“Behold the mysterious clothesline.”
Dan rolled his eyes. He was thinking about Bruce during a silence he was surprised had lasted this long—over two minutes—an eon for his drinking buddy. His peace ended with Mark’s announcement.
“What the hell is mysterious about a clothesline?” Dan asked, irritated.
“It’s endless, no beginning or end. It cycles with purpose. It’s a metaphor for life. Life… you know… the big dance, the whole enchilada.”
Dan shook his head.
Mark continued, rapid fire.
“The crickets, the ferns, the Aborigines, the Pygmies, the White Sox.”
Dan lowered the leaded glass tumbler, filled with peaty Scotch, to the well-worn mahogany bar. It landed with a substantial thunk. He glowered at his former college roommate and friend of 45 years, who was contemplating his Coors Light, admiring it like it was an oracle of truth.
“Mark, you’re such a lightweight. Drunk on two bottles of piss water. Y’know what else?”
A long beat, a locked gaze and…
“You’re an idiot.”
The insult hung in the air for a pregnant second before they broke into short-lived chuckling. Ordinarily, the exchange would have prompted raucous guffaws. They had belly laughed together many times over the years, often to the point of tears. Today’s circumstances were not ordinary. The chuckles fizzled. They were still processing what they had learned at the reunion.
Seven college buds, over 40 years removed from that last college credit, that last cafeteria meal, that last kegger. Pimply-faced strangers fresh from high school, two from Illinois, four from Michigan, and the lone New Yorker, had landed together through pure happenstance at Michigan State University’s Shaw Hall. Lifelong friendships had been forged over several thousand bottles of beer, tales of angst about women, shared basking in a national championship basketball team, and hard-won baccalaureate degrees.
They ached to reunite, to reminiscence, to bask in nostalgia. About 30 texts into a group chat in high summer, the stars aligned. Most of the group were scattered in a tight slice of the Midwest from Muskegon to Cleveland and would have a light jaunt compared to Joe’s drive from Houston’s suburbs. Joe was the uncommon, left-wing liberal who enjoyed his guns, and Michigan’s deer season beckoned. One of their number had enjoyed bachelorhood throughout. The wives of the others had been divorced from the picture or were happy to visit aging parents on the appointed weekend. One wife was such a pain in the ass that a weekend in Michigan’s capital represented a blissful escape; “permission” would be neither asked nor granted.
The rendezvous point would be Chuck’s Lansing home, a dozen miles west of East Lansing where they had parked their salad days in the ‘70s. Decked out in green and white, they’d yell with testosterone and glee for the Spartans to beat the Gophers; autumn 2018.
John had shone on the basketball courts out behind our dorm. He had the sweetest little jumper. He stuck his butt out in an exaggerated fashion as he squared his wide shoulders to the basket and those 18 to 22-foot J’s swished more than half the time. He hit the boards hard too, money on our intramural hoops team. John had a love for Jackson Browne’s tortured lyrics and a left jab that could lay you low. He hosted the annual wine soiree with gallons of swill that he and his roommate, who looked like Charles Manson, aged for a few weeks. John was hip and of the city; funny, raw, a sincere friend. He trundled in with a pearly-white smile, a case of Stroh’s long necks, and 24 bottles of Faygo, looking fit and ready for some 3-on-3 on Chuck’s backyard court.
Joe, Chuck’s BFF, arrived in a Ford Bronco with a “DUMP TRUMP” bumper sticker after a beefy haul from Houston to Lansing with a short stop in Memphis. Joe was taciturn on the surface but his friends knew the real Joe: no-nonsense, to-the-point, quick to call out bullshit, a biting sense of humor. He still had those piercing blue eyes and athletic build that had made all the girls swoon back in the day. He was a child then—we all were—even though at 19, 20, 21, we felt worldly, sophisticated, invincible. Forty-five years, but none of us would ever let him off the hook for that one play in centerfield.
Joe is clad in white Puma baseball shoes and red gym shorts worn on the outside of his sweats, the fashion-forward look of the time. His cut-off high school football jersey reveals a six-pack and belly button none of us cared to see. And…wait for it…the pièce de resistance…a fedora, the culmination of style, an homage to cool and youthful bravado tinged with equal parts of irony and stupidity. Our José; cocky, muscular, and, most important… looking gooood.
Bottom of the batting order, lazy fly to center, can o’corn. Joe ambles in, almost bored as any accomplished baseball player would be at such a routine play, and camps under the horsehide, waiting on gravity. His teammates have moved on mentally; almost outta’ the inning. And next—with horror but also ultimate high humor—the ball hits him square in the noggin’, right on the coconut, boom on the forehead. What hurt worse—the mild concussion or his pride? We didn’t know and now we certainly didn’t care… we’re all still laughing… perhaps harder than that April night under MSU’s lights.
“Hey Joe, remember the time?” Dan and Mark ask in unison as they arrive at Chuck’s.
“Yeah, yeah… dropped the ball. I know. I was fucking there. You guys never bring up the RBI double I poked the next inning to win the game,” Joe said as he embraced the buddies he hadn’t seen in forever.
Mac—short for his Irish surname—pulled up in his cherry red electric Mustang. On his third wife, but married now 23 years, he had found happiness, and who were we to give him shit? Oh wait, that was in our job description. Mac was easy to like. We welcomed him with hugs and smiles.
