Sunday, September 2, 2012

Man Cave, Chapter 1

- Chapter 1
a novel by
LC Cooper

Copyright LC Cooper, April 01, 2012
Published by LC Cooper at Smashwords
Smashwords Edition, License Notes
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

Chapter 1

Eric called, chattering excitedly about his pickup truck's transmission. Seems the mechanic finally found and fixed the leak. What great news, and it came at the perfect time, as Eric's and my annual trek into Yosemite was to begin the next morning.
At 4:30 a.m., I, bleary-eyed but full of adrenaline and coffee, tossed my gear into Eric's truck-bed and hopped into the cab.
Conversation beyond the customary "good morning" was limited to grunts, nods, and the usual guy chatter about the weather and camping conditions. After the banter died off, I rested my head against the side window and closed my eyes.
"Why are you so tired?" Eric asked.
"I stayed up too late watching military shows. Ugh, I'm paying for it now." I rubbed my eyes and began to sit upright, but the rhythm of the road was easing me again to the comfortable corner where window meets seatback.
Eric wasn't about to let me sleep. "Anything cool?" He enjoyed the adrenaline rush of a good combat documentary or weapons show.
My left eye popped open and I gave him the wrinkled-eyebrow grimace. "Really? Not obvious enough that I'm trying to sleep?"
"Don't leave me hanging. You wouldn't have stayed up so late if you were watching reruns or something boring. Come on, spill it."
Man, he knew me well. I wasn't out to hide anything from him; I just wanted to sleep. I knew Eric well enough that he wouldn't let up, so I breathed in grumpily, and then sighed, "Over and over, I watched a segment on the most wicked shotgun I've ever seen." The memory instantly perked me up and I shot upright in my seat.
"You've seen many shotguns. What's so great about the one in the show?"
"It was built only for the military – it's not the usual workup from a hunting gun." I shifted in my seat with excitement as I continued the story. "This monster, the AA-12, fires between 150 and 300 rounds per minute. It's a 12-gage, recoilless  automatic with a 20-shell drum magazine. The freaking thing can also launch grenade-like projectiles at almost the same rate."
"Heh, could you see us hunting with a couple of those bad boys?" he chuckled.
"Yeah, but whatever we killed would be turned into unrecognizable mush. There wouldn't be anything left of the animal to eat, let alone mount on a wall." We both shook our heads and imagined how much fun we'd have shredding every banker, boss, car dealer, politician and anyone else who's screwed us over. I was fondly thinking about my ex-wife's divorce attorney when Eric distracted me from this most deliciously rewarding fantasy.
He cut off our usual early-morning babble with, "I got a surprise for you … for your fiftieth birthday, that is."
Caught off-guard, I didn't have a sarcastic comeback. My ex-wife, kids, and friends all knew I was dreading turning fifty, and they had been teasing me all year. I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised that Eric was about to crack another oldster joke. I braced for the kick in the teeth.
Instead, he tossed a folded newspaper into my lap and told me to read the circled advertisement. Still expecting a practical joke, I carefully lifted a distant corner of the paper, believing one of those cardboard-and-rubber-band phony snake gags would go off. I was determined not to react to whatever he had hidden within the newspaper.
"Go on, you old fart. It's not like I hid your AARP application in there. Quit stalling and read the ad. I got to know what you think before we get to the highway."
"Your choice determines whether we go on to Yosemite or …"
Realizing he wasn't kidding, I turned on the truck's interior light and brought the newspaper up close to my face, which is when Eric teased me about my poor eyesight being tied to my advanced age. I grumbled for him to shut up and drive while I searched for the tiny ad.
Wedged beneath a large banner ad that screamed obscene colors and fonts and another for a tropical cruise was a two-line ad that read:

Tired of the same old thing? Ready for a vacation you'll never forget?
Call Sammy at 555-767-1204 to book your break from reality.

"What's this, Eric?" I asked; curious and no longer suspicious.
"Your birthday present, my ancient friend," he chuckled while patting me on the shoulder. "I had planned to buy you a case of adult diapers, which I'm sure you'll soon need, but I decided to get you something that would remind you of your – our – younger days."
I shrugged off his diapers comment. "Okay, I appreciate that you might have actually put some thought into a gift, but what does this have to do with our camping trip to Yosemite? A moment ago, you said something about needing my decision before we hit the highway."
"Yeah, because I booked us a week at the resort in the ad you just read," Eric said, emphasizing his excitement by tapping his index finger on the ad. "I have to call this guy, Sammy, in the next few minutes if you'd rather go on to Yosemite. I'd need to cancel our reservation."
Impressed, I sat silent, which added to Eric's agitation. "Why so quiet, Adam? C'mon and make up your mind, would you? I only have a few minutes."
"What do you know about this place?" I tossed out.
"From what Sammy told me, he created a town for men who want to escape the pressures of home and work. The place is loaded with all kinds of things for guys to do. He said he's got several bars, game rooms, and that kind of stuff, as well as campgrounds, a stocked lake, hiking trails, and all kinds of motorbikes, ATVs, 4x4s, and anything else we'd need to go off-roading."
"Sounds pretty cool," I grumbled, "but I was looking forward to Yosemite."
"Yeah, me too, but we've explored most of it, and we were planning to set up camp at the exact same spot we have for the last five years. Don't you want to try something different – something new?" The sign pointing to highway 51 was illuminated by the headlights. "Well, do we head on to the same old thing?" he asked. I caught his emphasis of the word old, realizing he was goading me into trying this new place.
Admittedly, I enjoyed the predictability of our Yosemite campsite. The last six years were a blur as all of Beth's and my kids graduated college, got jobs, and had kids. It had only been a little over a year since Beth divorced me. Losing her older sister to breast cancer really messed with her head. I tried to be there for her, but the more I tried, the harder she pushed me away. So, here I sat, in Eric's pickup truck, pondering the choice between the same old thing, with its memories and baggage, or chuck aside the past to embark on a new path.
