...After all the years,
I cannot bear the tears to fall,
So, as I leave you there,
I will leave you,
—Hal Sharper (English lyrics to ‘Softly, as I Leave You’)
“Death Do Us Part”
When did I begin to feel so miserably old? Ah, yes. It was exactly one year, three months, and fifteen days ago. It started when I turned eighty years of age, and every muscle and body joint ignited in excruciating pain. It was the moment rheumatoid arthritis began our one-sided courtship. “What won’t hurt today, Satan?” I shout at the top of my lungs each and every morning, defiantly shaking my fist at the devil’s netherworld.
Sadly, whining about an impossible situation to an improbable deity has become my desperate stab at self-deprecating humor. Without humor, how else can a person suffering from debilitating arthritis cope? Indeed, my stiff neck, swollen knees, and gnarled fingers have tag-teamed against me in a beatdown that would make WWF fighters envious.
Early on in my diagnosis, I counterattacked this disease with my newest best friends, ibuprofen, naproxen, and acetaminophen. Ha, I told myself. Let’s see who has the upper hand now, Devil Pain. But within months of starting this regimen, my army of anti-inflammatories began to lose battle after battle. Prednisone replaced over-the-counter remedies, as every body part surrendered with one lone exception—my brain. Sarcastically, my closest friends said I lost my mental faculties years ago. They noted no difference between my cognitive acuity in my seventies and today, at age eighty-one. Is it true? Did dementia overtake me as a younger man? Or are they teasing me? Oh, to be seventy once again.
The truth is, I am an old and unremarkable human being with no remarkable gifts or talents. Worse, I possess many faults and few virtues. Yet, through all my ineptitude and misfortune, my one saving grace has been my amazing wife of sixty-one years. Her name is Cybill, and she is my cornerstone. She is the light of my life. I would do anything for my wife. Anything. And, frankly, I realize this laundry list of revelations may not be the most positive manner to spin the closing chapter of my story; still, it does provide a backdrop to a hopeless situation on this gloomiest of November evenings.
It is nearly 6:00 P.M., the sun has set, and a gray twilight has filled my bedroom window. As I gaze into a mirror, I no longer see a virile man. Instead, I see a ghost lurking in the shadows. Why do old people seem so pale and scary looking? I ponder, turning my head from side to side for a better examination. I sniff the air detecting a whiff of something foul. And just when did I begin to reek of musty cheese? “Can anyone please ask God why He has screwed me over with this broken-down body?” I howl. I certainly don’t feel like finely aged wine, as pundits have eulogized about the virtues of aging. I feel more like vinegar.
Honestly, I have no idea who is staring back at me anymore when I gaze into a mirror. At best, my reflection is empty. It is void of light. That’s it. Maybe, our earthly life is nothing more than a hologram meant to appease and deceive us, but when we die, we find the source of the light. We discover our world was nothing more than a three-dimensional projection that constantly swirled around us; that a fake reality purposely misled us in the same manner as the Easter Bunny and tooth fairy misled us as children. Maybe, in the end, we are merely weak souls seeking knowledge of life’s complex mysteries but afraid to discover the truth, preferring deceptions.
Undaunted by this introspection, I attempt to lower my chin and crane my head toward the reflecting glass. My neck sounds like shattered glass as I search for tufts of hair to comb. WTF? I once had a thick black mane dangling magnificently on my once-broad shoulders—ex-quarterback shoulders hunched by years of atrophy. Ironically, year by year, my hairdo became shorter and shorter to match a proportional loss of follicles. Years ago, Cybill said long hair on an old man with a balding crown, snow-white hair, and slight paunch did not flatter my appearance. She was correct in her assessment. As a rebuttal, my hairstyle became more Kenny Loggin-ish as I aged. Sorry, Kenny. You’re old, too, my friend. Now, gazing at a mirror, I struggle to part strands of wispy hair and realize a combover is no longer possible. Damn. It’s like I said. I’m ancient. And I’m also perplexed. Exactly when did everything fall apart? Ah, yes, I remind myself. For a moment, I had forgotten. It began when I turned eighty.
Discouraged, I about-face from the mirror. My appearance and how I present myself to others are of little importance. Appearances of a different sort are expected of me. I smell under my arms. No cheesy smell coming from there. Sometimes showers work; sometimes they don’t. Last week’s shower will get me by for a few more days or, if I’m lucky, for an eternity. Once again, Irish Spring has deodorized my armpits as clover-fresh as a leprechaun—an old leprechaun. My ears perk. I hear a commotion downstairs. Muffled words and low murmurs. A sprinkling of awkward laughter. A bit of crying ensues. I sense sorrow. Are the voices here for Cybill or me? This gathering of people I thought might never arrive. In my condition, how could I ever anticipate such things? Still, I know they are waiting. The time for appearances has come. I am vigilant and ready for the formalities. God help me.
I pass through the bedroom doorway. No one notices. I glide down our long staircase and along our black and white tiled hallway. No one seems to care or fuss over me. These temperamental guests have grown more silent as the witching hour nears. They shiver from a coldness permeating the room. Our grandfather clock abruptly chimes six times. Their eyes dart toward the clock as though it is a hypnotic beacon. They avoid my presence. Am I invisible? Why are they so detached and focused on the clock? Don’t they realize we live in a world where time doesn’t matter to me? And why are they so glum? I hate glum. Certainly, they must know my feelings and wishes about gaiety. Yet, for the moment, they ignore everything I have extolled. Why? Life, my friends, is a three-dimensional wonder of delusion. Rejoice. Celebrate life. But they don’t hear my thoughts. Of course not. How could they? They are preoccupied with their own turmoil, chilled by a November norther and an open window.
As I enter the living room, the guests part in halves with family and friends on opposite sides. I skirt past them, and once again, their eyes avoid me. They are morose and silent. Silence is not what I was expecting, but it makes no difference. My destination remains true. I move straight to Cybill and hover as close to her as possible. She has always been my port in life’s stormy waters. Tonight, she looks beautiful but also sad and dispirited. The men I interviewed to replace me after my death have surrounded her. They all love her, as do I. They, too, are heartbroken. I awkwardly bend forward to kiss her on the forehead. “How are you tonight, sweet wife?” I whisper. Yet, she doesn’t hear me. No one hears me. Why is this? Where do words go when no mortals hear? To heaven on angels wings, no doubt. Still, am I to ponder such heady thoughts by myself? Alone? It’s not fair. Not fair at all. Is my hologram broken? Is there no source for my light? And just when did this horrible situation start?
Out of nowhere, my memory kicks in, and I remember everything. I remember how it all started three months and fifteen days ago, a year to the day after that terrible eightieth birthday.
With this resurgent knowledge, I turn back to face Cybill and whisper in her ear one last time, for I will leave her on this early November evening the same way I have always loved her, softly....
The Beginning of the End”
(81st birthday, three months and fifteen days earlier)
Leroy David Nordman yawned for fifteen uninterrupted seconds while standing half-naked on his front porch stoop. He had already been awake six minutes and desperately wanted to climb back into bed after another restless night. Half-comatose, he scratched his belly and blinked his eyelids wide, attempting to absorb morning sunshine. A second yawn erupted. And a third ushered by a never-ending moan.
He found Iowa August mornings a welcome reprieve from the state’s sweltering afternoons. The cool air felt refreshing and gave his face a needed wake-up slap. By 6:06, the sun had crept above the horizon under a clear blue sky and promised to be merciful temperature-wise, at least until noon. Later, heat and humidity would oppressively set in, forcing him and his wife, Cybill, to retreat to their family room. Drawing shades to repel the elements, they would dutifully watch FOX News, or recorded reruns of The Bachelorette stored somewhere in the cloud, wherever that infernal thing existed.
He loved these idyllic August sunrises while fresh dew clung to his bluegrass lawn. The air remained unfouled by nearby I-80 vehicle exhaust and the Des Moines Feed smell so prevalent by mid-morning. Without forethought, he took a deep yoga-styled breath and gazed across the cul-de-sac at his neighbors’ houses. No one stirred, and he knew his few minutes of solitude would not last long. Sixteen-year-old Bethany Sparks would soon back out of her driveway in her vintage Volkswagen Beetle and putt-putt away to her summer job at McDonald’s. Now, lurking immodestly in plain sight half naked, he felt a need to rush this morning’s constitutional before Bethany caught sight of him and reported him to authorities as a lecher or, worse, a flasher.
