The day before Christmas and we were get­ting drunk at the 19th Hole, our local golf course bar, which was almost buried in snow. There was a roar­ing fire and Wally, the bar­man and an old kinder­garten class­mate, brought over four long Jameson’s on ice.
“Welcome home boys. This round is on the Inn,” said Wally.
We raised our glasses and toasted Wally, The Maplewood Golf Course and Inn, the town, the lake, snow, sum­mer, leav­ing town, our school and espe­cially our tenth grade math teacher, Miss Miotto, who had the body of a cello. All home for the hol­i­days, our talk ranged from work to sports to wives to kids and usu­ally ended up back in town, revolv­ing around some triv­ial memory.
“You guys hear about Zubic?” asked Sid, a den­tist in San Francisco.
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“Yeah, he went out to the Rockies and became a ski instruc­tor or park ranger or something.”
“He died in March. Burned to death in a shack.”
“Guess he was doing some early spring ice fish­ing, the wood stove caught fire and incin­er­ated him, the shack and three Huskies. I can’t believe you guys didn’t hear anything.”
“So they say.”
“Was he wasted?”
“He was ice fish­ing. Probably.”
“Why didn’t any one email me?” I asked.
We stared at the fire, ordered another pitcher.
“Remember that track-meet where Zubic broke his arm?” said Brent, a hedge-fund man­ager in Toronto.
“Yeah. High-jump, right? He jumped the mat,” said Sid.
“I don’t remem­ber that,” I said.
“Sure you do. You were there. I remem­ber because we bribed you to drop the baton in the 400m relay,” said Godfry, now a pas­try instruc­tor at LeCordonBleu Chef school in Key West.
“I remem­ber it like it was yesterday.”
“I remem­ber drop­ping the baton,” I admit­ted, “but it was an acci­dent. It banged my knee and slipped out of my hand, we were dis­qual­i­fied. Sorry, but there was no bribe. No money changed hands.”
“I can’t believe you don’t remem­ber. It changed my opin­ion of you com­pletely,” said Harlen, a pilot for FedEx, who moved cities so quickly we stopped asking.
“Why would you guys bribe me? Why would my own team­mates bribe me to drop our own baton?” I asked.
“No one wanted to run. It was the last event of the day. We were dead.”
“Yeah, it was a scorcher. I had a sun­burn on the back of my legs.”
“It was your idea,” Sid said point­ing his glass at me.
“I never thought you would do it,” Godfry added.
“Completely ruth­less,” said Harlen, “Coach Bogart was fum­ing. We had a good chance to pick up a medal in that race.”
“You guys are tak­ing the piss. I don’t remem­ber any of this. Did Coach Bogart know we got dis­qual­i­fied on purpose?”
I had always respected the Coach’s crotch­ety devo­tion, shaded optimism.
“I never told him.”
“I doubt it.”
“I think I would’ve remem­bered his reac­tion. If he’d known, he’d’ve killed you.”
“How much money did you all give me?” I asked, still not believing.
“Five bucks each,” Brent said.
“I threw a race for fif­teen bucks?”
“You were a kid. Fifteen bucks was a lot back then.”
“Selective mem­ory. Dude, you did it.”
“Pure mer­ce­nary. Ice cold man.”
The fire crack­led. A spark flew onto the car­pet. I stood up and extinguished the glint with my father’s bor­rowed work boot. I felt like say­ing some­thing angry but didn’t.
“I’m going to drain the weasel.”
Instead of going down the stair to the men’s dress­ing room, I went out the back door and looked over the course from the tee­ing ground ledge. Flakes flur­ried and spun, moon reflect­ing off the vast white. Ski and snow­mo­bile and deer tracks could be fol­lowed. I undid my pants and watched the snow drib­ble yel­low. The air was cold on my skin. A cold I had for­got­ten since mov­ing to Columbia. As I was zip­ping up, I heard a voice:
“So this cus­tomer says to me, ‘I got a tip for you. Don’t eat yel­low snow!’”
I hear Wally’s laugh morph into a cough. I turn to see a cig­a­rette dan­gling from a smile.
“Jeez‚ Wally don’t scare me like that.”
“Afraid you gonna fall off the ledge and tobog­gan down with your willy out?”
“Some things never change.”
We shared some silence. He offered me a smoke.
“You ever miss this place?” Wally asked me.
“Sure all the time. It’s a good place. A beau­ti­ful place.”
“Then why did you leave?”
“Just to see what other places are like, I guess. Just to see.”
“If you don’t leave home, you ain’t got no home to come home to, right?”
“Something like that, Wally. Something like that.”
“Well, I bet­ter get back in there and stoke the fire. You guys want another round?”
“Sure set one up. Hey, Wally. Can I ask you something?”
“Sure, but I don’t know if I got any answers.”
“You know me pretty well. Huh? I mean we were neigh­bors and class­mates for what twelve, fif­teen years? You know me, right.”
“Yeah I know you.”
“Would you say I was ruthless?”
Wally threw his cig­a­rette butt into the white snow. He looked at me then rubbed his hands together and blew on them to keep them warm.
“Ruthless, naw, but an oppor­tunist? For sure.”
“What do you mean? “
“You do what you say you will and you get what you want.”
“I’ll take that as a com­pli­ment, Walt.”
“Take it any way you can get it, but my ass is freez­ing, back to the grind­stone. Hasta luego, hermano.”
He swung the glass door open and began stamp­ing his boots to get the snow off. I watched him go behind the bar. A car­load of overly made up high school girls came in the front door. I watched Wally crack a joke through the glass win­dow and could hear their laughter. He started tak­ing their orders.
I went back to the fire and my old friends, finally real­iz­ing why I never enjoyed team sports.