A short story
By David Iseman
Lenny laughed out loud at the voicemail. It was Skinny Fred, who got distracted in the middle of leaving the message but didn’t hang up. His 40-second attempt to get just the right kind of lottery ticket from the clerk at the convenience store was classic Fred — shy but pissed, misunderstood and getting angry, struggling to hold it all in.
“Sheryl, ya gotta listen to this,” Lenny said to his wife. He put it on speaker and they stood together in the kitchen while she cut up vegetables.
“Are you gonna call him back? You gonna get up there to visit?” Sheryl used one palm to push the veggies into a salad bowl. Lenny bent to unload the dishwasher. He didn’t answer.
“He’s not that far from us, now,” Sheryl continued. “It would be fun for you.”
“I dunno,” Lenny said. Grabbing clean bowls, he mumbled something she couldn’t hear. It echoed around inside the dishwasher box, dipped between the plates, got lost in the silverware.
She smacked him on the backside hard enough to get his attention but not hard enough to hurt. He stood to see her standing hands on hips, chewing the inside of one cheek. She stared at him until he looked away, back to his unloading chore.
“I know. I know. I can’t stay in the house all day,” he said. “I told you I plan on walking down at the park as soon as the weather breaks. You forget we worked damn hard to afford this condo. Why are you so hellbent on getting me out of it?”
This time she grabbed the dish towel from her arm, rolled it and snapped it full force, just catching his right glue.
“Okay girl, that does it. You’re going down.”
He growled and grabbed her in a bear hug. He didn’t try to lift her. No more of that. Not after the surgery. Not without both of them hitting the floor.
She hugged him hard, careful to avoid his back down low. He nuzzled her soft neck, kissed her ear. She shivered and pushed him away. “Don’t be starting something you don’t have time to finish there, Romeo.”
She checked the roast in the oven, spun and grabbed him by both hands.
Uh-oh, he thought. Lecture time.
She spoke earnestly. “I just want you to have fun again, honey. You’ve been through a lot but you’re okay now. No more work to worry about. No more kids to chase around. I got myself the job I want. You settled your crazy ass after college, followed the rules and did well. For yourself, for me. For the kids. I’m worried about you now, honey. You have some pain but you can’t just sit around. You deserve some fun! New challenges. You have your health back, well, mostly.”
“I think I heard this record before,” he said, breaking free to pour himself more coffee. “Don’t you have a different songchart or playlist or whatever the heck Siri calls it?”
“I don’t hear an answer smartass. When are you calling Fred?”
She was right, Lenny thought as he made the drive north.
Now that they had moved back east, there was no reason not to reconnect with old friends. He and Sheryl had been away so long, decades. First they moved for his job, then for hers, then for his treatments, his surgery, the weather, the kids. Now, suddenly, they found themselves barely senior citizens living only a day trip away from pockets of graying friends, close acquaintances, old schoolmates and work buddies.
Sheryl, always more the philosopher of the two, told Lenny it was like entire chapters of people had been ripped from their scrapbook of life but were now at their fingertips. Sheryl wanted the pages taped back in, everyone still smiling, holding their babies and hoisting their beers.
It wasn’t without risk. It could be uncomfortable. He and Sheryl had seen that.
Peggy and Jack had never stopped talking about their Pekingese dogs, and Jack put down Obama as often as he put down the gin and tonics. Jack told an old story from his and Lenny’s days working together but, after 15 minutes, they realized the story wasn’t about Lenny at all. Jack’s old buddy Benny — not Lenny — had sneaked the live rat into the boss’s office.
Sheryl never got a word in about her job or even why they were back east.
Jon and Sianne had been a blast, though. Earnest, funny, self-deprecating and so hospitable. They cooked for Lenny and Sheryl, asked lots of questions and had an old video set up to play from the vacation the couples had shared at the Wildwood shore so many years ago. They all decided to get together again, soon.
Lenny hadn’t yet tried a getaway with just his old buddies. This would be the first.