Exposing himself in baggy boxer shorts and a sheer T-shirt in broad daylight was not his usual habitude coutumière; still, in August, he always slept presque nude in ill-fitted underwear, windows drawn open, and air conditioning turned off. Who needs air conditioning at night in Iowa when a box fan is handy? he often quipped. Besides, his scanty attire was all part of a daily routine. Routines had kept him alive and distracted him from a cornucopia of medical disorders, including recent complications from an immune-compromised strain of arthritis. These OCD-styled habits mandated he begin the day passing a first pee (mission accomplished), followed by a descent downstairs to the front porch to retrieve the latest Des Moines Register paper and stretch his lower back, followed by a customary retreat to the kitchen, where he and Cybill would drink their coffees, share weekly agendas, exchange church gossip, and play cards until 8:15 A.M. Today’s card game continues round two of Sunday’s Hand and Foot thriller, which he so ungracefully lost. Today, he would claim revenge, even if he lost again. Yes, he considered himself a sore loser, but at least he recognized his shortcomings. Few old dogs his age rarely acknowledge their faults, let alone try new behavioral tricks to tip the scales of card justice. Not so, Leroy. If he won today’s game, he would tell Cybill she was a brilliant opponent, implying how his card-playing prowess surpassed hers. If he lost, he would pridefully announce she was “just plain lucky.” This rivalry between the two had lasted for well over twenty years, ever since the day he retired and no longer needed to hurry off to the old eight-to-five salt mine.
Auspiciously more awake, he spied his folded newspaper three feet ahead on the porch, teetering precariously close to tumbling off the stoop and an awaiting prickly holly bush. What in the world? he wondered. This is not where I instructed our carrier to toss the paper. He noticed an Amazon box two feet away, wearing a snide Prime smile. The box had been a casualty of another late-night delivery gone wrong. He surmised the newspaper carrier’s heave must have struck the box, and the plastic-wrapped paper ricocheted to where it lay. The situation posed a monumental dilemma. His routine demanded that he attempt one and only one lower backstretch per day; it had become a tried-and-true exercise keeping him moderately agile—bending at the hips, arms dangling, counting to thirty. But, how could he gather both the newspaper and the Amazon box? Doing both required two stretches. Could his arthritic spine manage such a challenge? He pondered the idea and responded with a not-too-subtle grimace and the word shit. Ultimately, he decided to split the distance between the objects and multitask. However, performing a revised calisthenic forced him to stand one hundred and eighty degrees from his normal positioning facing the neighbors’ houses head-on. Instead, he would face his front door, baring his back to the neighbors’ houses, thereby innocently mooning the neighbors and risking butt crack exposure. How humiliating.
Hurriedly, he repositioned himself, bent over, and began his thirty-count. So far, so good, he thought. Box gathered. Check. Newspaper in hand. Check. Newspaper dumped on top of box. Check. Thirty-second count achieved. Check. Check—
“Good morning, Mr. Nordman,” Bethany’s voice sang as she drove past his driveway.
“Shit,” he whispered again. “Busted.”
“Were you talking to someone, dear?” Cybill asked the question while pouring Leroy a cup of coffee.
“Not really. Young Bethany drove by and—"
“I hope she didn’t see you in your skivvies.”
Cybill clicked her tongue, shaking her head from side to side. “Shame on you,” she scolded, smiling ever-so-slightly. “I’m sure it was quite an eyeful.”
Meanwhile, Leroy had plunked the box on the kitchen table and unwrapped the morning newspaper, ignoring Cybill’s comment. “What’s in the box?” he asked.
“Your birthday present,” she replied. “You didn’t think I’d forget today is your eighty-first birthday, did you?”
“Actually, I was hoping you had. I’m tired of birthdays, so I stopped counting at eighty.”
Cybill planned a sly retort but noticed Leroy’s discouraging eyes and thought better on it. He appeared exhausted and quite serious about hanging onto a happier time in his life before the diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. At first, she said nothing and moved straight to a kitchen cabinet to retrieve his pill organizer, placing the compartmentalized box on the table next to his coffee. She watched him sit and groan, easing himself into the chair opposite hers. His hands trembled to open the Monday compartment and, later, as he shook all six pills of various shapes and colors into his mouth. Finally, he took a giant swig of coffee and swallowed the pills in one gulp.
“Nonsense,” she finally uttered. “You look wonderful. I don’t want to hear any more gloomy talk out of you. Think positive, Lee.”
He smiled for the first time that morning. Cybill rarely called him by his pet name, Lee, anymore, and he liked the sound of it. “So, what’s on your calendar this week?” he asked.
“Well, tonight, you and I have a date with our children and grandchildren at Papa’s Pizza Parlor. Don’t forget, it is your birthday, and they want to celebrate the occasion, too.”
“Fine. And what else is going on?”
“Tuesday afternoon is ladies’ bunko at Myrtle Hinkle’s home. Wednesday night is choir practice. Eleanor and I are shopping for little Leroy’s school clothes on Thursday. And on Friday, you and I have a brewery date with Steve and Bonnie Van Ginkel. Oh, and don’t forget, the fair starts in four days. I’ve already purchased our seniors’ passes. And, you? What’s on your schedule?”
Leroy fidgeted, jabbing his new iPhone, squinting as he tapped open his e-calendar. “Today, I see Doc Fontanini at three. Tomorrow is my dermatology appointment for the mole on my back, followed by physical therapy. Wednesday morning, I go back to the arthritis center for blood tests. Wednesday at 10:00 is coffee with the boys. Thursday is urology appointment day, followed by Rotary Club night. And on Friday—” He paused to pinch a smile. “It says here that you and I have an appointment at the Racoon Brewery on a double date with Steve and Bonnie Van Ginkel. So, I guess we’re in sync.”
“We’ve always been in sync, Lee.”
Leroy chuckled. Suddenly, ailments and morning humiliation as Bethany Sparks drove by seemed less problematic. Watching Cybill’s saucer-eyes, beautiful Cybill, he felt a wave of contentment overcome earlier gloominess. “Maybe, we can hookup when I get back from Doc Fontanini’s? I mean, it is my birthday,” he said. “That is the terminology the kids use. Right? Hooking up?”
“I believe it is.”
“Of course. We just need to be careful not to hurt your back again.”
He could feel his heart rate rise. He had never grown tired of intimacy with his lover of sixty-one years nor the anticipation of their lovemaking and reached across the table to hold Cybill’s hand. “I don’t know what I’d do without you, girlfriend.”
“Oh, I know exactly what you’d do if I weren’t around. You’d hookup with Myrna Peabody or Joann Pruitt.” She scoffed. Her odd rebuttal had become a lead-in to a whimsical conversation they had exchanged countless times before. It became a macabre game to calm their anxiety about living without each other when that day arrived.
And once again, he snickered, followed by a clumsy guffaw. “No way. Myrna’s an old hag. As for Joann? She’s been a mess ever since Frank passed away. Frank’s shoes would be too difficult to fill. No. I’d have to go for a woman without all the baggage. Someone who has the feel of an old easy chair you can fall into and never want to climb out of.”
“Uh-huh. And who would that be?”
“Really? She’s twenty years younger than us, and she’s a divorcee. You said you could never make a go of things with someone who’s been through a divorce.”
“I made that remark over ten years ago. I’m older and wiser now. Besides, at our age, who can afford to be too picky? There’s not a whole lot of candidates to choose from.” He paused to study Cybill’s face, unsure if she was upset or concerned about his choice of female companionship. “You know, if I were you, Cybill, I wouldn’t give it a second thought. Why, if something were to happen to you, I’d be fine living alone. I’d spend time with the grandkids and friends, and do some traveling.” He stopped to gaze lovingly at her a second time, shaking his head in disbelief. “Just look at you, my ageless princess. You’re as healthy as a horse. Trust me when I say, you will not precede me. No. I’ll be the one to go first, and that has me concerned. How would you manage without me?”
“Oh, nonsense. You don’t need to worry yourself over me when you’re gone. I will survive just fine. Why, I’d probably hookup with Steven Baker or Saul Pakstead or—”
“I know, but he is a good dancer and—”
“He’s never been married, at least to a woman.”