Bruce, we waited on…………. Bruuuuuce. Bruce, who wore out his Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan albums played with his dorm room door open and the Marantz amplifier cranked to ten so the whole floor could hear… must hear. Bruce, who wore baggy flannel shirts on his concrete upper frame and faded Dad Jeans before the term would be born early the next century. Bruce, who studied engineering and kept two caimans in an aquarium in the room he shared with Andy. Bruce, who would bring the boxing gloves out on Friday nights after our drunken sojourns to Art’s Bar. He won every match within half a minute, the vanquished down on the boiler room floor, face already puffing up, alcohol-induced anesthesia quelling both the pain and embarrassment.
Chuck’s wife had assembled a lavish spread of chips, dip, and… could it be? Yes, there were grinders from Bell’s Pizza cut into dainty, ladylike miniatures… so we could each have a dozen—or two—if we wanted! Chuck’s man-cave was festooned with Spartan pennants, odes to White Sox and Blackhawk championship teams, and framed pictures of him with his Harley Hog buddies. There was a small crucifix nailed to the wall and a black and white picture of The Sermon on the Mount.
We settled in; plush leather seating. Positioning didn’t matter. Chuck’s monster sized TV screen served all the aging eyes in this group.
Something unsaid gnawed at us and inhibited total surrender to the joy of tall college tales meant to embarrass each in turn…yet gladden the heart.
Where was Bruce?
They thought it the right venue, the quintessential dive bar. It was of their youth. The surroundings would provide comfort while they digested the awful news.
They turned on Kalamazoo Street and, there it was, or was supposed to be. They did not recognize it. Dan had mastered Lansing’s streets when he drove a cab his last summer at school and knew he had taken the correct route. All that remained of the original was the garish, yellow placard, ART’s BAR in black letters, retained as a nod to the establishment’s humble beginnings. A neon-lit, art-deco style sign announced the high end steakhouse Dan and Mark now faced. Red brick and mahogany pillars framed the façade. The rusty metal staircase, where they had lined up in the ‘70s, waiting to show ID and pay the $2 cover charge—how everyone had bitched when it had doubled from a dollar—had been replaced with concrete steps, awning-covered and tinged red to complement the masonry.
The staff was preparing for a private affair. White cloth-covered tables, crowded with silverware and too many wine glasses, and black lacquer dining chairs populated the large room. Plush booths with red leather banquettes framed the room’s perimeter against walls covered with tasteful pictures of fox hunts and chess pieces.
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. We are closed for a private event. May I help you?” the maître D’ asked, his impatience undisguised.
They had dressed for football. They were not in proper attire for the sort of place ART’s had become. They were about to be asked to leave. Mark had sensed a greasing of palms might be necessary as Dan had pulled into the lot and had taken to his wallet, in preparation. He leaned in on the Hugo Boss-suited host, told a woe-is-us tale—Spartans crushed, reunion, death in the family—all that jazz, and pasted a crisp hundred dollar bill into his hand. Hugo pointed them away from the dining room, asking they be gone within the hour.
The bar was adorned with heavy copper fixtures at the drink station. Later that evening, bowtie-clad waiters would be placing $19 glasses of Pinot Noir, $23 smoked cocktails, and pewter bowls full of warm cashews on their trays for auto industry lobbyists schmoozing state government officials.
Bar shelves, backed by a gauzy, gilt mirror, were filled with scores of premium vodkas, gins, rums, and scotches. The tequila section harbored the most ornate bottles. Elaborate calligraphy printed on frosted glass topped the bar. Dead celebrities’ quips projected a bit of whimsy and toned down the opulent nature of the place:
Butter, butter, give me butter, always butter
Bigamy is having one spouse too many; monogamy is the same
Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much
I don’t have a drinking problem, ‘cept when I can’t get a drink
They had said their goodbyes. Mac, the homebody, needed to be with his wife and, emotional beyond words, sped back to Petoskey. John, Dan, and Mark lingered a bit by their cars. John gave one more round of bro-hugs, climbed into his black Escalade, donned his aviator shades, and backed out of Chuck’s driveway to join I-96’s post-game traffic. Joe would spend one more night at Chuck’s and leave before Saturday realized it was Sunday; a 3 A.M. departure would deliver him to his hunting buddies in Baldwin near sunrise and they could begin the quest for the perfect 12-point buck.
Mark, full of clotheslines-filled banter, was staring at his low-light, fractured reflection between the DeLeon tequila and Grey Goose vodka bottles. They were drinking to remember. They were drinking to forget…
…The elephant in the room…
The elephant sat heavy on both of them. Chuck had gotten the text near game’s end. They were all sour from the Spartans’ 44-9 deficit. The text came from Bruce’s number, but the texter signed her name…Sara. Chuck remembered Bruce’s wife’s name.
Chuck’s already pale mien grew whiter against his gray beard. He processed the grim news.
Bruce’s delayed arrival was explained.
“Bruce died three weeks ago.” Chuck reported.
Shock smacked smartly between the eyes. They had lost touch with Bruce long ago. He participated in the group text threads over Spartan hoops and football with decreasing frequency. It had been years since he’d joined the electronic grousing over losses or huzzahs over wins. He had opted out. Yet he was always included; he was of their core.
They parted after the game, after the news. At ART’S, Dan and Mark were drinking; one of them hard, the other as hard as Coors Light allowed. They had rushed through denial, anger, and bargaining and were determined to have alcohol accompany them through grief’s fourth stage, depression. Depression was ready to take off his shoes, put up his feet, and stay awhile.
“Let me tell you the story of the bowling ball in the museum.” Mark said.
Dan felt a quiet smile playing with the corners of his mouth. He picked up his glass and listened again to a story he knew by heart.