He tried to remember how long it had been since he saw Skinny Fred. Looking through old photos hadn’t been much help. Who took photos back then? Not like today, he thought, checking Facebook just in case Fred had created an account. No, no social media presence for him or Stevie, the third of their four roommates who had been such good college friends.
Lenny found a blurry old Polaroid by a campfire that looked like it was from a camping trip. There was Fred, rail thin and shirtless smoking a cigarette. Looked to be the early ’80s. No date on the back of the pic. Sheryl remembered it as the party after Fred’s sister got married in a state park. Sheryl remembered Fred losing his shirt after racing someone through a muddy corn field.
Lenny had no photos at all of Stevie. They had been close in college and communicated now and then but usually only through Skinny Fred. Stevie had stayed tight with Fred. They were inseparable in college and fell out of touch only when Stevie went west in the early ’90s. He had a plan for capitalizing on legal pot. He was too early.
Stevie and Fred got back together working in similar jobs in tech security about 20 years ago and talked often, according to Fred. Less so after their retirements but they lived only about an hour apart and less than an hour from the campus where the three of them planned their mini reunion.
“It’ll be like being back together at Green Galley,” Fred told Lenny as he pleaded with him to visit. “Too bad we can’t raise ’ol Jigger from the grave.”
The four of them had spent two years sharing the third floor of a sliced-up, rickety Victorian. Its trim was lime green. It shook in the wind like a ship. Girls on the first floor were famous for their parties; Lenny, Fred, Stevie and Jigger liked to think of themselves as the alcohol suppliers, drug experts and, when the rare occasion called for it, bouncers.
Most importantly, Fred drove deliveries for the nearby pizza and provided free pies whenever he could rustle them.
“Maybe Claire and Fat Jackie are still around,” Skinny Fred had joked with Lenny over the phone.
“Yeah, and crazy Kelly. We could find ourselves some wicked window pane and jump into the canal like old times,” Lenny joked back.
“Kelly died,” Fred said.
Early to the bar on the main drag of campus, Lenny hit the restroom. He checked his 7-day pill organizer for the second time. Yes, he had taken his antidepressant. Likewise for the blood pressure pill and Tramadol for pain.
Drugs, he thought. Used to be fun.
Skinny Fred and Stevie walked in together, talking loudly. Fred saw Lenny and threw his arms in the air. He shouted, “Your pizza is here.”
“I ain’t paying. It’s cold and you’re late,” Lenny shouted back.
After the handshakes and back patting, they sat down at the small, round table near the bar and ordered three draft beers.
Fred and Stevie hung their jackets on their chairs. Both wore camouflage and ballcaps. Fred wore a heavy flannel shirt but Lenny thought he still looked emaciated. A pack of Camels peeked from the front pocket of Stevie’s short-sleeved gray T-shirt. He had a belly and a cough; a bit of spittle hung from his auburn-gray mustache even after he pulled a red bandana from his pants pocket to blow his nose.
“What are you, a banker now?” Stevie asked, eyeing Lenny’s clothes. He wore brown loafers, dress slacks, a dress shirt and a navy sweater. He had thought he would appear casual.
“No, I’m undercover FBI and you’re busted shit-for-brains.” Lenny surprised himself at how quickly he came up with the comeback.
Skinny Fred said, “Don’t even joke about that crap. You remember when Jigger was selling weed and thought he was being followed by the feds? How he sold his car and dyed his hair?”
Lenny laughed with Fred heartily. In sync, they repeated the line they used back then to tease Jigger out of his paranoia.
“You sure you don’t need a facelift?”
Stevie began to laugh, too, but he ended up coughing instead. Out came the red bandana again.
They had planned to meet early, hang out at the bar for a quick lunch, tour the campus, get back to their hotel for a break and meet again at the hotel bar to plan the evening. But the lunchtime confab got so animated they stayed for three hours. They talked of fun and youth, reached back to relive thrills and celebrate victories.
They gave quick summaries of their time apart. Lenny started to tell a long story about why he became a CPA and Fred pretended to snore. Fred summed up his latest divorce in two words, “Crazy bitch.” Stevie explained how he spent as much time as he could hunting, with his golden lab named Molly. Maybe this summer they could all do a fishing trip, he said.