“But he is a very nice man, and he’d treat me respectfully, and he has always liked you.”
“We were tennis doubles partners. That’s as far as it went. I’m not gay.”
Cybill laughed. “Believe me, manly husband of mine, I’ve known it for years.” She cast a half-smile. Her forehead wrinkled. “Why your sudden seriousness, Lee? We usually tease each other about these matters.”
“Because I’m eighty-one years old, I feel like crap, and I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around. I could go out of this world at any time, and you’d be alone and vulnerable. Doc said my disease will eventually get to my heart and take me like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “Look, I simply want to know ahead of time you’ll be alright when I’m gone. That you’ll be cared for by a good person.”
Cybill exhaled and placed her other hand over his. “So, I suppose you want to pick out the man who’ll replace you. Is that it?” she teased.
“Absolutely. I’d be less worried. It would give me some control and keep me from obsessing about your future.”
“And how would you go about doing this? Post a job ad? Resumés?”
“Nope. I’d interview the men you’ve said you would consider in the event something happened to me. Then, I’d select the perfect replacement, and you’d be set for life.”
She giggled. “Oh? This means you’re going to interview Steven, Saul, Henry O’Brien, and—"
“That old scoundrel, Mike Pertschuk? Why him?”
Leroy grinned, pleased over the last selection. “The man has deep pockets, a substantial pension, and no prostate.”
“A First Interview”
“How’s it hanging, Mike?”
Leroy intended the question as a subtle poke at his former co-worker and office nemesis. The truth is Mike Pertschuk had not always been Leroy’s closest friend. Mike had undercut Leroy at every opportunity, especially when the two competed for civil service promotions, butting heads vying for the same government GS positions. Now, years in hindsight, Leroy felt uncomfortable over his past behavior and suspected Mike did, too, but not enough for an occasional verbal jab. Fortunately, after years of social kinship, their competitiveness had matured into a more tolerable form of sarcasm.
Shortly after retirement, Leroy and Mike and two other government retirees began a golf foursome meeting on Wednesdays, punctually at 10:07 A.M. When they could not play golf (six months out of the year in frigid Iowa), they’d gather for coffee and conversation at Waveland Cafe. Lately, as Leroy’s arthritic flares grew worse, they skipped golf, opting for coffee. Over the course of maintaining their twenty-year vigil, the two men learned to leave their sullied past behind and, for lack of a better description, learned to unconditionally accept each other. When Mike underwent a surgeon’s scalpel to remove a cancerous prostate, Leroy was the first person by the man’s hospital bedside to sympathetically wince in pain while toting a box full of chocolates as a recovery gift. Leroy knew Mike had a weakness for Texas turtles; likewise, he rarely missed an opportunity to express gratitude to Mike as his golf instructor. The fact is Mike took time to teach a less accomplished Leroy the fundamentals of the game, which often seemed an impossible task. Mike did so calmly and with the stoic patience and kindness of a seasoned sensei teacher. In appreciation, Leroy and Cybill invited Mike and Mike’s latest girlfriend-du-jour to their house for dinner on multiple occasions. It was over dinner and wine where Cybill became better acquainted with Leroy’s one-time rival and where she eventually grew to appreciate Mike.
Nevertheless, the one thing about Mike that stuck in Cybil’s craw was his propensity for shallow relationships. Mike spun a turnstile of female companions; no two appeared twice at the Nordman house. From Cybill’s viewpoint, this weakness clearly defined Mike as a philanderer who did not respect the opposite sex, and because of this, she tagged him as a “scoundrel.” What she really meant was “asshole.” What changed her assessment of this character flaw was Mike’s life-saving surgery. Almost immediately, his promiscuity slowed to a crawl, and he became gentler and more empathetic to all human beings of all persuasions. Leroy also observed these changes, and as the two men aged, both felt a growing brotherly bond for one another—but not enough for a periodic verbal jab now and then from Leroy.
“How’s it hanging? You ask. Not too bad,” Mike responded, oblivious to Leroy’s sarcasm while slurping coffee. “Not too bad’” in Iowan-ese translates to “pretty good,” anywhere else. Leroy understood and felt encouraged to continue.
“Dating anyone serious?”
Mike smiled wryly. “Not since Nine-Eleven and wife number four. That divorce took me down as swiftly as the Twin Towers collapsed. No, Leroy. I’m not an idiot. If you haven’t noticed, the ladies and I do not have a great track record. There’s no one lurking in the wings.”
“Well, we both know why all your wives left—you had trouble keeping your car parked in the garage.”
Mike chuckled. “Ain’t it the truth, my friend. My car sure liked to putt around town back in the day.” Mike’s lips abruptly pursed as though he bit into a lemon. He exhaled, sighing bitterly, and lamented, “Those were the days, my friend—”
“♬And we thought they’d never end—” Leroy rebutted in song.
“♬We’d sing and dance forever and a day,” Mike crooned.
The two men smiled gleefully at one another, only to break out in full-belly laughter. Unfortunately, no one in the coffee shop found their antics amusing (Iowan’s being understandably glum at 7:00 A.M.).
“So, Leroy, why the phone call yesterday? The urgent need to see me?”
Leroy wasn’t exactly sure where to start, but he bared his soul to Mike, anyway—about his fragility, health issues, and presumed shortened life expectancy. He told Mike about his compulsion to find Cybill the perfect mate before he passed on and how Mike was a candidate in the running. Mike listened attentively without saying a word. When Leroy finished explaining his situation, Mike began to cry.
“That’s the sweetest expression of friendship anyone has ever shown me, and I sincerely thank you from the bottom of my heart. For you to trust me, me of all people, to revere your wife after you’re gone, why, I’m flabbergasted. I’m honored. Your Cybill is the most wonderful person in the world. She would be the easiest person I have ever known to love.”
Leroy iterated his selection remained weeks in the making, how there were more interviews, and how he had one crucial question to ask that morning. It was a question geared specifically for his friend. How Mike responded would tell him everything he needed to know. After all, the pair had rubbed elbows for forty years. Few secrets remained unturned.
“Sure thing, Leroy, Fire away. Hit me with your best shot.”
Leroy pushed his coffee cup to the side and leaned forward. His face hovered inches from Mike’s. He studied Mike’s eyes, searching for candid honesty, and asked, “Will you always cherish and respect Cybill?”
Mike placed his hand across his heart. His eyes did not waver from Leroy’s. “As God is my witness, I will love her until the day I die, and I will both cherish and respect her. I promise.”
“The Eyes Have It”
The first time I ever laid eyes on Cybill Lineweaver, we were fourteen years old. When it came to sophistication, fourteen years old back then was like ten years old today. We were children in young adult bodies, unhinged and sexually curious. Well, speaking from firsthand experience, at least the boys were sexually curious.
One chilly winter night, on a Friday, my best friend, Steven Baker, and I went to our high school’s basketball game to do what teenage boys do—check out the girls. Today, I cannot explain why we behaved in such a manner; neither of us had ever experienced a formal date or kissed anyone. But we went to the game, nonetheless, influenced by a hormonal rush driving us to seek female companionship. These strange new feelings frustrated me, horribly. Years ago, no one explained the physiology behind adolescent sexual tension to teenage boys. So, like all of our fellow species, Steven and I fended for ourselves, cranky as hell and without guidance. Sometimes we acted on the emotion and stole into Steven’s father’s closet to gawk at Playboy magazines, only to go home and relieve ourselves, so to speak. At school, we celebrated the perfect Venus-figurine shape of fellow eighth-grader Stephanie Comfort. Stephanie was what today the kids refer to as eye candy. She was also one of those girls who matured physically light years ahead of everyone else, which explains why she birthed three beautiful baby girls by age of nineteen.
Anyway, back to that night at the basketball game, given this aura of teenage awkwardness, I thought Steven and I were on the same page, maturity-wise. For years, we had shared our deepest thoughts and feelings about everything until that one memorable night in late December. I remember standing by the concession stand and Steven, oddly, was not concerned at all about the game or the score. Instead, he nervously eyed the east gate doors, checking his watch, reeking of body odor, and appearing more a grown man than a boy with an untrimmed baby beard. Meanwhile, I was studying him and wondering what in the world was going on. All of a sudden, he erupts in an idiotic grin and waves to a handful of girls, girls who did not attend our middle school but whom I would get to know better a year later at high school. These were girls I had never seen before.