I wasn't as sharp as Eric, so I was usually comfortable letting him make decisions for us. Given enough time to mull things over, however, I'd eventually make the same choice as Eric. I fondly thought of Yosemite, blinked, and then said, "Let's try the new place." I let out a sigh and slightly shook my head. It's not like I was letting go of Yosemite; after all, there would be other years ahead to go there, but I wasn't so sure that after trying something new, I'd ever want to go back.
A flurry of memories flooded my brain, which resulted in me slightly smiling. Eric asked why I had a stupid grin on my face. I replied with, "I'm good, Eric. Just thinking about a couple of our more harrowing trips to Yosemite. Hey, we've got nothing to lose, so let's try something new."
Eric wrenched the steering wheel, sending his truck skidding back onto Pendergast Road. I leaned forward and watched, through the side mirror, as highway 51 disappeared into the pre-dawn darkness.
"You're going to love this," Eric said, enthusiastically bouncing in his seat.
"Too much coffee? Gotta stop to pee?" I said, mocking his exuberance.
"Wow, not yet 50, and you've already got that grumpy-old-man thing down pat, don't you?"
"Anyone would be grouchy if they'd have put up with you as long as I have. You're nutty enough to drive anyone insane."
"Someone's got to keep you in check, old man – you know, to balance out all that vinegar you spew."
"Bite me."
"See what I mean?"
My moods were all over the place. Eric's taunting wasn't helping my uneasiness, either. I'm a planner. Our annual Yosemite trip was arranged months in advance. My gear was neat and orderly. I could wrap my arms around it and our trip. These were things I understood. The chaos of my kids growing up plus the divorce put me in a tailspin. I certainly did appreciate Eric's effort in arranging this new trip, but so much had happened in such a short amount of time, I had been looking forward to Yosemite as a friendly reprieve. Now, I wasn't going to enjoy that comfortable feeling. Instead of gliding into my 50s, Eric, just like everyone else in my life, was shoving me from 49 into 50, without stopping to let me take a breather.
"It's a full day's drive from here," Eric said, distracting me out of my panicky thoughts. "How about I drive for two hours, and then we'll stop for breakfast. Would you mind driving between breakfast and lunch, then I'll drive the rest of the way. Sound good?"
"I'm willing to drive half the time. Not really fair for you to be stuck with most of the driving."
"Consider this trip is Natasha's and my birthday gift to you. Relax for a bit. I'm fine being the chauffeur. If you could spell me for a few hours, I'd be able to rest long enough to get us to our destination."
"Fine with me," I sighed, relieved that Eric wasn't expecting me to drive the last leg into an unknown location. I tore up his truck once before, plowing into a snow bank on our way to a frozen lake to fish, so I've been reluctant to take the wheel. Eric had sighed, too. It was obvious from his expression that he was just as relieved that I didn't protest.
The resultant silence was awkward, and instead of cracking a couple of jokes to dispel it as I usually would do in this situation, I used the time to look around the truck's tired, old cab.
Eric and I cracked many a joke and a few running gags about his truck. Don't get me wrong, it was a fine vehicle that was always faithful. It saved our hides on more than one occasion. The humor was due to him calling the truck's cab his man cave.
That stupid term came about a few years ago, as it was trendy for an insecure and spoiled man-boy to block off a room in his house where he could store his crap – the stuff that no woman in the world would allow in the rest of the house. The usual arrangement included an oversized TV, beat-up and smelly furniture, some kind of game console or pinball machine, hunting and fishing trophies, and sports memorabilia.
Eric and I never knew anyone who could afford to have a separate room to themselves. Certainly, Eric and I couldn't. Heck, our homes were standard three-bedroom, two-bath boxes barely large enough for us, our wives, and a couple of kids each. The closest thing we had to man caves were our garages, and those were usually crammed full of bicycles, piles of laundry, dusty cardboard boxes, and lawn tools. Somewhere buried beneath a mound of my girls' performance dresses, batons, and other emasculating nonsense was my fold-up workbench. I never invited friends over to crank out weekend projects because it was just too humiliating to dig through all that girly stuff for my puny toolbox and workbench.
So, our sarcastic response to idiots who demanded a man cave in their houses was to name Eric's truck-cab Man Cave. It wasn't much to look at, after all, his truck was over thirty years old and quite the beater, but it suited us nicely. It had tons of history and character in every square inch of it. What wasn't stained from soda and beer spills was coated in dried fish slime, concentrated deer urine, and sweat. It stunk, making it a place no woman cared to go; thus, it was the ideal man cave.
A deep, long gash creased the center of the sun-warped and dust-encrusted dashboard. I used to flick away chips of dried-out plastic from the decaying dash until Eric asked me to stop making his truck look ugly, as if it could get any uglier. Blobs of hardened epoxy kept the rear-view mirror in place. The thing rattled and rocked, but it generally stayed up. The faded strand of rosary beads swayed from the mirror, adding to its instability. The rosary, placed there years before by Eric's oldest and well-intentioned daughter, did so when their family attended church together for a whole month. The crucifix's fake rosewood finish was faded, and the underlying chips of pine were splintered and cracked. It really should have been chucked into the trashcan, but Eric refused, saying it was a memento from happier years.
Another holdover from long ago was the acrylic picture frame velcro'd to the front of the dash. Centered beneath the rocking rearview mirror and swaying rosary, the scratched and pitted frame  contained the two photos that meant everything to Eric. The photo within the left side was Eric and his wife, Natasha's, engagement photo, now nearly thirty years old. The other picture was of their three kids. It was taken two days before his eldest, Emily, announced, at the age of fourteen, that she was pregnant.
Since then, Emily went on to have four more kids over the next eight years, all with different men. His other two children, Hunter and Tonya, became bitter disappointments. Within days of Emily's pregnancy announcement and several days of ensuing arguments, a bag of marijuana fell out of Hunter's school backpack and landed at Eric's feet. Screaming and arguing became daily realities for Eric and his family.