The sunny spring day started out cold but, as they left the bar, the temperature hovered near 70. All three carried their jackets. Lenny took off his sweater, too. The campus tour ended up being a quick walk past the newest three college buildings and an Uber to where they used to live. Green Galley was long gone. Concrete dorms, already rust-and-water stained by time, rose from the site.
“Ah well, at least the place still has some hot chicks,” Fred said, pointing to a house near the dorm with a low garage roof. A blonde in a bikini stood from where she had been lying to tan, while two other young ladies in swimsuits adjusted their seats in their lounge chairs.
“Remember when we all got Jackie to streak?” Stevie said, transfixed by the suntanning. He stared long enough for Fred to grab the visor of his John Deere cap and pull it down over Stevie’s eyes.
“You never did get hitched, didja Stevie?” Lenny asked.
Stevie just snorted and continued his reach into the past. “The streaking. Remember? Past the courthouse?”
“That wasn’t Jackie. She was too big. That was Kelly.” Fred corrected him with authority.
“Nah man, you’re wrong. It’s only because she was that big that I remember it, right, Lenny?”
“It was you that got naked, lardass.” Lenny pushed Stevie from the side, gently, and tried to run away. He could only limp, a sort of half-jog, half-skip.
“No, seriously. It was Jackie, dudes,” Stevie said before flicking what was left of his Camel in Lenny’s direction.
“Man, I couldn’t run if I tried,” Lenny announced as he waited on the sidewalk until they were again three abreast. “Had some surgery two years ago. Rough. Took me quite a while— ”
“Blah, blah, blah. Enough with the old man stuff.” Fred lifted his shirt to show a ragged scar down the middle of his chest. “We start talking doctor crap, we’ll just get more depressed than ever.”
Stevie jumped in: “When I was out west, I got pulled over by a helicopter.”.
The other two waited for more.
He didn’t explain.
Before they got to the hotel they had discussed their worst girlfriends in college, their worst professors, their worst pot, their worst acid trips and their best sex. They had also, though, argued vehemently about who did what to whom, what year, what season, who was most drunk. At times, they disagreed about which of them was there at all.
“I’m tellin’ ya, we threw the console TV right out the sixth-floor window,” Fred said, turning to talk to the other two from the front of the Lyft taking them to the hotel. “We all decided we hated that fucking stupid game show, what was it? The Match Game? Stevie grabbed the TV but you wouldn’t drop it til we all pushed, together. Goofball Jigger used gloves so he wouldn’t leave fingerprints.”
“I thought it was just a stereo,” Stevie said.
“I don’t remember any sixth floor,” Lenny said. “Did we make sure no one was down there, first? We coulda killed someone.”
At the hotel, before they headed to their rooms, they made a deal. Whoever got back to the bar last had to pay for dinner. Stevie sauntered right over and sat at the bar. He smiled and ordering a shot. “First here,” he said.
Lenny didn’t rush. He didn’t care. He needed to lie down for a bit, take a pill and call Sheryl. She told him she was glad it seemed to be going well.
He told her Kelly had died.
“Oh,” she said.
At the bar, Fred had a 20-ounce draft beer. Stevie had another shot of Wild Turkey. He ordered one for Lenny, too, but Lenny held up one palm to the bartender, ordering a seltzer water instead.
“Pussy,” Stevie said.
Fred made a meowing sound.
“I ain’t 20 years old, you fools. Gotta pace myself.”
“Yeah, yeah, save your spunk. We still might run into some wild women,” Fred said.
“Yeah.” Stevie said. “Maybe at the Bingo Hall, or down at the library.”
Lenny, surprising himself with his own wit, asked: “Isn’t there an evening arthritis water aerobics class?”
Fred howled and guzzled three gulps of beer that shook his adam’s apple. Holding the glass high, he belched loudly.
Lenny gave in and ordered a draft, too.