“Who are you waving to?” I asked.
“My new girlfriend,” he replied. “Isn’t she beautiful? Look at those eyes. She has Betty Davis eyes.”
I remember observing a feminine gaggle of high-energy estrogen approach us and feeling totally inadequate and inelegantly tongue-tied. Every one of these young women seemed refined, poised, and polished, but also cliquish and a tad arrogant, wearing quadruple the amount of eye makeup and lipstick our mothers could ever throw on. To a fourteen-year-old boy, everyone, other than himself, could fit this description—sophisticated, poised, self-assured. Truly, we were all so insecure as young teens, thinking everyone else had it going on.
“You never mentioned you had a girlfriend. When did this happen?” I challenged.
“A few weeks ago. I got introduced to her at a dance?”
Dance? What dance? I wondered. “Hey, pal, I wasn’t invited to a dance. How come I wasn’t told about it? How come you never told me about her?”
Steven drew a puzzled look, quick-glancing my direction as if to brush me off. “Because it was at the country club. You’re not a member. And because I didn’t think you were interested in girls. Besides, you don’t know how to dance.”
“Of course, I’m interested in girls,” I stated unabashedly. “I’m not queer. And I can dance—”
“No, you can’t. You have two left feet.”
That last statement of his was, indeed, factual. But it hurt, nonetheless.
“You know, she baked me a birthday cake last week,” he continued, talking out of the side of his mouth. “She’s a phenomenal cook.” I have no idea why he told me this, but food must have been as much a motivator for him at age fourteen as making out in the back seat of an Impala convertible would be for me a year later.
Seconds later, the swarm had surrounded us, and Steven mysteriously knew them all and conducted the smoothest-talking, most at-ease and clever conversations I had ever witnessed. Who was this guy? I wondered. I had never seen my friend so utterly polished in my life. Looking back, I can easily classify Steven Baker as a bona fide heartbreaker.
Dumfounded, I stood there sheepish and incapable of putting two words together as he was swooning the girls. I’m sure the girls thought me mentally challenged because they cast pouty sad face-looks at me like you poor boy. Which retard school do you attend? Steven’s girlfriend, however, stepped up to the plate and introduced herself to me without hesitation. This act of mercy clearly distinguished her from the rest of the pack.
“You must be Leroy. I’m Cybill Lineweaver. I’ve heard so much about you from Steven. He says you’re his best friend. Any best friend of Steven’s is a best friend of mine.”
And then she leaned forward and pulled me into her, wearing an unforgettable short skirt and tight-tight cashmere sweater, and hugged me. Oh, my goodness. I remember smelling her hair and basking in the intoxicating Shalamar perfume she had doused herself in and experiencing for the first time what we called full-frontal arousal. Holy Mother Mary, this girl is wonderful, I told myself. She’s the real deal. And somehow, I managed to speak during our awkward encounter, or at least speak enough to eke the words, “Any best friend of Steven’s is a best friend of mine, too.” Yes, I lacked originality, but I didn’t lack the conviction of how beautiful Cybill Lineweaver, with the incredible saucer eyes, would someday become my girlfriend. Screw Steven Baker.
When I returned home, I woke my mother from a dead sleep. “Mom, I need you to teach me how to dance. Right now.”
“Why, Leroy? Why right now?”
“Because I don’t want to miss another minute of life without Cybil Lineweaver by my side,” I replied.
That night, my mother stayed awake until 3:00 A.M. teaching me how to waltz, foxtrot, and two-step. No, she didn’t know how to do the Stroll, Shingaling, or twist. Cybill taught me those dance moves by the time we were seniors. Granted, I was not the best dancer, but the fact I earnestly attempted to please Cybill won her over. I think that’s when she fell in love with me.
Nine months after that first encounter, Cybill baked me a birthday cake. And I fell hopelessly in love with her, birthday after birthday after birthday.
“A Second Interview”
Best friends Steven Baker and Leroy Nordman remained close continually throughout their golden years, displaying the same exuberance they exhibited as children—nonstop bantering, arguing, joking, and besting each other at games. Yes, they continued to share their most intimate thoughts throughout their lifetimes, but there were also those moments when callousness eclipsed camaraderie. One could argue insensitivity is more characteristic of boys and young men than old men. Old men forget past transgressions. As scholars attest, an old man’s closest friends tend to be those with the shortest memories. Hence, they remained close because Steven had forgotten details of their sometimes contentious childhood; ergo, he had forgiven Leroy of anything cruel that had passed between them, including stealing his first girlfriend, Cybill Lineweaver. Leroy, however, was slower in the forgiveness department. Leroy remembered too many details from the past all too well.
In those long-ago days, boys so often emulated what they saw on television. Television, still in its infancy, often reflected a simple two-dimensional understanding of life. Most everything broadcast was about the rough-and-tumble American West as epitomized in the skirmishes between cowboys and Indians. So naturally, when given an opportunity, young boys reenacted those battles, outdoors in costume and dressed in Western regalia.
Truth be told, no child wanted to play the role of an Indian because Indians constantly lost. Worse, Indians were inherently brutal, at least in the mind of a ten-year-old. By comparison, Cowboys were good, wore white, and always triumphed over bad men (and Indians). Another drawback to being an Indian was how mid-century technology favored the white man. The newest Mattel Shootin-Shell cap gun exemplified this modern warfare breakthrough. If a child played the part of an Indian, his pistol remained stashed in a toy chest, unused. Conversely, kids playing the role of cowboys annihilated poor Indians on the field of battle, firing off plastic bullets.
When told he would once again play the role of an Apache renegade, young Leroy balked. “No way,” he complained. “I’m tired of being an Indian. You can shove—.”
“Let me ask you something,” Steven interjected. “How many bullets in your Shootin-Shell?”
“Have any caps?” (Caps being those tiny, rolled-paper dot-sized explosives enabling the Mattel pistol to sound like a real gun when struck by its toy hammer.)
“And why is that?”
“Because my mom won’t buy me any. She rations my caps. Says it costs too much for replacements. Said food for dinner is more important.”
Steven tipped back his Stetson and crossed his arms. “Well, partner, I can’t help it if you’re a dirt-poor sodbuster. I’m not poor. Besides, you make the perfect Indian. You’re pathetic.” Steven smiled smugly, drew his gun, aimed it inches from Leroy’s belly, and fanned the hammer, firing off an entire roll of expensive caps and turning his six-shooter into a fifty-shooter. “You’ll always be an Indian,” he taunted with a most satisfied smirk. “And now you’re a dead Indian.”
“So, why are we meeting here at Greenwood Park?” Steven asked, panting to keep up.
Leroy stumbled down the hill to a gully where rows of park benches encircled a small outdoor amphitheater. He sat down, the second seat from the end, and patted the next seat, signaling Steven to position himself where they could talk shoulder to shoulder. Leroy knew Steven had become hard of hearing and refused to wear a hearing aid. Still, given the acoustic symmetry of the amphitheater and their proximity, he assumed Steven would be able to hear every word coming out of his mouth, loud and clear. Steven eventually sat and calmly glanced around the area and nearby woods and grinned cheerfully as memories flooded back.
“I see you’re beginning to remember this place,” Leroy said.
“I sure do. We spent time here when we were kids. Right?”
“Yes, we did. We had fun back then, didn’t we?”
Steven nodded his head in the affirmative but drew a puzzled look. “What exactly did we do here?” he asked.
“I’m surprised you don’t remember. We’re seated at the very place where we played cowboys and Indians. Of course, the amphitheater hadn’t been built yet. Everything around here was wooded.” He pointed at a gully, upstream and fifty yards north. “Me and Billy Seifert and Teddy Talcott pitched a teepee by that tall oak tree out yonder. You and Steve Schropp and Tom Serafino came charging down the hill and attacked us riding imaginary horses.” He pinched a sad smile. “You three always won.”
“Yup. Cowboys always won. You always won.”
Steven’s lips pursed, and his eyes squinted. “Doesn’t seem too fair, does it? But I really don’t remember those days. I’m sorry. I guess I’m becoming forgetful.”
