Every since I’ve known him, my best friend Gene has always been a story teller. He’s good at it, too, most of them having to do with things that have happened to him at work on his job as a carpenter. Like uncovering a nest of garter snakes, (‘There must have been ten thousand the friggin’ things), or the time he almost got hit by lightning (‘I couldn’t hear a thing for the rest of the god damn day’), or the time he shot himself in the foot with a nail gun (‘Hurt like a son-of-a-bitch’). Stuff like that. He was pretty funny, too, how he told them, and I enjoyed listening to him. He always made me laugh.
Last summer we had gotten in the habit of sitting on a couple of lawn chairs in his garage on Sunday afternoons, having a few beers and listening to the Twins game on the radio. Gene wasn’t always a carpenter. Twenty seven years earlier, for a brief period of time, he played first base and batted fifth for the Quad City River Bandits, a Class A baseball team affiliated with the Houston Astros. On that July afternoon during game between the Twins and Kansas City, he told me a story with a different tone to it. One that wasn’t funny at all. One I’ll never forget. It was about when he visited a prostitute in downtown Rock Island, Illinois.
“Yeah, it was on my nineteenth birthday,” he said, turning serious as he lowered the volume on the radio. Then he cracked open a cold can of Hamm’s. I half expected him to switch gears after setting me for something heavy and start telling me a funny story, like when there was once a rain delay and the ball diamond turned into a lake and the fans in the stands as well as both teams went skinny dipping. You, know, making a joke, out of things. It was the kind of thing he might do.
But he didn’t.
“My friends from the River Bandits were behind it all,” he said, using finger quotes around friends to make the point that, even though they were teammates, his friends weren’t really his friends. “There was Stinky, Fred, Jorge and Harper, all…”
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted, “Stinky?”
“Yeah,” Gene looked at me like I was dense, “You know, cuz of his feet.” He crinkled up his nose, remembering, I suppose, the noxious aroma emanating from his teammate’s baseball cleats. Probably not the most pleasant memory in his arsenal of memories, I wagered. Then he took a sip of beer.
In my mind I went, Oh, well, sure. Feet. Of course.
“I guess the smell is caused by bacteria on the sweat glands,” he informed me, pointing to his boots propped up on a milk crate, “In Stinky’s case he must have had twice as many as everyone else, cuz, man, they were always pretty ripe…”
I put my hand up, “Stop, stop, stop. Way too much info.”
“Well, you asked.”
“Right. Well never mind. I get it.”
“So can I get back to my story?”
I waved my can of beer at him, “Go ahead.”
“As I was saying, those guys set the whole thing up. We were at home playing a double header with the Lansing Lugnuts.”
I coughed out a laugh, spewing a mist of beer. “The Lugnuts?”
Gene was getting exasperated. “Yes, and they were damn good. Do you want to hear my story or not?”
I did. “Sorry. Go on,” I wiped my nose. A little beer had gone up it.
“We lost the first game in the afternoon, and won the second in the evening, so I was in a pretty good mood.” He smiled, thinking back to that night. Gene’s team had been based in Davenport, Iowa, and he’d told me many times that they were ‘Marginally Ok,’ as he put it, finishing in the middle of the seventeen team Midwest League each of the two seasons he was with them. “Harper was twenty-eight, the oldest guy on the team and the ring leader. He organized everything. The guys borrowed a car, made the arrangement with Jackie and…”
“Geez!” he exclaimed and stopped talking for a moment. He stared at me for a long couple of seconds before asking, “Who do you think?”
“Oh,” I said, ” Yeah, right.”
I was pretty excited to hear his story. Most guys would be. After all, that first time always sticks in your mind, doesn’t it? At least mine always has – a misfire of mammoth proportions on my part with my college sweet heart, the ever patient and long suffering Molly Henderson.
“So they had me all set to go. All I had to do was follow their lead. Problem was, I guess I wasn’t ready.”
“A bit of premature issue?” I asked. This time it was me using finger quotes around premature. I was sympathetic to what I imagined might have happened.
“Something like that.”
Damn. I was hoping he’d had a more successful first time than me, but I guess I was going to be disappointed.
“After we won that second game, we were all pretty stoked. We went to a bar across the river in Rock Island. It’s a college town you know, and the place had some weird name like The Smiling Toad or something like that. It was just off the interstate in Illinois and down near the river bottoms – the Mississippi. It looked like it was a old roadhouse of some kind because the parking lot was dirt and there were trees all around, like it was carved out of a forest. It was pretty secluded and the place was packed. Anyway, we were going to have a few beers to celebrate the win, my birthday, and my pending present from the guys.” He stopped talking for a moment before continuing, “I have to say, talking about this…it’s embarrassing.”