Because of the instability at home, Tonya, who was Eric and Natasha's youngest, packed her belongings one afternoon and moved in with Natasha's mother – never to return. Attempts to reconcile the family succeeded in driving deeper wedges between Eric, Natasha, and their kids. Undercurrents, simmering slightly below the surface, boiled into a seething froth when the family attended counseling.
Eric's long absences from home were determined by the over-eager psychiatrist to be the most frequent reason blamed for the family's rupture. Defending his job became pointless. He became the favorite target of everyone's angst. I remember summer was approaching when Eric chose to give up on the counseling sessions. As he told me, the only one getting anything out of the sessions was the psychiatrist. Once devoid of their favorite target, Eric's wife and kids lost their blood lust, and one by one, stopped attending as well.
Eric told me it was nearly Thanksgiving before everyone recovered from the psychiatrist's programming and began learning to co-exist again, but the tenuous bond they had was crushed. They all kept their distance, having lost interest in being around each other. Eric stopped talking to me about his family troubles, and I thought it was something I said, concerned that I, too, had given up on him, but he said he just didn't want to dwell on it any longer.
Instead, Eric replaced reality by clinging to the memories of his wife and kids as they had been when the two photos were taken. Bitterness and remorse surfaced only when I questioned his not getting newer photos. I stopped teasing him after receiving the only black eye I've ever had. Apparently, I pushed too hard. I suggested that a set of new photos might help dispel his family's funk, but my well-intended recommendation enraged Eric. I didn't realize, back then, how scarred he was. After a couple weeks of keeping our distance, Eric and I met in the street outside our homes, shook hands, and apologized.
"That shiner's almost healed," was Eric's apology, mumbled while shifting his attention between his shuffling boots and his wife, Natasha's, glare.
"You got away with a lucky sucker punch. I never felt a thing," I grumbled; a reply that got me a jab in the ribs from my then-wife, Beth.
That's how Eric and I mended the only rift that ever came between us. Since then, though, I never say anything about the photos. One Christmas, I convinced Natasha that buying a new plastic picture frame to replace Eric's old and cracked one was a lousy idea. I imagined Eric's freak-out and the resulting round of counseling sessions. I convinced her there was no need to piss away any more money. Instead, I helped her buy a radio to replace the one that had been stolen out of Eric's truck.
 I don't remember when the radio was stolen, but it had to be a few years past as Eric was using the cavity to store maps and other junk that couldn't be crammed into the over-stuffed glove compartment. The glove box was where the family heirlooms were kept. As Eric was fond of saying, doing so was safer than entrusting them to a greedy banker. The reason he squirreled the family's valuables there was that his son, Hunter, was caught pawning his mother's diamond earrings to buy drugs.
Right before Christmas, while Eric was away on a business trip, Natasha and I replaced the stolen radio with a really nice Blaupunkt. I yanked it out of a wrecked Porsche that we found in a junkyard. To convince the guy working the counter that the radio was worth very little, I had popped off the faceplate so the radio looked like a plain metal box. After all, without a faceplate, everyone knew a radio was useless. The guy thought he was pulling one over on me, but what he didn't know was that I had pocketed both the faceplate and the Porsche's owner's manual, which contained the radio's code. I smugly walked away with an $800 radio that I paid only $20 for. Ethics, shmehics, his loss was my gain. Eric's wife, Natasha, was so thrilled that she was nice to me for almost a week.
Well, the radio was easy to install and looked much better in Eric's man cave than did the stack of stained maps and burger wrappers. Unfortunately, the speakers were shot – all buzzy-sounding and distorted. When I returned to the junkyard in hopes of retrieving the Porsche's speakers, the sales guy demanded $1,000 for the speakers, to make up for the Blaupunkt that he claimed I pretty much stole from him. So, the speakers inside Eric's truck remained where they were, sounding ratty and shot.
The Blaupunkt radio became yet another strange addition to Eric's man cave. Every time we got in the truck, one of us inevitably grumbled about the amazing sound system that never produced a good sound. Replacing his lousy speakers became one of our many summer projects; however, as it is with so many well-intentioned projects, we got no further than ripping the door panel off the passenger's-side door, which explains the insane rattle. Gravity and a handful of paper clips keep the panel from popping out and falling to the ground. The screws and other supporting hardware disappeared in a boating accident on the lake.
The way it happened was one of the mysteries behind the aura of Eric's man cave. The speakers' screws and supports were accidentally tossed into Eric's fishing boat one day and forgotten. I saw the bag of parts fly over the front of the boat and sink the day Eric and I went fishing and he accidentally rammed his boat into a submerged boulder. The bag of hardware zoomed by me as it and I were hurtled into the chilly water. I never did tell Eric that I saw the missing parts. Not telling him was my way of paying him back for the accident that destroyed my best fishing pole.
Many folks, those who didn't know us well anyway, believed Eric and I didn't get along – maybe even hated each other. Sure, we had several heated and very public arguments, but what do you expect from two guys who grew up together like brothers? We remained loyal friends, no matter what, ever since my family moved into the neighborhood when I was five years old. Eric and I got along better than we did with our wives, which irritated the heck out of them.
Eric's wife, Natasha, most often went with the flow. When things were good between her and Eric and their kids, his and my friendship didn't make Natasha jealous. Unfortunately, when their family blew apart, Natasha no longer appeared to care about much. Prescription sedatives helped her make sense of the world. She no longer noticed Eric's and my frequent get-away trips.
My wife at the time, Beth, wasn't compassionate or induced into being supportive. She went so far, until she became bored, with flirting with Eric. She didn't do it as a result of any sexual attraction, for Eric was butt-ugly, out of shape, and, I believed, moody.
Beth, although attractive to me, was never one to turn heads. Many mistook her for a dowdy librarian instead of a brilliant biochemist. It was hard for me to believe folks couldn't tell the difference, but I certainly could. Eric also recognized the beauty within Beth and did flirt, but for some reason, his doing so didn't bother me. I suppose it was because I felt very comfortable in my relationships with both Beth and Eric.