Leroy wanted to spill all the dark memories of how his friend flaunted his wealth and haughtiness, how he used cruel words on far too many occasions, but thought better of it. He knew Steven had been struggling with memory issues for quite a while. He knew unloading the past might prove therapeutic for himself, but baring emotions might only wound his friend. Eighty-one-year-old Steven could never comprehend his callous actions as a ten-year-old.
“It’s okay, Steven. Don’t worry about it. The past is the past.”
“You know what I say, Leroy? Forgive and forget.”
Leroy mulled those words and bit his tongue. In your case, Steven, he thought, it’s forget and forgive.
“So, back to my original question, Leroy. Why’d you want to meet here? Did you remember to return the socket set I loaned you twenty years ago? Was today going to be some sort of ceremony for the return presentation?” he laughed.
“No. The socket set is sitting on my workbench and doing quite well, thank you.”
“Then why are we here?”
“Because I thought this spot would make a fitting location to interview you, you being my oldest friend.”
“Uh-huh. I see. And what position am I interviewing for?”
“To be my replacement when I pass away.”
Once again, Steven drew a puzzled look, questioning Leroy’s intentions. He appeared far more desperate for answers than before. “Are you dying?”
“Yes. My RA will eventually shut down my heart. Doc said it could happen tomorrow or any day now.” He drew a deep breath. “Look, I want to make sure Cybill will be taken care of when I’m gone. So, I’m interviewing a few of my pals to see if they’re interested in the job. To see if they’d honor a friend’s last wish.”
Steven turned away and sighed. He glanced to where Leroy’s teepee once pitched and muttered, “Damn, Leroy, you sure must have made one honorable Indian. But truthfully speaking, you’re the finest cowboy I have ever known.” He turned back around. “You know, when Ethel died, I figured I’d be alone the rest of my life. But today, you’ve given me hope this won’t be the case. Your Cybill is the most decent woman I know. How could I ever turn you down? Yes, I’ll take care of her and be thrilled to do it.”
Leroy explained how he could only select one person from the list of men he was interviewing. Whom he selected would be based on their response to an interview question, one special question geared for each individual.
“So, what’s my question, Leroy?”
“Will you promise never to be cruel to Cybill?”
Astonished, Steven fell back and away from Leroy. “Why would you ask me that? Was I cruel to you when we were kids? Is that what you’re saying?” His expression changed to pained bewilderment. “Do you honestly think I could say mean things or exhibit cruelty to Cybill? Not me. Never.”
Leroy shook his head no. “That’s not exactly what I meant. I let my emotions get ahead of me. Let me rephrase the question.” He paused to swallow his words and rethink. A few seconds later, he pulled Steven by the lapels into him, face-to-face and inches away. He studied Steven’s eyes. Logically, he realized his friend had changed for the better over the years, but overshadowing emotion still clung to a past Steven had conveniently forgotten. Tell the man what it is you truly want from him. Express yourself from the heart because all of this is for Cybill, he thought. Leroy drew a deep breath and asked, “Will you promise always to be gentle with my wife?”
“Of course, I’ll be gentle, and I’ll love her as much as I have always loved you.”
“A Friend in Need Is a Friend In Deed”
By our senior year in high school, Cybill and I knew we never wanted to be apart. She won a full ride to Mankato State for the following fall semester, and our initial plan was for me to attend school there in Minnesota with her. Unfortunately, my family didn’t have the financial resources to send me away to school. The good news, I latched onto a student co-op plan at our local junior college. This work-study program enabled me to fund my way through the first two years of college on a pay-as-you-go basis while living on campus. Meanwhile, Cybill changed her mind about Mankato to be closer to me, much to her parent’s chagrin. Instead, she decided to attend Drake in Des Moines, thereby enabling our lives to flourish with an eye cast to the future.
The truth is we were madly in love but couldn’t afford to leave our families’ financial nests for fear of losing our backers. Cybill’s parents said she was free to marry me anytime she wanted, but once she did marry, they would consider us grownups with all the monetary responsibilities accompanying adulthood. So if we married, they would cut us off from their purse strings.
Back in the day, unmarried couples did not shack up; shacking up was a gigantic no-no. Viewed as morally wrong and heavily frowned upon, cohabitation flourished nowhere in respectable society. My junior college, however, understood how young adults clamored for privacy, given our dorms’ rules against overnights or visitations. In fact, a woman living in a dormitory had strict curfews (midnight). These rules did not ease for another five years. Simply put, there were few options where couples could find shelter for intimacy. We soon discovered the CPL (Coliseum Parking Lot). The CPL became a haven patrolled by campus security where students could park and do what sexually active kids did back then, in the privacy of the rear seat of their automobiles. If Cybill’s GTO could speak, it would certainly tell secrets best left unturned about our backseat romps. It may not sound romantic, but I still can recall her classic GTO’s rich leather upholstery and the thick wool blanket we used to keep our naked bodies warm during those frigid Iowa winter nights. One night, the temperature dipped below minus twenty, and I knew it was time to drop the CPL and all the magical splendor of that GTO. “Cybill, this is totally ridiculous. We can’t keep doing this. We aren’t teenagers anymore,” I said. “Let’s get married, and if we have to go it alone, without our parents’ financial help, fine. We can do it.”
Cybill’s response was atypical of what I had come to expect from her. “Are you asking me to marry you? Is that it?” she asked without cracking a smile.
“Yes. And I’m sorry for being such a louse about a proper marriage proposal. I guess I’m assuming too much, but if it’s any consolation, I’ve known since the first night we met I wanted to spend my life with you. I assumed you wanted to marry me, as well.”
“I always have,” she replied flatly.
Cybill kissed me full on the mouth and said nothing more. She knew. She had always known. I think she was proud of me for standing up to our parents and telling them we were ready to move forward in life without them. And she sensed we would survive, no matter how difficult the battles, for another sixty-one years. Sixty-one years is nothing in the scheme of things. Sixty-one years are but a blink of an eye.
Two months later, we married. We moved into a garage apartment, fully furnished with vintage fixtures dating back forty years. To us, that one-room flat was heaven. The best part was the rent. An older couple owned the lavish South-of-Grand Avenue home out front and wanted caretakers for their grounds in exchange for a rent-free lease. In the winter, the couple escaped to their Florida home and encouraged us to stay in their mansion rather than hibernate in the garage studio. As I said, it was our little Shangri-La. We took advantage of all six fireplaces and bearskin rugs and an overpowering urge to make babies every night, from room to room to room. Oh, how we worked at making babies, doing our best to fulfill the truism practice makes perfect. In our case, practice would someday produce perfect children.
During the spring of our junior year, I received a disturbing phone call from Johnny Rutherford, a high school buddy who attended the University of Iowa. Johnny said Saul Pakstead, my ex-tennis doubles partner, had attempted to take his life there, on campus. The university had him housed in a psych ward for his own safety. As it turned out, Saul had joined a fraternal organization at the University of Iowa known for encouraging homosexual lifestyles; Saul came out of the closet and was spotted atop a gay pride float blowing kisses and waving to bystanders. “This can’t be,” I told Johnny. “He dated Cheryl Roderick for chrissake. Everyone knows she and Saul were a hot ticket. He can’t be queer.” Almost as unfathomable, Cheryl was extraordinarily “stacked and packed,” as they said back in the day. She couldn’t strut along our high school corridors without every male straining their neck for a better gawk, teachers included. A “questionable reputation” tag preceded Cheryl everywhere she went, and we all assumed Saul had been exploiting her bawdiness to satisfy his carnal instincts. Still, in hindsight, Saul must have discovered how even the most sexually desirable female in our school didn’t do it for him. And he must have also been terribly confused, feeling a stronger desire for men. Such avant-garde emotions were taboo in those days and remained hidden. Strictly taboo.
That afternoon I drove to Iowa City. I knew Saul needed a friend and, I guess, that’s what friends do—help each other out in dire circumstances. Saul had been heavily sedated and put on suicide watch and mostly confined to a padded cell. I spoke with his attending physician about his state of mind, and the doctor felt my talking to him was a good thing; I might help him overcome depression and a severe manic episode, but sadly, no one in his family came to his rescue. I can only guess they were ashamed of their son, such being the narrow mindset of that bygone era. Thus, Saul’s attending physician’s ploy to bolster his spirit boiled down to me, or no one, and clearly, I refused to let Saul go it alone.