Well, he started it. Ten minutes earlier, I was happy just listening to the Twins playing the Royals.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” I told him.
“No. I kind of want to. Need to, actually.”
It dawned on me that he was really agonizing over this. I liked Gene a lot and I wanted to be supportive., “Go ahead, man, it’s happened to millions of guys,” I told him, surmising that millions was probably way too low an estimate.
“The bar was loud, some local band was playing Led Zeppelin covers, and I was tossing back those brewskie’s like I was drinking glasses of water.” He looked at the can of Hamm’s he was holding, grimaced, and set it down on the cement floor. Then he continued, “When I was pretty well on my way to feeling no pain, the guys got me to my feet, held me steady, and led me outside. I remember stumbling down the steps into the parking lot and falling down at least once on the way to the car – probably a lot more than that. Not my finest moment, that’s for sure.”
He looked at me and I just shook my head. No it wasn’t. Nowadays, Gene is a pretty sober guy, a hard worker and devoted family man. But back then at nineteen…well, hell, we’ve all done stupid things when we were young, right? I told him, “Don’t worry, man, we’ve all been there.”
I think he appreciated that I understood the limitations inherent in his intoxicated state and went on, “I guess earlier one of the guys had moved the rental to the far side of the parking lot, over by the forest and away from the floodlights. It seemed like the walk took forever. Stinky put his arm around me as we made our way up to the car and said, ‘Here we go, Slugger, it’s your big night. Get ready for the time of your life.’
“Talk about adding to the pressure, right?” I asked.
“No kidding. When we finally got to the car, Harper opened the back door and leaned in and said, ‘Here he is.’ Stinky gave me the tiniest shove and told me, ‘Good luck,’ and I went tumbling inside, not knowing what to expect. Then they slammed the door.”
“Man…” I said, just to say something. “Not good,” I added. What a bad situation. I was beginning to really feel for the guy.
“No kidding. Not good is putting it mildly.”
“What happened then?”
“The guys I was with, my friends (finger quotes again) just laughed. The window was down and Stinky leaned in and said to me, ‘Her name is Jackie. You all have fun,’ and then they left. I could hear them laughing all the way across the parking lot back to the bar.”
“Not the best beginning,” I observed.
“No. Not at all,” Gene said, turning to me, “And it didn’t get any better from there.” He paused again, picturing, I’m sure, how events played out. It was not a pretty picture I was guessing, more Jackson Pollack than Claude Monet. It turns out I was right (about it not being a pretty picture, that is), but I was way wrong about what had happened. In fact, I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life, but never more wrong than when it came to Gene and Jackie. He continued with his story, turning even more serious, “Here’s the deal, Ed. When I finally got up the courage to look at her, I couldn’t believe what I saw. In my mind I was picturing a sexy woman in her late twenties, with wavy, blond hair, blue eyes and a great build, wearing a short, tight, red dress and perfume that smelled like vanilla. You know, some weird preconceived sexist image.” Yeah, I thought to myself, something a nineteen year old horny guy (if not a lot of other guys) with an over active imagination and no girl friend might have. He continued, “But the person I was sitting next to was nothing like that. Not at all.” He looked at me, imploring me to believe him.
I did. His seriousness and tone made what he was telling me quite believable. In fact, I’d never seem him as upset as he was. For some reason I lowered my voice almost to a whisper, “What was she like?”
He was clearly agitated. Beads of sweat had broken out on his forehead. “Ed, she was so young! She looked like she was only fifteen. She reminded me of my sister, of all things.” He twisted his hands and then rubbed them on the thighs of his jeans.
Shit. Not good. I’d seen enough news coverage about underage prostitution rings to know horrific they were.
“That absolutely sucks,” I said.
“No kidding,” he shook his head some more and then continued, “It made me sick back then and it makes me sick now, just thinking about it,” he looked me in the eye, “She was nothing like I’d imaged. She…” He shook his head, at a loss for words.
I understood where he was coming from. “Unbelievable,” I said, then thought to clarify, “Fifteen you think?”
He shook his head some more, chagrined at the memory, “I’d guess, yeah. She looked lots younger than me, that was for sure. She had short dark hair and bangs, and was wearing blue jeans and some kind of white peasant shirt with embroidery on it. I remember she wore a thin gold chain necklace that had a little gold heart.” He was quiet for a moment and added, almost in a whisper, “She looked like a little kid.”