Unlike Eric's desire for playful banter and her dry retorts, I was first attracted to Beth's beaming smile and piercing eyes. When she made eye contact with me, I'd feel nervous and weak. How I loved to hold her hand and listen to all the intelligence flowing out of her. After a few years of hearing the same old thing, however, I found myself tuning her out. She also noticed, and, as she and I began drifting apart, Eric and I grew closer. I needed guy conversations; those filled with bragging, humiliation, irony, and lunacy. Beth's need for a mute sounding board meant little to me.
Physically, after having kids, our love life plodded along the stereotypical path of little intimacy and the burden of forgotten tenderness and ways of sharing. It didn't help my attitude any that Beth was a taker and I was the giver – at least for the first dozen-or-so years. Eventually, her unwillingness to do even the slightest thing for me turned me off so much that hopelessness and feelings of rejection replaced romance and intimacy.
It was about this time when Eric and I began taking vacations separately from our wives – not all of them, only one or two a year. This proved too frequent for my selfish Beth. More often than not, the few days before one of Eric's and my getaways were spent fending off Beth's jealous rants.
Thankfully, Beth's and my kids were never dragged into our arguments as they were away at boarding school every Monday through Friday. As such, Beth and I always put on the happy faces when the kids came home for the weekends. This system worked well enough until Eric and I began taking these trips. The kids became aware Beth and I were having major problems when, in advance of a Tuesday departure, Beth and I fought through the entire weekend.
In hindsight, Beth and I were idiots for not being straightforward with our children. Sweeping our problems under the rug blindsided the kids, and their backlash reaction was directed right at me. After all, I was the one abandoning their poor old mother for a week – and naturally, Beth played it up. The last thing she wanted was for me to leave her with our three upset kids, having to explain the past few years without me around. Beth took the upper hand on this one. Whenever I was away, Beth used the opportunity to badmouth me. By the time I returned home, my kids always refused to talk with me, or they would damage or destroy some personal item of mine. It hurt the most when my uncle's Green Beret uniforms were removed from my closet, a fact that remained hidden from me until a few weeks before Eric's family detonated. I tried, but was unsuccessful, at convincing Beth and my kids to lighten up on me. Instead, they ganged up and turned it around on me, saying that if Eric had been around more often, his family would still be together. This was a scenario I couldn't argue against and one they used as their poster child for despising me.
What did all of this have to do with my prized fishing rod and my tumultuous friendship with Eric? Everything. For if it wasn't for my sneaking out of my house one Saturday morning with rod and reel in hand to go fishing with Eric, which, by the way, was at his insistence, I would still be married and I'd have my great-grandfather's hickory rod still mounted above the fireplace. To this day, I find it difficult not to blame Eric for ruining both.
How was I supposed to know that Beth had planned a last-ditch romantic getaway, which she scheduled for that very same weekend? We had stopped talking about romance and details, so I didn't pay any attention when Beth asked me to stick around for the weekend. I figured she had some irritating yard-maintenance project awaiting me, so I pretended not to hear her.
Saturday morning came, and I slipped out of bed at 3:00 a.m., and then snuck downstairs to the living room. I remember grinning as I reached for my great-grandfather's highly figured, chunky, and perfectly balanced fishing rod. It slid from its mount without making a sound. However, I thought Beth would be awakened to the sound of my heart pounding in my chest as I tiptoed through the kitchen and toward the garage. Relieved to hear her snoring, I pushed the creaky door to the garage open and slithered through the maze of crap until I came to the grotto where my manly stuff was allowed to exist. There, I grabbed my tackle box and bait, and then slipped out the garage's back door.
Oh, how vital and alive I felt as I crossed my yard and into Eric's. In hindsight, I wish I had turned around and looked up to see Beth watching me from our bedroom window. I wish her tears could have touched my cold heart. If I only knew then what I know now.
Instead of accepting Beth's proposal, I pushed past the thought of glancing back, and set my rod to rest against the tailgate of Eric's truck. I tossed the tackle box and bait container into the truck bed before hustling into Eric's garage. As expected, he was waiting for me with a thermos full of coffee. I went inside to grab the cooler of sandwiches, chips, and beer while he got the truck warmed up.
I heard the crunch of his tailgate closing, but didn't give it a thought because twigs always dropped from trees overhead, becoming dislodged only when the tailgate crushed them on its way up. Eric's reaction was the same as mine. He jumped behind the wheel, started the engine, and flashed the headlights twice to hurry me up. I didn't need his pushiness and prepared to tell him so after setting the cooler into the truck bed. Thoughts of sipping hot coffee and catching enormous fish replaced my irritation, and we backed out of the driveway to the sound of crackling and crunching.
I slowly closed and then opened my eyes as I realized the death rattle came from my cherished rod and reel being shattered beneath the truck's wheels. "You didn't happen to set my rod in with yours, did you?" I breathily asked.
"Um, nope, I thought you had already."
"And it didn't dawn on you to check why the tailgate made a loud snapping sound as you closed it?"
"You and I both know junk gets caught in the hinge all the time, especially during the fall. How was I to know your pole was back there?" he huffed after jamming the gear into park. "Everything wrong in your life is always someone else's fault, right?" he grunted as he shoved his door open, mumbled another angry barb, and bent down to take a look under the front of the truck.
He shook his head sadly and motioned for me to join him, which I chose not to do. Instead, I cracked open the door and told him I didn't want to see it and to scrape together what he could and toss it into the trash bin – which he did. I didn't have the heart or the guts to get out and say goodbye to my favorite toy.
Looking back on it, I wondered if my tears matched the flow of my wife's that early morning. Sad and frustrated, I almost called it quits. The allure of another beautiful weekend on a lake, however, sang like a siren to me.
Eric always had several fishing poles in the back of his truck, so the weekend wasn't a wash, but my heart wasn't in it. Stupidly and selfishly, instead of wishing I had decided to stay home with Beth, I lamented the loss of my fishing pole. I suppose if I understood Beth's priorities for me, I would have called it a day and trudged back to my house.