I found Saul staring out a window in a group setting, oblivious to the zombie crazies swirling around him. The doctor assigned to him warned me he would not be fully coherent but that he might converse minimally with a familiar face. My expectations were low, but surprisingly, I discovered him more intelligible and rational than the doctor led me to believe. He smiled after I tapped him on the shoulder, pleased to see a friend.
“Leroy, what a surprise. Did you come for a visit, or are we playing tennis today?”
Snow draped the hospital grounds outside his window, so I realized while we might be able to continue a conversation, it could prove disingenuous at best.
“No, I drove here to see you. How are you doing?”
Saul could see the concern on my face, as clearly as I could read the pain on his. He turned to gaze out the window again and scowled. “I’m in a bad way. I’m not happy anymore.”
“Saul, are we friends?”
“You and me, Saul, we’ll be friends forever. And I’m not your only friend. Many other people adore you, too. By god, you’re a popular person. Rejoice in that knowledge, Saul. Allow yourself to be happy. Any man who has an abundance of friends should be happy.”
“You don’t understand, Leroy,” he said. “My parents found out I’m—”
“—a wonderful person. That’s what you are, Saul Pakstead.”
“But I’m a homosexual. Don’t you find the revelation revolting? Disgusting?
“I’m a heterosexual. You don’t hold it against me, do you?”
“Of course not.”
“Then, how could I hold your sexual orientation against you. I love you. Cybill loves you. We’re your family. If your parents don’t get it, that’s their loss. They have a wonderful baby boy. The only thing they need to be upset about is how your doubles partner carried your sorry ass when we won the state title.”
On that note, Saul turned to face me once again. I could see a glimmer in his eyes right before he began to belly laugh. “Screw you. I carried you, partner.”
And this was when I knew he would quickly recover. He simply needed to know he had friends he could count on. So as we parted company, I invited him to spend a weekend with Cybill and me. I told him that we had eight bedrooms for him to pick from. It would be like old times, the three of us spending time together, playing cards, and conversing about everything trivially unimportant.
Later in the year, Saul wrote me a letter thanking me. He said he found his soulmate over the summer, a student named Milam Fletcher, who was attending medical school. Over the summer, the two men had committed to one another. They remained partners for the next sixty years. And I suppose this is why I knew I could count on Saul to look after Cybill. He had remained faithful to one person for such a long time, almost as long as my commitment to Cybill.
“A Third Interview”
The Birdland Park tennis complex had not changed since they first teamed for that notable final doubles tournament over sixty-three years earlier. Yes, crude cyclone-styled metal fencing had replaced classy string mesh nets, but the courts remained magnificent in their original green Laykold luster, Indian-red borders, and bright white service lines. Leroy thought how pleasing to the eye he found the twenty-odd courts but cringed over his first choice description of colors. Oops, it’s Chestnut, not Indian-red anymore, you heathen, he half-heartedly scolded himself. We’re not supposed to use those words.
He recalled the day he and Saul hoisted the state high school championship trophy over their heads, there at the park. It was quite an accomplishment, especially because they dominated the favored doubles team from snooty Roosevelt High, their most contentious rivals. No one in the tennis world could have imagined they’d wrestle a thirty-year consecutive winning streak from the Roosevelt country club elitists. While Saul came from a pedigree tennis family linked to a European Cup heritage, Leroy was the first of the Nordman clan to ever swing a racket and, if memory served him correctly, also the last. Neither his son nor daughter cared to take up the sport; she pursued dance and the son soccer. Soccer? He remembered the day his son expressed an interest in what, fifty years earlier, American footballers considered a sissy foreign sport. Yet, when his son won a full athletic scholarship to Creighton, the sport instantly seemed machismo and vogue.
He wasn’t convinced tennis ever achieved the same level of acceptance. Tennis, similar to soccer, had its run-ins with folks questioning the game’s masculine orientation. After all, there was the story about Big Jim Tilden, the notoriously flamboyant world champion who served time in jail for his homosexual antics with minor boys. Years later, Dr. Renée Richards attempted to have a sex change operation to compete as a woman in tournaments. And there were other countless stories about top-notch athletes (Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Martina Navratilova) being homosexuals in the tennis world, and Leroy found himself the brunt of teasing at school. Nevertheless, Saul made winning that much sweeter because of his acrobatic net skills and flamboyant on-court attire. Better still, they always won. Remembering those days, he almost overlooked Saul’s boisterous approach.
“Man, oh, man. I haven’t been here in years,” Saul echoed. “This takes me back—”
“To our glory days. We were quite a duo right out there at good old court number one.” Leroy paused to collect his thoughts. Surprisingly, he had not, yet, given a great deal of thought to his lead-in question or explanation for their impromptu get-together. Now standing awkwardly silent and shoulder to shoulder, both men stared dreamily at the very spot where they excelled years earlier; both smiled ashamedly as memories flooded back. Indeed, there were moments in their relationship when words interfered with feelings. This was one.
Finally, Saul took the initiative to ask the inevitable question. “So, why did you want to meet here, Leroy? Here of all places? What’s up?”
Leroy fidgeted with the car keys in his pocket. He remembered the tragic circumstances when they last conversed and decided it best to assess his friend’s emotions. “Are you doing better than the last time I saw you?”
“I think so. Milam’s funeral was exhausting. He wanted a big show and, well, I gave the man what he wanted. But, yes, I’m better. Thank you for asking.”
“He was good for you. I always said that. You two fit well together.”
“You and Cybill make an even better fit. But you know, if it hadn’t been for you two intervening in my life so many years ago, Milam and I never would have met.”
“I’m glad you feel that way, Saul. I guess that’s one of the reasons I wanted to meet you here today. The past is catching up with us, and I wanted to call in a favor.”
“Sure, Leroy. Just name it.”
“I want to know if you’ll take care of Cybill for me when I die. Doc Fontanini says my days are numbered. Apparently, my T-cell count has fallen off a cliff. It’s all because of my RA issues. He thinks it will get to my heart soon.”
“First, I don’t believe the old turd is correct. Doc has a bad habit of misdiagnosing ailments. Second, even if he is correct, I have a feeling you’ll be around longer than any of us.” Saul scoffed and turned to face Leroy. “Don’t believe everything he tells you. Don’t forget, he didn’t graduate in the upper fifteen percent of our class, as we did.”
“Well, I do trust his opinion, but if it’s any consolation, I am interviewing other friends for the same job, not only you, in case he is correct with his prognosis. You know, asking for help isn’t easy for me. And since you haven’t been with a woman since Cheryl Roderick, I wasn’t sure if—”
“You can count on me. I love Cybill, and I would do anything for you.”
Leroy smiled. “Well, there is one catch. I haven’t selected whom I’m going to tap for the job. You see, it all comes down to one question. One question geared for you. How you answer it will tell me almost everything I need to know.”
Saul pivoted to face court number one. His expression changed to concern. “I hope you’re wrong about your diagnosis. But if you need to ask me a question, feel free to serve it up.”
Leroy faced the same direction as his friend. “We were sure good at the game, weren’t we?”
“Yes, we were.”
Leroy exhaled and then asked, “Will you always make Cybill happy?”
Saul continued staring straight ahead at court number one and lamented, “Happiness springs eternal with sweet Cybill. Yes. The easiest thing I could ever do is make Cybill happy.” He abruptly turned and punched Leroy in the shoulder. “But happiness without you, my friend, will be difficult.”
By the time I turned sixteen, late in my high school sophomore year, Cybill and I had become quite an item. Between classes, I carried her books, and we promenaded arm-in-arm everywhere. Every human being on planet earth knew we were in love, except Coach Peterson, our varsity football coach. The man percolated, clueless to genteel tidings. “Hey, Nordman,” he interrupted during one of our blissful strolls. “We need to talk.” As it turned out, Coach needed to talk, and I needed to listen. “How tall are you?” he continued.
“Six-foot-one,” I replied.
“What’s your weight?”
“That’s soaking wet,” Cybill added.
I jokingly threw out, “Why? Need a nose guard?”
Coach brushed off my comment. “I do. And you’d make a fine one, but I need a backup quarterback, worse. I need someone tall enough to see over the linemen. Can you toss a football?”
