, though. Hell, I'd move up here if not for the five-month winters."

"Tell me about it," I said with a chuckle. "So how'd you end up in LA?"

"I moved out there in '79 for my job. I'm in the trucking industry. To tell the truth, I've never really liked it, but it's put a roof over our heads and food on the table."

"Hey, I always say it's just good to have a job."

"True that," the man agreed with a smile.

"So how is your friend doing? Is he getting treatments?"

"He is, but it's mostly what they call palliative at this point. They're giving him a drug to calm the inflammation caused by the tumor, but it makes him tired all the time. I guess you can say he's looking for a miracle but not expecting one."

I paused before voicing the next thought that arose in my mind. On reflection, it felt OK to ask, so I did.

"I guess this was a goodbye visit?"

"Yeah, I'd say it was."

I said, "Man, you reach the latter stage of middle age and this starts to happen. First one, then another of our peers, our friends, gets hit with life-threatening illness. It just becomes part of life, and it sucks."

"Yeah, it does," he said. "Hey, in a couple weeks I'm scheduled to get a second stent put in my chest for this coronary condition. The procedure is considered 'routine,' but it sure doesn't feel that way to me."

We passed Vermont National, where the golfers were out on this weekday morning — not exactly "in force," but in more than de minimis numbers. Years back, I had a buddy who tried to make a golfer out of me. "Oh c'mon, Jernigan," Denny would beseech me. "Let's hit a few eggs." His turn of phrase made it sound oddly tempting, but I somehow managed to resist.

As we neared the airport, I asked my customer if he and his friend had talked deeply, given the backdrop of the visit. "You know what I mean," I said. "About mortality, or your friendship."

"No," he said. "We didn't. I mean, if he wanted to, I would have been there. But I could tell that's not what he wanted. No, I think he just needed the normal feeling of hanging out with his old friend."

The man paused to reflect for a moment, then added, "The truth is, we didn't need to say anything. After 50 years, it was all understood."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.