Unfortunately, my sorrow didn't quench Beth's rage after I returned home Sunday evening. My apologies fell on deaf ears, while mine burned and blistered from the sulphur spewed deep from within Beth's soul. I meekly recounted the story of my prized fishing pole's last moments, hoping that we could commiserate, but it sounded so trite coming out of my mouth that Beth cackled hysterically. She wasn't happy in a revengeful sort of way. No, she was incredulous that I made a pathetic comparison between our failed marriage to the loss of a fishing pole.
I suppose complacency clouded my judgment. Because we didn't discuss much, I thought everything was fine – that Beth didn't really mind when I blew off her plans of romantic getaways and weekends of just the two of us hanging out together. It never sunk in that these events were her attempts to save our marriage. But, as she argued that fateful Sunday evening, why should she work to keep our marriage alive when I no longer acted interested in being a part of it?
I don't think I'll ever understand how expectations for a weekend can become so distorted and twisted that the reality is perfectly awful by the end of it. Perhaps if I did, then I could explain my decision to spend my 50th birthday with Eric.
Actually, I hadn't planned on going with Eric on this year's trip. With Beth gone, I was desperate to regain some kind of relationship with my kids. It was only after several failed attempts to reunite with my kids did I finally give in and agree to take this trip. Sadly, instead of offering an alternative birthday event for my fiftieth, my kids chipped in to help Eric pay for this year's getaway. I read their gesture as a one of good riddance. They never returned my calls, only Eric's, which substantiated my belief.
So, here I sat, sulking in Eric's cab, wondering why I was even alive. Eric was great at cheering me up, but this time my funk was too great for his b.s. to overcome. After a handful of failed attempts, Eric gave up on changing my mood. We were silent for the remainder of this leg of our journey.
We were quiet, but not brain dead. I saw Eric glance and sometimes stare at the two photos affixed atop his dashboard. He softly sighed with each look. I knew those sighs were for what could, and should, have been. Not interested in getting a black eye on my fiftieth, I kept silent, studying all the history and character within this old truck. Eric's was a very comfortable man cave because it had balls - oddities that made his cab unique. Eric didn't believe in wasting time matching colors, which was probably a result of him being color-blind. Although his truck's exterior was painted baby blue, in its early days, the bright-white letters of the word Ford were a terrific match, those letters had long ago faded and crumbled. Rust replaced all the lettering, along with most of the exposed metal. What remained of the exterior paint was scattered across the truck's body.
The interior didn't fare much better. The original dashboard had cracked and crumbled apart. It's white plastic had received several coats of paint over the years, but nothing saved it from the heat of the scorching sun and insanely dry air. About four years ago, Eric replaced it, the dashboard, with one he yanked out of another in a junk yard. He didn't care that it was beige. To him, it was close enough. Besides, it was in good shape and was without cracks.
I helped Eric remove the crumbling dash and replace it. Once again, though, we didn't get around to completing the project. A couple of missing screws allowed two sections of the dash to rattle and shake. The noise never bothered us because we couldn't hear it above the rattle and grinding emanating from the failing transmission. Now that Eric had the tranny fixed, all the cab's rattles and creaks were getting on my nerves. I reached for the radio, hoping the scratchiness of its speakers would drown out the truck's death-rattles. No such luck – the speakers seemed to amplify the other noises instead of burying them within white noise.
The disharmony within his truck's cab was grating and distracting, but it blended with the rest of the truck's oddness. Over the years, Eric sanded away layers of bad paint jobs, which exposed the metal, which explains all the rust and patches of baby-blue paint. Well-intentioned, Eric believed he'd get around to repainting his truck, but never seemed to have the time or the energy to finish it. The paint within the truck's cab was another story. Eric rationalized that since door-frame and interior metals were essentially hidden and out of sight most of the time, why bother to sand and repaint them? As such, Eric's truck's cab had a motley off-white dashboard, one section of black-painted window frame, another section of green, and others of brown, blue, and red.
Sometimes, I pitied Eric because his truck was a beater, a schizophrenic showcase of failed plans that seemed to reflect the pain of his personal life. Eric never cared, though, about his pickup's appearance or what the neighbors thought of it.
When his world was crashing down around him, Eric found comfort in his dilapidated pickup truck. Its strangeness, and not Eric, received  the disparaging stares and snide comments, allowing him to retreat into the cab's insulating shell. I was surprised at how long it took me to realize the genius behind Eric's eccentricity. If it weren't for my failed marriage and related despondency, I'm not sure I'd ever have understood. The reality was that the condition of Eric's pickup was the only thing he said he felt able to control and find pride in. Every square inch of the truck existed as it was because that's how Eric wanted it to be.
His relationships with his wife and children may have been irreparably scarred, but he knew his self-designed pickup truck would never reject him. He could make it look dumb as crud, but it would always welcome and forgive him. Eric's truck truly was the perfect man cave.
I wished I had a man cave, too, for it would have been a much more comfortable and dignified place to live. Armed with her most-grating lawyer, Beth took me to the cleaners when she left me. I lost the house and my truck. Nearly fifty, I had nothing to show, materially, for my life. Fifty, and I was living in my best friend's basement, bumming rides off him in his beat-up truck.
Divorce, at my age, was a humbling experience. All Beth and I had worked hard for over the decades became hers. I got stuck with the collection of lawyer fees and a judge's signature on a document that granted Beth full custody of our kids. My credit was useless as Beth burned through it. The coup de grace was when she used every last dime to pay off our house and her car.
 If it weren't for Eric's friendship and generosity, I'd be living in a cardboard box on the street. Thankfully, Eric never lorded my failed life over me. Maybe the main reason we stuck together for so long is that we both endured harsh realities that, by driving us away from others, these similar outcomes brought us closer even still.