They decided to try the hip new brewery in town for dinner. Nothing fancy. Maybe just burgers and some more beer. Fred insisted on driving his pickup. “I know. I know. DWI can be a real bitch. But I’m naked without my truck. I’ll go slow.”
For the first full hour at the brewery, they made fun of the kids staring at their phones or playing board games. Fred said a tall guy with long hair playing ping pong reminded him of Lenny when they first met. That was after the kid slipped on beer and fell on his butt.
Stevie drank a whiskey over ice. He said he wished they were young again so they could show these kids how to have a good time, how to party.
“Remember when we had that oak floor buckling? That house on 10th Street, when everyone was dancing and jumping. It was like a bounce house.”
“Oh man, we were probably lucky,” Lenny said. “We would have gone through to the cellar.”
“Mr. Caution, now.” Fred said. “But you were leading the choir then. Jump, jump, jump. Remember the fat kid in the farmer jeans, the one who just kept rolling at everyone’s feet with every wave?”
“He woulda got it the worst,” Lenny said. “Good thing that tall kid from the frat, that big dude, had some sense. Remember how he went to the basement to brace the floor?”
“Party pooper,” Stevie said, lighting a cigarette.
A shout came from three tables away.
“Dude, can’t do that here,” a skinny boy with bangs hiding one eye and thick eyeliner on the other pointed to Stevie. The two chubby girls with the boy stared with disgust.
“Sorry,” Lenny said.
Stevie pointed the cigarette at the boy and let the match burn down to his fingers. He didn’t speak. He shot Lenny a glare for apologizing. They decided to take a break outside.
“Haven’t been in a fight in quite a while,” Stevie said. “How ‘bout you guys?”
“Not unless you call trying to get my legs into my pants every morning a fight, no.”
“Old man gets sick. Has arthritis. Blah, blah, blah.” Fred punched Lenny in the bicep then, taking a boxer’s stance and punching at the air, asked each of them to try to remember their best fight, their best shot, their best move.
“We did end up tossing some guys for the girls at the Galley, didn’t we?” Lenny asked, though he was hard-pressed to come up with a “best.” He said, “I’m pretty sure I lost more fights than I won.”
“Remember that guy who spit in my face?” Fred asked. “I think that was my best. Those Kung Fu movies paid off. I did that jump and full spin before catching him with my whole foot in the temple.”
“We were lucky he didn’t come back with all those biker friends he was yakking about, remember?” Lenny asked.
“I know.” Stevie chuckled and wheezed as he blew smoke into the night sky. The other two waited for his “best” story.
He caught his breath, stared at his friends and asked, “How ’bout that guy we killed?”
They didn’t go back inside the brewery.
At first, Lenny laughed; he thought Stevie was kidding. Fred stayed silent. Stevie told Lenny to stop laughing. He launched into his story with great detail, as if the words had been pent up, pressurized, trying to escape since they last lay their heads in the Green Galley.
“The punk, the one with the Elvis Costello shirt. Wiry little fucker. He fought with all of us, wouldn’t go down. Remember?”
Fred said nothing. Lenny cocked his head and stared at Stevie.
“He threw that red brick at you, Lenny. Remember? We had to drag him out back, but he got free and kicked me in the nuts, got me good. We finally all had him pinned and — ”
“Whoa! Whoa, whoa. We killed him?” Lenny said. “You’re serious? Are you drunk? C’mon Stevie, this isn’t funny.”
“Don’t act like this is news to you, Len. Tell him Fred.”
Fred had already walked to the sidewalk, motioning toward his truck. When the others caught up to him, he got in. Once all three were inside, he said, “Didn’t sound like a conversation for the fucking sidewalk you guys.”
Stevie sat in the middle. He lit a cigarette. Lenny asked him to put it out. Fred opened all the windows. The night air had turned cold.
“Where the hell are we going?” Lenny asked, loudly. “Are you in on this Fred? Some kinda prank?”
“We’re going to drive around til we work this out,” Fred said.
“Ain’t no prank,” Stevie said. “I can’t believe you don’t remember, Lenny. Probably ’cause you guys left me to do the cleanup. Of course, you left me to take care of it.”