The garage fell quiet except for the muted game in the background. We were both lost in our thoughts. Finally, I said, “Well, you did the right thing.”
“What do you mean?”
“You left right away didn’t you?”
Gene face turned beet red. “Well, no.”
“But I should have,” he was quick to add, “I mean, I would now. I mean…,” he was clearly flummoxed.
“What happened?” I asked, testily.
“Well, remember, I was pretty drunk. Plus, I was looking forward to this to happening, so I tried to ignore her age and rise to the occasion, so to speak.”
Man, I couldn’t believe what he was telling me. I got mad. He should have just left. Taking advantage of an underage person (girl!) was not cool in my book. Apparently it wasn’t in Gene’s either, he just didn’t know it then.
“How’d that go for you?” I asked sarcastically, “Did you get your birthday present? ” I didn’t even bother with the finger quotes. I was disappointed in him. And myself. I averted his gaze and looked into the corner of the garage where the radio was. The Twins were batting in the bottom of the seventh but I have to say, I wasn’t really paying attention anymore. The unsetting thought had just occurred to me that I might had done exactly the same thing if I’d been in his situation. Believe me, it was not a pleasant character trait to have to face, but there you had it. Then I remembered he was only nineteen (me, too, in my imagination.) We all make mistakes. I know I certainly had. Have. Did. I calmed down a little to let both him and me off the hook.”Sorry,” I said, “It’s just out of character for you, is all.”
He smiled a wan smile, “Well, thanks for that. I was stupid and deserved what I got. So, no, I didn’t get my present. Not even close. Let’s just say that too much beer and too much quilt…well, they just don’t make for a happy ending, if you know what I mean.”
I nodded, unfortunately having been there in the beer scenario way too many times, “Yeah, I definitely know what you mean.”
Gene was silent for a moment, listening to the Twins. He turned up the volume a little. Buxton has just hit a triple. We both smiled. Gene picked his beer up from the floor and we taped our cans. But my friend wasn’t done with his story yet, not by a long shot.
“I have to tell, you, though, she was really nice about it. I remember she patted my shoulder, and said something like, ‘It’s Ok, Slugger, it happens more often than you think,’ which didn’t make me feel any better, but she was so sweet about it that I almost believed her.”
It was nice she tossed him a life line, I thought. In fact, she sounded like she was a decent person. I was curious, though, and asked, “Then what happened?”
“The weirdest thing. I pulled up my jeans and was getting ready to leave, but she stopped me, put her hand on my arm and said, ‘Do you have a cigarette? Your friends have already paid. We could just sit here and talk or something.’
“You’re kidding,” I said. Then I remembered her age. Maybe she just wanted a break in what I could only imagine was a god awful life. A few minutes of peace. Plus, even back then I’m assuming Gene was a nice guy, like he is now. Maybe she was being honest with him.
Gene started shaking his head again. “I just wish I hadn’t drunk all the beer. I would have enjoyed just sitting there with her. I didn’t have a girl friend. I’d always been shy and didn’t date much, so it would have been nice to be with her and, you know, just talk.”
Given all that had happened that night, I could see his point. “So did you?”
“No. Didn’t get a chance,” he said.
“Right about then, the cops showed up.”
I coughed and choked on the beer I had just drunk. “What?” I managed to quite literally spit out. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Yeah. Well, no, I’m not kidding. We were in the back seat remember. Just sitting there, me wondering what to do next and trying to sober up. Jackie offering to talk. Then, all of a sudden two cop cars came tearing into the parking lot, sirens wailing, lights flashing, tires spinning. The dirt was flying everywhere. My first thought was that I was going to get busted.”
“What’d you do?”
“Well, I started sweating like a pig.”
“No. I mean the cops. Did the cops surround your car and arrest you or something?”
I’d watched enough television to have a crystal clear picture in my head of the events unfolding. I could see the squad cars skidding to a stop in a cloud of dust right next to Gene and Jackie. I could see the cops jumping out, pulling their guns and surrounding the car, pointing high beam flashlights at them and shouting for them to ‘Get out of the car! Get out of the car!’ Or ‘Down on the ground! Down on the ground!’ Or ‘Don’t move or else!’ Or something like that. My imagination was working overtime.
“Man, not good. Did you get arrested?”
“Arrested?” Gene laughed, “Not on your life.”
I was confused. What about the police surrounding the car and pointing their guns and all the yelling and all that stuff. “Well, what happened?”