A "we're here" from Eric awakened me from my grogginess and depressing replay of everything miserable in my life. I flopped out of the truck, shoved my hands into my jeans pockets, and ambled toward the restaurant's door. Opening it, the odors of scorched coffee and thick frying grease wrestled their way into our brains. A mixed blessing, the choking stench of soggy cigarette smoke sealed my nostrils shut.
I was surprised when Eric responded differently, as if this place was very familiar to him. He reacted to the wafting smells with a grin and a deep breath in. It was as if he were greeting an old friend. For a moment, I felt a twinge of jealousy, perhaps because I was unfamiliar with this facet of Eric's work life.
A disembodied voice happily and warmly greeted Eric, which made me feel further left out. Eric, true to his nature, looked out for me, though. I meekly smiled in the direction of the woman's voice when Eric yelled out that he was here with a friend.
A burly, grumpy-looking man pushed up from his seat at the counter, squinted hard at Eric, and then rushed to where we stood, and then grabbed Eric, squeezing him with a playful bear hug. The man's toothless grin was genuine and broad. He patted Eric enthusiastically on the back, and then extended the same hand to shake mine. Eric introduced him as Tanner Ives, an old fishing buddy. Once again, jealous feelings seeped into my brain as I tried to rationalize why Eric didn't tell me about Tanner or their fishing trips.
Selfishly, I couldn't believe I wasn't the only person Eric hung out with. This was when it dawned on me that I should have made a better effort at listening to Eric's stories about his life on the road. I always thought he was making the stuff up, so I began tuning him out years ago. It did seem odd that with all the trips Eric and I shared since we were kids that Tanner and much of Eric's work life never came up in our conversations.
"I got tired of wasting my breath," Eric said in reply to the puzzled and hurt look on my face.
My formulating protest vanished when Tanner motioned for Eric and me to take the two empty seats next to him, which we did. I leaned forward and strained to hear their conversation, which was  garbled because of the raucous chatter and plate clattering that made up the restaurant's background noise.
"Been a few months since we seen you, Eric. Where've you been?" asked Tanner.
"The utilities board had a few lines down this winter, but local talent got to them before I could," replied Eric with a shrug of his shoulders. "They pay me whether I'm sitting in an office or on the road. Sorry I missed hanging here with you and the others, Tanner, but not having to trudge through waist-deep snow to hang frozen-solid power lines was fine by me."
Tanner chuckled at this comment. It was easy to envision Eric kicked back in a desk chair, feet propped up on the desktop, and fast asleep.
"How can I get one of them cushy jobs? I thought no matter what, they'd have you driving all over the county, inspecting lines and what not."
"In the middle of winter? Not without getting hazardous-duty pay, my friend," Eric deadpanned, which caused Tanner to guffaw. A little late, I offered up a faint and half-hearted laugh to show I was one of the guys.
"Hey, Andie …"
"It's Adam, Tanner," I corrected.
"Oh, sorry," Tanner replied with a smug grin. "Betcha didn't know either that your buddy, Eric, here is a mighty fine hovercraft pilot."
"Huh?" I intelligently replied. Confused, I looked to Eric for clarification.
He shyly nodded and smiled, adding, "Well, although it's true Tanner taught me how to fly a hovercraft, I'm still learning."
"Haw," Tanner said with a chuckle, "you don't have no reason to be modest." Turning his attention back to me, Tanner said, "Our pal, Eric here, caught on quick. He's taken my hovercraft over both frozen and thawed lakes, the occasional road, and even atop a bit of whitewater."
"Why-why didn't you tell me?" I stammered. "Piloting a hovercraft has got to be one of the coolest things in the world, and yet you never told me."
Eric shrugged his shoulders and quietly said, "I didn't think there was a reason to bring it up until there was a time we'd need to use one. I was going to tell you before our next ice-fishing trip."
Tanner added, "You oughta see how a hovercraft flies across a frozen lake. Gets you to your fishing spot while the other guys are footin' it or struggling on dinky snowmobiles."
Fidgeting from awkwardness, this was the first time I was ever with Eric and felt like an outsider. On the periphery of their conversation, I began second-guessing when and how I could have missed out on being included in this part of Eric's life.
After quickly running a few flashbacks through my head, I realized I was too wrapped up in my own problems to care about Eric. Watching Eric and Tanner's happy expressions confirmed that my suspicion wasn't far from the truth. Weighted down by all the crap I let get to me, I now believed I had alienated Eric. This realization could have depressed me further, but I was determined not to sit there and take lightly getting shoved aside. I was willing to fight for Eric's friendship.
"Ever been here?" I nervously bellowed as I tossed the folded newspaper to land in front of Tanner.
His smile turned into a puzzled look as he first studied me and then the circled advertisement. He rubbed the stubble and his saggy cheek, then said, "No, son, I don't suppose I ever heard of something like this." He may have been old and worn-looking from the burdens of his later years, but the guy's mind was sharper than I expected. Although Eric didn't catch on, Tanner read right through my attempt to redirect the conversation by saying, "I suppose one day, when Eric's back on the road and not snoozing in his office, we'll make a run out there." Obviously unwilling to stomach much more of me, Tanner stood and roughly patted Eric on the back. "Been good to see you again, Eric. Don't be a stranger." He looked at me and said, "Feel free to be a stranger, there, sport."
I sighed and grimaced, watching as Tanner plodded toward the cash register. He dug his chained wallet out of his back pocket, handed the cashier some money, kissed her playfully on a blushing cheek, and then shoved through those milling around the restaurant's door.
"Way to go, Adam," Eric grumbled. "You just chased off the best fishing guide this side of the Rockies."
"I – I didn't mean to," I muttered. Lying, I added, "I got wrapped up in the excitement of our trip, I guess, and was showing off."
"Bullcrap, Adam. You're so strung out and insecure, you couldn't let me have a moment with anyone but you." Turning to face me, he finished with, "I had planned for Tanner to join us on this trip …"
"Without asking for my input? I was under the impression that we developed our camping plans together, you and me," I incredulously asked.