“Are you nuts? What do you mean? What was it?” Lenny was shouting now.
“Calm down, Lenny,” Fred said. “Let’s hear him out.”
“The guy,” Stevie said. “The body.”
After more loud words … after Stevie’s detailed description of the fight with the skinny punk rocker … after Lenny shouted four times that he would never forget helping to kill somebody … after Fred shushed them while he got coffee from the drive-thru … after Lenny asked six times when Stevie thinks this all happened, Stevie shut down.
They sat shoulder to shoulder. Lenny felt Stevie’s body shaking. He saw his chest quaking. Stevie sobbed into that red bandana. Fred stared at the country road they were on. Fred didn’t look at either of them.
“Hey man, I’m sorry,” Lenny said. “It’s just that you’re scaring me. I don’t even— ”
“I’ll show ya, Len,” Stevie said, sniffling.
“Show me what?” Lenny asked.
Stevie blew his nose hard then looked over at Lenny with wet eyes. “It … the guy. I still have him.”
When they got to Stevie’s cabin, they walked past the front door to the side. “Can’t get in that way. I’m a little messy. Gotta do some straightening up. Stevie whistled and called out, “Molly.”
“He’s calling his dog,” Fred told Lenny. Stevie stood at the door looking toward a small building in the back.
Skinny Fred made more coffee. Lenny scanned the place; it was clear Stevie had no woman in his life.
The common room overflowed with hunting gear, boxes of water, Army meals packaged in plastic, a compound bow still in its package. Dry dog food lay scattered like peanuts on a barroom floor.
This isn’t just messy, Lenny thought. This is hoarder messy.
Stevie grabbed a bottle of Jim Beam from a kitchen cupboard. Fred poured coffee for him and Lenny. Stevie told Fred to spike the coffee. “It’s sorta like Irish coffee,” he said.
Fred pretended to add bourbon to the cups but kept his thumb over the top of the bottle. Fred shot Lenny a conspirator’s look. They stayed silent until Stevie spoke.
“You know it’s been so long I can’t remember exactly where I first put it. The guy. I know it was along the canal, where the water was warm enough to leave the bank unfrozen.”
Lenny stood and sighed, ready to argue again. Fred motioned with his head for him to sit back down. Fred held a finger to his lips.
“You guys were back at the party when I went back to the yard. I hadn’t planned on checking for him. I figured he was just stunned after we all got a piece of him. But there he lay, cold as fuck.”
“What did you do?” Fred asked softly.
“It’s like I told ya the other day, Freddy, when we were at the Lodge.”
“I know, but Lenny needs to hear, right. Didn’t you say we were all in this together, that we needed to agree about what we do next?”
“Yeah, yeah, I just don’t like talking about it. Not with anyone.” Stevie held his face in his hands.
Lenny couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Fred had been told all this crap before. He already knew what Stevie was going to say. Lenny stared angrily at Fred, who put a finger to his lips, again. Lenny exhaled hard but held his tongue.
“Well, I was able to dig deep enough at the canal, using snow and dirt, to cover him up. But, a week later I got real nervous with the water rising. So, I moved him out to Buttermilk Hollow, out there where we camped with the girls, off the trail.”
“Is he there now?” Lenny couldn’t keep quiet.
“Nah, in the late-90s I got worried. Didja see the park they developed out there, by Glady Lake? Bulldozers were everywhere. I had to find another place, and, you know with only me living at this place, now. Well, me and Molly — Did I tell you about my dog, Len? She’s the best. Where is she? Didja see here earlier, Fred? … Molly! C’mere girl. Must be out back. She stays in the little woodshed sometimes. She thinks she can catch those bastard racoons. I hope she doesn’t cuz— ”
“Tell the story, Stevie. Lenny needs to hear.” Fred wrapped his mug with both of his hands and blew on the hot coffee.
“Well, I built a little box. It wasn’t much by the time I moved him from Buttermilk. I hid it in the rafters above the shed for a long time but the 2015 blizzard beat the heck outta that roof, so I moved it, again.”