“Yeah. It was Jackie’s idea. As soon as the cops pulled into the parking lot, she took one look and said something like, ‘Shit, let’s get out of here.’ She opened the door on her side, got out, grabbed my hand and pulled me along with her. We ran in the opposite direction.”
“What the hell?”
“Yeah. Remember we were at the edge of the parking lot? Well, she pulled me into the underbrush next to the car and then into the woods and we ran as fast as we could, busting through the forest, falling down, getting smacked in the face with branches and all scratched up. Eventually we made it made a quarter of a mile or so to the Mississippi, slid down the bank and right into the river. Man, I’ll tell you, that muddy water sobered me up quick.” He laughed at the memory and looked at me. I’m sure my mouth was hanging open. This stuff only happened in the movies, didn’t it? “It was a blast,” he added, smiling some more and taking a healthy drink of beer.
“Weren’t you scared?”
“I was too drunk to be scared. Besides, it turned out the police weren’t there to bust an underage hooker and a misguided, drunken, nineteen year old guy. They were there to break up a big brawl in the bar,” he laughed, “They didn’t have a clue about us.”
All I could think to say was, “Amazing.”
Gene sat back and took another swallow of his beer. “Yeah it was. And you want to know the really amazing part?”
There was more? “Absolutely.”
“Well, Jackie and I sat on the bank of the river all night long, just talking and getting to know each other. It was first time that’d ever happened to me with a girl.”
Shit, it was just like in the movies!
“Turns out she was a great person.” (Right then I started picturing that movie with Richard Gere and what’s her name in it, the prostitute he befriends.) “She told me her story: that she was eighteen and she and a few of her friends were ‘Hooking,’ as she called it, for extra money that summer. She was going to use it when she started college in Decorah that fall. I’ll tell you this, Ed, we hit it off right off the bat. No baseball pun intended.” Pun or not, he gave me a big, silly, grin.
“Are you going to tell me you not only became friends, but you started going out?”
“Yeah, and then some.”
I was finding this increasingly hard to believe.”What more could there be?” I asked somewhat skeptically.
“We became friends. We started dating and…” he said, drawing it out. The garage went quiet except for the radio. In the background Polanco singled home Dozier. The Twins were up 5-2.
“And then what?” I asked, despite my skepticism, I was drawn in by his story and anxious to find out what happened.
“Three years later we got married.”
Oh. My. God.
Gene and I had become friends twenty one years earlier when our girls started playing soccer on the same team in the Long Lake under seven soccer league. We were both in our late twenties, enjoyed doing stuff with our kids, and shared a common philosophy regarding children’s athletics: the main thing was to have fun when you were playing the game. Learning new skills, learning how to play as a team, those kinds of things were good, too. Winning was way down on the list. That first year our kids’ team challenged that philosophy by winning two games out of fifteen and finishing dead last in the league. But we bought the team, The Long Lake Lady Lilies, dilly bars at DQ after every game, and the little girls were happy and had fun, so that’s what counted.
Anyway, back then Gene had just started working for a general contractor in the western Hennepin county area. He was busy a lot, so I ended up car pooling his daughter, Samantha, along with my daughter, Ellie, to a lot of the games. To make up for it, he’d invite me and my wife, Chris, and Ellie and our son, Ethan, over on Sunday afternoons to barbeque brats, toss the Frisbee around and hang out. Over that first summer not only did Gene and I get close, but so did my wife and his wife, Beth, or BJ as he called her.
BJ worked part-time at Ridgedale, the big shopping Mall seven miles east of us, at Macy’s in the jewelry department. Chris made hand-crafted place mats and table runners on her loom in our basement that she sold on-line. They both were devoted mothers, and they both enjoyed gardening and reading, so they had more than a few things in common. To make a long story short, over the years we all become close friends, eventually working our way up to spending the occasional Thanksgiving together, along with ever single Fourth of July and Memorial Day and Labor Day for the past twenty years. It was as good a friendship as four people could ever have.
Gene was a big man, standing six-three, and towering over my five-ten. He outweighed me, too, by probably fifty or sixty pounds, all of it muscle, not like my jelly belly flab. And that man was strong, I’ll tell you. I’ve seen him carry a forty pound bag of concrete mix under each arm like it was nothing. Me? One bag and two hands and I could barely lift it, let alone carry it.