"Since when? Think about it, aren't I the one who usually comes to you with the idea and location? Only then do you get into the details. Sure, this is my birthday present to you, Adam, but that doesn't mean we can't break the ice by including other guys I know."
Feeling like an idiot, I sheepishly apologized, but the damage was done. Eric held onto stuff a bit longer than to my liking, so I expected it'd take a few days before he'd lose his frosty edge toward me. The best I could offer was, "You want me to chase Tanner down and apologize? I'd be glad to invite him to tag along."
Eric snorted and grumbled, "In his company, you'd be the tag along. Don't bother trying to fix this one. Tanner's long gone, and I've lost the desire, once again, to share my work life with you."
"Geez, Eric, you're a repairman for a utility company," I snidely retorted. "What's there to know?"
"I can see why Beth got fed up and left your sorry butt. You're a real downer, aren't you?" He stopped mouthing off when my shoulders drooped and I began nervously shuffling in my seat.
As I usually did during his brief rants, I sat quietly and stared straight ahead. It was a bitter pill for me to swallow that Eric was not only my best friend, but my only friend. Although glad he brought me to a restaurant that he frequented, it was a shock to learn he had a life outside of the one we shared as next-door neighbors. Frankly, I was overwhelmed by the realization, which was further complicated by the new sights, and smells of this completely foreign and uncomfortable restaurant. I slowly turned my head to look at Eric's face. I wondered if I really knew the guy sitting next to me. Instead of ranting, his voice had dropped to a whisper; nonetheless, it was painfully clear his mutterings were directed at me.
"Man, this trip with Eric was already sucking," I thought as I washed down a biscuit with a shot of hot coffee. This is when I remembered the only other lousy trip we took together.
Six years ago, Eric and I wasted one of our vacations not speaking to each other. Neither of us recall why we were fighting, but we were. It got so stupidly out of control that we slept in separate tents and made our own fires.
A few days lapsed after returning home; the distance cooled us off, and we shared a forgiving laugh and made up. Yet, here we were, on the verge of repeating the same outcome. Keeping track of all this emotional stuff was way too much for me to handle. This trip was already in a death spiral.
"Time out!" I accidentally shouted as I rose slightly up and out of my seat.
"What's wrong with you?" blurted Eric, startled by my out-of-the-blue remark.
It was so loud, in fact, that the entire restaurant fell silent. Embarrassed yet again, I waved to everyone and said everything was okay. I then buried my red face within the collar of my jacket.
"That's one of the things I like about you, Adam. You never fail to amuse me, you twit."
"You sound just like Beth," I grumbled, and then added, "but she's still better looking than you."
"Oh, don't try to joke your way out of this, Adam. Shooting off your mouth has become quite an annoying habit of yours. First, you piss off Tanner and me, and then you make a fool of yourself on my turf." He sighed, and then added, "I actually believed you'd behave …," he muttered as he sadly shook his head.
"Hey, lay off the insults, Eric. I get it now that you were trying to help me; you know, branch out a bit." I paused to formulate my next comment. "Okay, so I felt a little intimidated by your pal, Tanner. Given a few more minutes, I'm sure he and I could have become …"
"Tanner doesn't open up to many folks, Adam," Eric sighed, dismissing my meager attempt to salvage my dignity. "It took years of swapping fishing stories before he'd let his guard down. He's really a gentle and very nice guy; and yet," he said with a frown, "the moment I introduce you to him, you manage to chase him away. I had hoped to convince Tanner to come along, since you and I aren't familiar with the area we're heading to. He's a natural woodsman, someone we could learn from."
"I blew it, huh …"
"You could say that."
Eric motioned to the waitress and ordered himself a plate of sausage gravy and biscuits and a glass of grapefruit juice. Not only did the combination sound odd to me, but I never knew Eric liked grapefruit juice.
He saw the scrunched-up look on my face and said, "This is the only place I've ever found that serves pink-grapefruit juice. The owner has a relative in Florida who ships him the fresh fruit each month."
For all these years, I thought Eric was a meat-and-potatoes guy, like me; yet, here he sat, in a plaid hunting jacket, prattling on about his grapefruit connection.
Although talking to me, I knew Eric was still quite pissed because he usually would have ordered me the same food he got for himself. Not this time, though, so I frantically scanned the foreign menu for something with a familiar name. Unfortunately, this was one of those restaurants that gave their meals and platters  names like "Thunder Box SoufflĂ©," "Timberline Stack," and "Mama's Buttery Hash." I wanted sausage and gravy, too, but having learned my lesson with Tanner, I wasn't about to interrupt Eric and the waitress' flirting. As she turned to grab the pot to refill Eric's coffee cup, I nervously blurted out that I wanted Traitor Eggs and Mexican Hash.
Turned out what I ordered was a soupy version of Eggs Benedict and a side of chorizo mixed with chunks of undercooked potatoes. That meal kept my guts churning for hours. It was a good thing to order, as the rumbling in my stomach kept me awake and clenched during my part of the drive. I had the section of road that went on for what seemed like days without a change in scenery or terrain. When my stomach wasn't talking to me, thirty-seven preachers were – thanks to the amazing capability of the Blaupunkt radio. Apparently, out in the middle of nowhere, radio-station owners believed I needed to find God. My bladder ached, and the Scientology-preacher's rendition of the floods leading to Noah's Ark was only making my situation worse. I tapped the radio off, at least relieved to no longer listen to the garbled message coming through the destroyed speakers.
"I gotta stop and pee," I said through a yawn. I slowed the truck and lightly steered onto the shoulder.
Eric pretended to be asleep, but I knew he was quiet only because he was still mad at me. It wasn't until Eric's next shift, during the last leg of our journey, that he decided to talk to me, but it wasn't fast in coming. We wasted over an hour staring out the windows at the amazing landscape of soaring mountain peaks balanced along the edges of undulating valleys. Whether we had wanted to talk or not during this passage, the scenery took our breath away – as did the rarified altitude.

"You know," he began, "there's a whole side of me you care very little about."