“In here, right Stevie?” Fred pointed to the tiny second bedroom. “Where you showed me before?”
Stevie started to cry again.
Fred pulled Lenny into the little room. They had to step over a duffle bag full of something that smelled of mold. They waded through stacks of old newspapers and magazines.
Lenny walked behind Fred, holding on to his shoulders. He worried about the pain from his low back. He worried whether he could keep his footing. Mostly, he worried about how the everlasting fuck he ended up in this place, at this moment with these two assholes.
Fred stopped by a long plywood box, about the size of a full garment bag. The ply was stained with mud, and grass. Screws protruded from its top, which sat slightly askew.
Before Lenny could speak, Fred lifted the top and knelt down, so Lenny could see.
They left Stevie at the cabin. He promised to sleep.
Driving the pickup back to the hotel, Fred told Lenny this was the third time Stevie had told him the punk rocker story, each time acting like it was new information. Lenny shook his head and pulled on the bottle of bourbon. After Lenny saw the insides of the box, all three decided it would be Fred’s to care for now, that Stevie deserved a break.
Fred and Lenny put it in the back of the pickup and drove through dawn rising behind Buttermilk Mountain.
“It’s good he agreed, I guess,” Lenny said.
“Yeah, that’s why I needed you to get up here — to agree to the move, but also to see it.”
“What the fuck, Fred. You couldn’t have given me a head’s up? Explained the situation?”
“Yeah, sure. Like you woulda showed up then, huh?”
Lenny paused. He thought hard.
Fred drove in silence.
Lenny needed to hear more. “Anything else he’s been doing? Anything you didn’t explain yet?”
“How much time ya got?” Fred said, taking his eyes off the road to look over at Lenny for so long he was surprised by a sharp turn and had to brake.
Lenny grabbed the dash, put both instinctively to the floorboards. He said, “You know this isn’t going to solve the bigger problem, right?”
Fred sat thinking.
Lenny passed Fred the bottle, rubbed his hands together and blew on them. “Geez Louise. Does this piece a junk got any heat?”
Fred said, “The sheriff already has him on his radar. They almost took his guns in the fall last year. Around Halloween, it was dusk and Stevie decided some Baby Blue Spruce planted out by Rigger Road were some kinda army ready to attack. He claimed they chased Molly. He used his 12-gauge to shoot up three trees before the deputies got there.”
“Was Molly even there?”
“The damn dog’s been dead for almost two years Lenny.”
“No shit,” Fred said.
“Yeah, I guess him talking about murder won’t do much to keep him out of the nuthouse. But still, the guns …”
“I know. I know. I almost had him going to a therapist last week but all he kept saying was how someone was gonna find the punk rocker.”
“Man, I thought I had problems. My fuckin’ spine is— ”
“Poor Lenny. Gets old, needs surgery, back hurts, blah, blah — oh shit, I missed my turn. We gotta stop at the low bridge.” Fred handed Lenny back the bottle.
“You don’t think I’m dragging this fuckin’ box around with me forever, do ya?”
They pulled over on the gravel berm before the bridge, careful to look for early fisherman and sleeping lovers. The coast was clear. Fred took the lid off the box so the bones could float free. Before he dumped them he found Molly’s old collar and pocketed it.
Lenny said, “Burial at sea for ol’ Molly, eh?”
Fred didn’t laugh.
They dumped the box, too. They waited a bit and tossed in the lid.
Back in the pickup, Lenny brought the bottle to his lips. Fred took off quickly, scattering rock. Bourbon splashed in Lenny’s face.
“Ya fucker. You did that on purpose.”
“Did not, dumbass.” Fred laughed. Then he braked — hard. More bourbon spilled on Lenny’s pants. “There, that was on purpose.”
“You bastard. I’m gonna fuckin’ end you.”
“Why not? You have experience. Right, killer?”
They doubled over laughing. They finished the bourbon. They put each other in headlocks. They hugged.
Forty years melted away.
“Fuckin’ Molly,” Fred said, retaking the wheel. “You know that was my first wife’s name? I never did like that dumbass dog.”