In those days, everyone knew how to spin a perfect spiral, even Cybill. “Of course, Coach. Just because I play tennis doesn’t mean I’m a wimp.”
“Excellent. I’ll see you at practice. August first. Eight A.M. sharp. Don’t disappoint me.”
I should have replied, “Forget it, Coach” or, better, “Hell, no,” but for some unknown reason, I couldn’t turn down Coach Peterson. I liked the man.
That summer, Cybill became a wide receiver as I tossed the ball to her every day to practice my throwing arm. She bought me a book on offensive football strategy and quizzed me on every formation and nuance—how to read a blitz, how to heave a fifty-yard bomb, how to call audibles, etc. All of this was well and good, but as it turned out, no one else on the team read the same book or, frankly, played by the same script. If the state of Iowa gave a booby prize to its worst high school football team, my squad would have won that distinction by unanimous acclamation. Truthfully, we stunk to high heaven.
By August, I had fattened myself to a hefty one-forty-five. And for an unexplainable reason, I was beginning to enjoy myself as part of this motley crew of misfits. What changed this cavalier attitude was the day our first-string quarterback broke his ankle. It turns out our offensive line couldn’t stop a four-year-old from penetrating its ranks and sacking our quarterback. Dog piling accompanied every play. And five plays into our first game my junior year, the other team pulverized our quarterback; an ambulance carted him away in agony. “Nordman, get out there,” Coach screamed at me.
“Are you sure, Coach?”
“Hell, no, but you’re all we’ve got. Try to stay upright and not get hurt.”
That evening the East High ruffians set a new state record. If my memory serves me correctly, they sacked me thirty-seven times, which remains an Iowa high school record to this day.
The following Monday, as I hobbled into our school cafeteria, I spied a new kid eating by himself. He was massive. He was also black as the ace of spades and only the second African American ever to attend our school. As it so happened, his parents were Caucasians but adopted him as an infant. Look magazine transferred his father to Des Moines, and they had moved less than five blocks from my house. While he was a year younger, size-wise, he appeared ten years older.
“Hey, kid. What’s your name?” I asked.
“Henry O’Brien,” he replied. “Who wants to know?” he asked in return, hinting at insolence.
“Leroy Nordman. I’m your new high school starting quarterback.” I hesitated, pondering his name. “Did you say, O’Brien? Really? Geez, you don’t look Irish.”
“Ya? Well, you don’t look Viking, dumbass.”
I ignored his sarcasm. “How tall are you?”
“What do you weigh?”
“Two thirty-five. What’s it to you?”
“Well, congratulations, Henry,” I said. “You have just been unceremoniously recruited to play high school football, and in the same screwed-up manner I was. Better yet, you’re my new center.”
“I don’t play football. I don’t play sports. And I don’t play games. You’re barking up the wrong tree. Back off.”
“Listen, kid. If you want to survive in this school, you being the only shade of your kind here, I strongly suggest you get on the program.” And next, I threw out a few harsher words, totally uncharacteristic of me, but I was desperate, and desperate ex-second-string quarterbacks do desperate things. “Meet me at Coach Peterson’s office after school. If you don’t show, I’ll kick your Irish black ass tomorrow. Got it?”
With those fine expressive words, he stood up, shoved his chair across the room, and poked me in the chest. “Really? You and who else gonna kick my ass, skinny?”
“Me,” Cybill said, sliding herself between the two of us. “I’m not going to stand idly by watching my boyfriend get squished every Friday night. You will be at Coach’s office, or you’ll have to answer to me. Got it, this time?” she shouted, poking him in his chest.
Henry turned back to me and then back to Cybill. He eyed us both at least five more times, back and forth, without saying a word, before he finally stepped backward. During this ruckus, the cafeteria crowd had collapsed into their typical we-be-aghast mode. I expected to hear the usual chant, “Fight. Fight. Fight....” but it didn’t happen. It didn’t happen because Henry defused the situation. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied humbly. “Coach Peterson’s office tonight after school. I’ll be there.”
When Henry O’Brien stated he didn’t partake in sports or games of any kind, he was telling the truth. It was tough enough to teach him how to hike a ball, but he had also never invested the time to learn how to play cards, board games, or anything for sheer fun. I invited him to my house on multiple occasions to practice our football exchanges; afterward, Cybil and I taught him how to play Crazy Eights, Slap Jack, and all the rudimentary card games he should have learned as an eight-year-old. Ironically, years later, as an adult, he continued his card-playing ways and became rated as a “Grandmaster” at the game of Bridge.
That fall, Henry and I and Cybill recruited four other linemen. During our last three games, against far superior teams, not a single blitz succeeded. Not once. I remained unscathed and upright. By my senior year, Henry had gained another ten pounds, all of it pure muscle. He religiously worked out with weights, pumping iron to the limits, doing calisthenics, and running three miles a day. He also grew five more inches and soon earned the endearing nickname Behemoth. His senior year, Iowa State University recruited him, where he thrived to become all-Big Eight first team and, eventually, moved on to play for the Vikings. Of course, I constantly reminded him how I was the first Viking he ever played for, and he took my not-so-subtle prodding good-naturedly.
Later in life, Henry moved back to Des Moines, four hours south of Minneapolis. He never married and suffered from a string of failed heartbreaking relationships. We assumed he would remain single his entire life. By age thirty-two, we moved in different circles, and Henry, suffering from bad knees, settled into a job as a car dealer spokesperson. Everyone in central Iowa knew of their native son and his prowess playing for the Minnesota Vikings. Naturally, everyone wanted to buy their next car from the man. One night, after our children had been tucked into bed and during the 10:00 P.M. news commercial featuring our old friend, Cybill turned to me and said, “I think Sandy Brashear would be a good fit for Henry. Don’t you?”
The woman Cybill referred to was a friend of a friend we had met only one time at a party. She was at least ten years younger, blond, quite attractive, and about as Baptist a human being as ever existed—conservative as they come. “You do realize the woman is white?” I retorted. “And probably against mixing races.”
“Yes, I do. But I talked to her at some length, and I think she’s desperate for a good man. And, she’s kept her virginity.”
This revelation threw me for a loop. “How in the world do you know that?” I pursued.
“She told me. Flat out told me after her second gin and tonic. You know,” she continued, “Henry has taken up with so many floozies, white girls included, he might be ready for a truly sweet one.”
I mulled over her suggestion and flashed a thumbs-up. “Does she play bridge?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.”
“In that case, heck yes, let’s set them up.”
And we did. Their first blind date was such a success that the two married less than six months later. I was Henry’s best man, and from their wedding onward, we socially interacted quite often and, once again, ran in the same circles.
Forty years later, Henry’s wife died in a tragic car accident. Henry never considered himself remarriage material, given his health issues. Once again, Cybill and I tried to find a perfect match for him, mostly with widows, but Henry refused to take the bait. When I asked him why, he said no one interested him, with one exception. “And who might it be?” I asked him.
“Your Cybill. She’s the only woman I would ever consider. That one day years ago when she threatened me to protect you, I knew then and there she was the kind of gal I wanted.”
I remember smiling at him with a most satisfying look. “Sorry, friend. It ain’t going to happen. The lady is currently taken.”
“Exactly,” he replied. “Cybill loves you and only you, and I respect that.”
“A Fourth Interview”
By the fourth interview, Leroy had polished the procedure to a familiar shine. Typically, he invited his candidates to meet him at a location meaningful to both the interviewee and him. In this case, when he telephoned Henry O’Brien, he asked his friend to meet him at the site of their old football stadium. Years earlier, a new stadium had been constructed; the old location remained an athletic facility but in the guise of a soccer field. Leroy sat on a player’s bench, midfield, awaiting his friend. He reminisced about the last game he played as a senior, the one and only game his team won that year. It was the game Coach Peterson utilized the trick ploy of a reverse handoff from quarterback to center. Henry scored the winning touchdown by lunging into the end zone with two seconds remaining on the game clock. The win against an equally horrible football program became as monumental an event as had the team won a state title. It simply proved they weren’t the worst team in the state. A year later, when Henry became a senior, the team won the division championship and competed in state playoffs. Much of the credit for the school’s resurgence success belonged to the front linemen and, of course, an upstart quarterback, someone other than Leroy. Still, Leroy and Cybill attended those games and supported Henry as if Henry had been a brother. The same support continued when Henry played at ISU. But on this late afternoon, the old high school stadium would serve its purpose of rekindling memories. The oak trees and maples surrounding the field were ablaze in red and gold and matched the tranquil setting for two friends to relive old times.