"I already said I'm sorry, Eric, for crowding your conversation with your buddy, Tanner." I grumbled, adding, "I thought you and I were the fishing buddies."
"What do you think I did in my off hours while I was on the road? You know I don't like bars and truckstops. I'd often call Tanner and we'd go fishing. It was no big deal. Heck, Adam, you never wanted to hang out with me on the road."
I defensively sputtered, "I had a job of my own, Eric. It's not like I could drop what I'm doing to come along with you while you fix broken phone lines."
"So, you shouldn't be giving me crap because I have more than just you for a friend."
"I'm only irritated, I guess, because you never mentioned Tanner."
"Sure I did – several times – but you were always lost in your own little world."
"That's not true!"
"Whenever we'd go camping, you spend the entire trip whining and griping about your wife and kids."
"Well, you certainly won't hear anything about them this trip," I shot back.
"Yeah, Beth got tired of listening to all your whining, too. Heck, I believe the main reason she left you was because of that mealy mouth of yours."
"You're one to talk, there, my friend. At least my kids didn't get mired down in pregnancy, drugs, and apathy."
"Oh really? Tell me, Adam, how often do you and your kids talk? They moved out of town, instead of attending your college just to get away from you, I heard. Go on and tell me – how many times a month do you and your kids speak. Heck, do you realize that you never mention them by their names? You always refer to them only as your kids."
My hesitation spoke loudly. "Just as I thought," he smirked. "You're a fine one to point a finger at me, you friggin' hypocrite."
"That's a big word coming from a cable-repair guy," I smirked.
Eric lurched the truck to the right and jammed hard on the brakes, which slammed me into the door. "Get out!" he hissed through a snarled lip, staring straight ahead. "You have no right to bust my chops about my life when yours is such a mess. I've heard enough of your non-stop griping about how miserable you are, yet you've done nothing to improve yourself. By the way, how long are you planning on living in my basement, you mooch."
I was in shock. Either Eric had a thin veneer that finally cracked, or I finally upset him enough that he could take no more. This was a heavy realization for me. I didn't think I was that bad over the years, but apparently, I was wrong. Immediately, I felt sad, confused, and hurt.
Eric repeated, "Get out," but added, "or give me a reason to keep this trip and our friendship alive."
My mouth still hung open in shock. My brain scrambled for a shred of our friendship that I could offer Eric as proof that I cared about him and his family. I started off by mumbling, but stopped when I realized the words were trite – regurgitated whining about my life. Before saying another word, I clamped my mouth shut.
"Nothing to say, eh, Adam? You mean you can't find one good thing to say …"
"I saved your life, Eric," I mumbled. I saw the expression on his face soften as he, too, remembered.
"Oh yeah, that," he resignedly muttered.
During the period when he and Natasha were fighting and his kids were falling apart, Eric began drinking heavily. He showed up at work drunk once, and although it was the first time ever in his twenty-odd years as foreman at the steel-slitting plant, he was fired. Without a job and his pension, Eric's family continued to detonate as he spun out of control.
I was the one who found him in his truck two days after he roughed up Natasha. She called me the day after he disappeared. She wasn't frantic, and by the bruises she showed me, it certainly made sense, but she did care enough to worry when he went missing.
Yeah, I was the one who found Eric, but what I found was a mess. Eric didn't remember the accident that left him pinned inside Natasha's sedan, but I suspected, from the number of empty beer bottles covering the floorboard, that he had blacked out before he wrecked. He was lucky that I thought to search along a dirt road outside of one of our favorite local campsites.
The set of muddy tire tracks I followed soon disappeared into roadside brush. Crashing through it, I came upon what should have been Eric's coffin. The front of Natasha's car was crushed all the way up to the windshield, and Eric's lower half was mixed in with the car's debris. It took the paramedics nearly two hours to cut him out of the wreckage.
I was also the one who cared for Eric during the following six months of physical therapy and AA meetings. I was between jobs back then, so I had the time and certainly the eagerness to help my best friend.
Using my truck, I drove Eric to his job interviews. Since her old beater was totaled in the wreck, Natasha commandeered Eric's pickup, which, once again, left him dependent upon me. I didn't mind, although driving and waiting in parking lots was irritating and boring. So many places turned him down because of his DUI-conviction and for reporting to work drunk. Only the utility board offered him the lineman's job, and they did so only because they were desperate to get a bunch of repairs done after a tornado wiped out a quarter of their business in our county.
Eric snapped us back to the present and changed the subject with, "So, the way I see it, Adam, is that we're at a crossroads, you and me. Although best of friends, we trip over each other as much as we help each other. I mean, look what happened this morning at breakfast. Heck, there's a whole side of me that you know nothing about. It's like you helped me find the job, but then washed your hands of me."
"Bull. We were both caught up with our own families' dramas. I tend to believe your and my distancing was coincidental; our friendship took a backseat to the nonsense going on around us. That's the way I prefer to remember it, anyway."
Eric sat quietly, somewhat deflated, before saying, "Fine, I see your point. I was afraid we had drifted apart, to the point of no return. After breakfast, I was convinced of it."
"What I'm hearing is that you were expecting this trip to make or break our friendship. Is that right?"
"Yes, in a nutshell."
"What a lousy fiftieth it'd be if I lost my best friend doing what we love to do together." A sincere grin spread across my face. "If nothing else kept us going, camping was our outlet – a way to clear our heads and reconnect with what's important."
"Unfortunately, we didn't seem to think our families were high on our list of priorities." Frustrated, he let out a long, slow breath and shook his head. "Gotta admit, our trips have also been escapes …"
"… which caused deeper rifts within our families."
"Yeah …," sighed Eric as he glanced at the two photos of his wife and kids inside the frame velcro'd to the dash. His mood instantly turned around, however, when he announced, "Here we are, boss. I hope you're ready for a trip we'll never forget."

* * * * *
Tomorrow, look for the post for Chapter 2.

1 comment:

  1. Loved the first chapter. I'll get back to the rest tomorrow after new year's celebrations are over.


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