He dressed in blue jeans, work boots, and flannel shirts most of the time except for when the Minnesota summers turned hot and humid. Then he ditched the flannel for white tee-shirts but kept the jeans and boots. He wore his dark hair long, tied it back in pony tail and kept his salt and pepper beard neatly trimmed. He kind of reminded me of a mountain man. Anyway, the point of all of this is that he was one big guy who could have used his size to intimidate people but he didn’t. He was one of the kindest people I’d ever met. He gave money to numerous environmental organizations, donated his time at the local senior living complex by helping out doing odd jobs, and even kept the grass cut on his next door neighbor’s lawn, Mrs. Halverson, a eighty-two year old widow, who Gene said reminded him of his mother.
Last fall he told me he wanted to tear down his old, single story garage and build a new one. “Yeah, it’s going to be double wide with space in the back for my workbench and tools. I’m even going to make room for us so we can sit and visit and listen to the games. Like a clubhouse,” he tapped his temple and smiled, “I’m thinking all the time, buddy. I’m even going to put in a stove for heat and a refrigerator, you know, in case we want some beers.”
I liked how his mind worked.
Initially he was going to do the construction himself but I ended up helping, which was an experience in and of itself because handy with any kind of tools I’m not. Even the simple task of hammering a nail straight gives me problems. They always bend. Early in our marriage Chris kindly of put up with my lack of skill in the home maintenance department, saying encouragingly on many occasions, “That’s Ok, Eddie, at least you tried.” Nowadays she simply says, “Ed, don’t waste your time. Just call Gene.” So I do, and the job gets done, done fast, and done right.
So after twenty years or so of him helping me out, I felt I owed him more than the occasional gift card for a dinner out with BJ or a case of Hamm’s (conveniently, both his and my favorite beer.) “How about if I help with the garage?” I asked him that afternoon when I was over watching as the bobcat demolish the eighty year old structure in about ten minutes, “It’s the least I can do after all you’ve done for me.”
Gene looked at me askance, “Carpentry, Ed? Are you sure?”
I understood his reticence. After all, my job as a Life Science teacher at the local middle school was a far cry from what Gene did for a living. But I was eager to try. “Sure, what not?” I said, adding quickly before he could say No, “I take orders well, just ask Chris.” Which was true. I may not possess the greatest number of skills when it comes to practical matters, like fixing a leaky faucet or replacing a screen on a window, but I was willing to tackle any project. (Then I’d call Gene.)
“All right,” he said, after considering it, “Who knows, it might be fun.”
It was. Working one day a week, we got the demolished garage debris cleared out and hauled away by the end of October. Then he had a crew come over and pour the slab. After it cured for a couple of weeks we started the framing which we finished by New Year’s. We had the siding on in the middle of February, in time for the first day of spring training. Then we put in a small wood burning stove in the back to heat the place during the rest of the cold Minnesota winter while we finished the inside. We usually worked either Saturday or Sunday and it was fun. I even learned to drive a nail straight. (Gene taught me how to use a nail gun. Piece of cake.) By the time April and the Twins first regular season game rolled around, we had the two car plus space complete and were ready for the radio, some beer and baseball.
All well and good, right? Well, the thing was, during the time we were doing the construction, a good six months, I noticed something changing in my friend. He’d always had energy to burn and could easily out work me. But as the year ended and this new year began, he started to slow down a little, took more breaks, and just didn’t seem to have the pep he normally had. When I mentioned this to Chris in February she said, “Why don’t you ask him about it?”
Novel idea, and not one guys are usually comfortable with. But after I hemmed and hawed for a few weeks, trying to figure out a way to bring it up without it looking like I was prying (and coming up nothing), I said to myself, to hell with it, I’ll just ask him.
Say Gene, how are things going? You feeling Ok these days?” There, that wasn’t so hard, was it?
We were taping in the dry wall. He kept working, but said to the wall, “Sure. Why?”
“I was just wondering is all.”
“Nope. All is good, buddy.” Then turned and looked past me to the section of wall I was working on, giving it a critical eye, “Make sure you get that tape sanded a little smoother, Ed, It looks kind of rough.”
So there you go. Everything was Ok.
When I told this to Chris that evening she gave me an incredulous look and said, “That’s all you did? Just asked him and left it? You didn’t push him and ask some more detail. You know, maybe probe a little,” she said, raising her voice and poking me in the chest with her finger a few times to make her point, “God, Ed, you a such an idiot.”
“What?” I said, a little defensively, rubbing the spot where she’d poked me, “What else could I have done?”
“Not let him off the hook, that’s what. Haven’t you noticed that he’s lost weight, too?”
No, I hadn’t. “Not really.”