Henry limped to where Leroy sat and bumped shoulders. “This sure brings back memories,” he said.
“Yes, it does,” Leroy replied. “Lots of good times.”
“Indeed, they were,” Henry emphasized. “But you know what I miss the most?”
“No. Do tell.”
“I miss those crazy dinners a few years back when you, me, Cybill, and Sandy indulged a little too much and talked our fool heads off until three in the morning.”
“I remember those days well, Henry. I don’t think we left a subject uncovered by the four of us. We could turn any topic into outrageous laughter.”
Henry laughed quietly, recalling a few of those conversations. He glanced around the empty field and stared off in the distance in the direction of the scoreboard. “I know there’s a reason you asked me to meet you here, Leroy. Care to share it?”
Leroy had become accustomed to the question. Likewise, he no longer minced words and came right to the point. “I have a favor to ask of you. If I were to die soon, could I count on you to look after Cybill? To be my replacement, as it were?”
There was no hesitation in Henry’s reply. “Absolutely. It’s like I told you years ago. The day Cybill told me she’d kick my butt defending you, I instantly knew she was the perfect woman for me. By god, if anything happens to you, I’ll take care of her and honor your memory. She’d be a perfect companion.” He paused to look at Leroy. “But you should already know this, Leroy. We’re best of friends. How could I not do anything else for the man whose hands hovered under my derriere for two years?”
Leroy grinned ashamedly. “Yes. I suspected you would say all those things. And I thank you. I simply wanted you to know my days are numbered and that I needed to test the waters, so to speak. I needed to hear you say you’d be there for Cybill. That’s all.”
“So, what are we looking at? Weeks? Months?”
“I don’t know. Doc Fontanini says sometime soon. But there’s a slight caveat to all of this. You see, I’m interviewing other men for the same job as well as you. I hate to use the word job, but I have no other terminology to describe it. Maybe a labor of love might better suit what I’m doing. Or something like that. I guess I want to go out of this world knowing Cybill will be cared for, pampered, and loved. Does that make me crazy?”
“Not at all. What makes you crazy is not announcing to the world today that I’m your man,” Henry deadpanned.
“You may well be. That’s why we’re here. First, I wanted to see if you’d be willing to do this for me and, second, I have one question to ask you. How you answer it will tell me what I need to know. Think of it as a job interview question.”
Henry gazed back at the scoreboard. “You know what, Leroy? Life is kind of like that old scoreboard out there. When the lights get turned off, there’s no winner or loser. There’s only a faded memory of what the score used to be.” He pivoted around and hugged his friend. “So, what’s my question, friend?”
“Will you always play together with Cybill?”
“Yes. When we first met, you stated quite proudly how you didn’t play games of any kind. Cybill and I play games. Always. It’s what we do. Who we are. Every morning we play cards. I need to know you’ll continue our tradition, our routine. At our age, it’s the routines that keep us alive. And I want Cybill alive for a long, long time.”
Henry pondered the question. Death did not intimidate him the way it did years earlier as a younger man. Likewise, he had witnessed many of his friends pass on unexpectedly through the years, many by Alzheimer’s-induced football brain injuries. He had grown accustomed to the many faces of death. Now, he no longer took death’s threats personally. He knew death was merely a part of humanity’s march against time. “I’ll not only play card games with Cybill, but I will also teach her how to play the best card game of them all—Bridge,” he stated dryly.
Leroy chuckled. “Now, that would be quite an accomplishment. Bridge? Really? I wish I could be around to see that, but it won’t happen.”
“A Fifth Interview”
...With this resurgent knowledge, I turn back to face Cybill and whisper in her ear one last time, for I will leave her on this early November evening the same way I have always loved her, softly..... ...and I begin to sob uncontrollably. My sweet Cybill lies in repose for me to view her this one last time. Oh, death, your sting hurts beyond mere words. You tear my heart and crush my very soul. If there is solace, it is the memory of my love for her.
Immediately, family and friends swarm around me in a show of support. Whatever awkward, bumbling feelings of despair they exhibited earlier have vanished, and they now see me in my pitiful state. I am no longer invisible, for they are concerned for my well-being and feel my pain. Their eyes follow my every tortured movement. I try my best to regain a sense of composure, but in my anguish, my breathing becomes strained. My hands tremble. My face flushed. I tell myself how overseeing the death of a loved one is by far the most gut-wrenching thing I have ever undertaken. Nevertheless, I must get through this. Questions remain, and time is of the essence. Cybill’s hologram is fading all too quickly. I must communicate before her spirit flies away and through the open window.
Once again, I awkwardly bend forward and ease my way to her. “Sweet, Cybill. Can you hear me?” I plead. “Please say you can hear me. I need answers to questions I never asked you. Long overdue questions from the man who loved you for so many years. I am such a fool. How could I not have discussed these important things with you?” I kiss her again on the forehead and ask, “Did I cherish you? Was I gentle? Did I make you happy?”
I wait, but there is no response. Cybill’s departure came so suddenly. Sadly, our “death do us part” vow was always the deal we understood the moment we wed.
Out of nowhere, Steven whispers to me, “I can assure you, had she been able to hear you, my friend, her answers would have been a resounding yes. She loved you like no other.”
Saul pats me on the back. “She looks beautiful, Leroy. You’ve made this a very special wake. A fitting place for goodbyes.”
“But she was so healthy. I don’t understand. I was supposed to go first.”
“Covid is a horrible thing,” Mike interjects. “It snuffs lives indiscriminately, without remorse.”
“But I had a rock-solid plan, and it involved each of you, together, looking after her when I was gone.”
“And the four of us would have done exactly what you asked us to do, but plans don’t always work out. Sometimes accidents or sickness unexpectedly overtake us,” Henry says. “The important thing is to keep the faith because there’s a far grander plan for us, beyond our mortal capability to comprehend. Keep the faith, Leroy.”
“And the four of us are here for you, night and day. That you can take to the bank,” Saul concludes. “You can always count on your friends.”
Leroy David Nordman yawns for fifteen uninterrupted seconds while standing half-naked on his front porch stoop. He has already been awake six minutes and, yet, desperately wants to climb back into bed after another restless night. Half-comatose, he scratches his belly and blinks his eyelids wide, attempting to absorb morning sunshine. A second yawn erupts. And a third ushers a never-ending moan.
He finds Iowa August mornings a welcome reprieve from the state’s sweltering afternoons. The cool air feels refreshing and provides a needed wake-up slap to his face. By 6:06 A.M. the sun has already crept above the horizon under a clear blue sky and promises to be merciful temperature-wise, at least until noon. Later, heat and humidity will oppressively set in, forcing him to retreat alone to his family room. This morning’s 6:06 roll call is one of many routines he enlists to help him cope with life’s unforeseen hardships. Yet, despite all the tribulation, he manages to somehow eke a pensive smile at the sun.
Readying himself for a customary stretch to retrieve the newspaper, he whispers a quiet prayer. A few seconds later, his iPhone chirps, announcing a text message. He pauses long enough to read it:
He wants to tell his children how he stopped celebrating birthdays after the age of eighty but thinks better of it. Cybill would want him to go. Yes, he tells himself, he will attend this special dinner and show appreciation for his children’s thoughtfulness. And somewhere amid these mixed feelings, he realizes how much he truly cherishes these gatherings with family and friends, especially when the talk inevitably turns to Cybill.
Refocusing on the task at hand, he slowly bends at his hips to pick up the newspaper, stretching and counting aloud while facing his neighbors’ houses. Seventeen-year-old Bethany Sparks honks as she drives by on her way to work. He waves back, only to recall those long-ago days when he and Cybill were also seventeen, and he sighs. So far, these mundane routines and an abundance of fond memories of his deceased wife have kept him alive, far longer than his doctor could have ever expected. Maybe, just maybe, he thinks, I’ll be alive for one more birthday. “Yes, one more birthday,” Leroy whispers softly as he savors his glorious Iowa sunshine.