“Men!” Chris said, and stomped off, saying over her shoulder, “I’ll call BJ. and find out what’s going on.”
“No, you don’t have to do that,” I said, I hurrying after her. But she did anyway.
Gene had been feeling poorly, is what BJ told Chris and what Chris relayed to me later that night. “He just doesn’t have much energy,” BJ told me.
“Yeah, like I said.”
She ignored my comment and continued, “His doctor’s keeping an eye on him. BJ thinks we should just carry on with Gene like all is well. I guess he doesn’t want to make a big deal of it.” She paused and looked at me and then added, “She thanked me for my concern and for calling her, and told me it was good to talk.”
Chris’ take charge attitude made me feel a little defensive, but I let it ride, knowing I was never going to win an argument with my headstrong wife.
“Sounds good to me,” I said, happy to have avoided a confrontation. Besides, not getting into feelings was something both Gene and I were good at. So we left it at that.
And that brings me to where we were now, sitting in the finished garage on an August afternoon, drinking a few beers and listening to the Twins play Kansas City. I had been a little surprised by Gene’s out-of-the-blue prostitute story but was happy to play along, more curious than anything as to what happened – you know, what the final outcome had been. Now this. The reality of the situation was that the prostitute, Jackie, was really BJ, Gene’s wife, and they were happily married and had been for many years!
Did his telling me the story have something to do with his illness?
“Ed, there’s a little bit more I need to tell you about,” he told me.
Well, I guess I was about to find out.
He stood up, went to the workbench and fiddled around with a jar of screws before going to the radio and lowering the volume. Then walked over to his chair and sat down again. “You might have noticed I haven’t been myself lately.” He picked up his beer, swirled it around and then set it down without taking a swig. He looked at me with the most serious expression I’d ever seen on him. I waited, now wondering what the hell he was going to tell me. I have to admit that I myself was struck by a sudden urge to get up, walk around and fiddle with stuff like he had done, but I didn’t. Something told me what he was going to tell me wasn’t going to be good. I stayed right where I was, took a sip of beer and nervously waited, watching him. Finally he sighed and took a breath, mustering himself before looking at me and saying, “Well, the thing is, Eddie, I’ve got a tumor. It’s in my brain. I’ve got a friggin’ brain tumor.”
Shit, I was right. It was bad.
I don’t know about Gene, but for me the world suddenly stood still. For about a minute. I was aware of nothing except maybe the game on in the background. I don’t know. Everything turned blurry while I tried to process what he’d told me. I do know that the bottom fell out of my stomach and I felt like I was going to be sick. I needed to do say or do something. Fast. So I did both.
“What the hell, man?” I said, standing up and hurrying over next to him. I knelt down so we were eye to eye. What do you say in a situation like this? I knew nothing about brain cancer. Could it be treated? Was he going to die in a few weeks or was he going to be able to live a long and fulfilling life? I had no clue, but I did know this – my heart went out to the guy. I put my hand on his arm in a show of solidarity and said, “I’m so sorry, man. Is there anything I can do to help?”
And he looked at me, his eyes sad and a little tearful, and said, “I was wondering if maybe you could drive me to the treatments. It’d be a big help. Jackie’s pretty freaked out.”
And then, almost as if it was scripted, his wife’s voice came from the entrance to the garage, “I take it you told him,” she said, racing across the floor to us, “Good.” I stood up, my knees a little weak. She looked at me and said, “He’s wanted to tell you for a long time, Eddie. It seemed like now was as good a time as any.”
My first thought was (swear to God) is she talking about him telling me about her being a former prostitute, or about his brain tumor? I took a chance on the latter, “Yeah, he just told me about the tumor.” My heart went out to her, too, and I embraced her, “I’m so sorry.”
Gene broke the tension with some levity, motioning towards himself, “Hey, what about me?” And we both knelt down and hugged him, which is how Chris found us. BJ had called earlier and told her to come over. She joined us in a four-way hug fest. I have to say, it was pretty emotional.
Well, that was last summer. It’s now February , the dead of winter, and Gene is doing pretty well. His type of cancer is referred to as low grade (diffuse) astrocytoma. The five year survival rate for a man of his age (forty eight) is 43 % so we are hopeful. Throughout the rest of the summer and in to the fall I gladly did what he asked of me and took him to the University of Minnesota Hospital for radiation treatments. He had six of them and they were spaced far enough apart so he could rest and recover in between. We completed them in the beginning of December. The next step is surgery, but his lead doctor (well, doctors. He has a team of them.) is holding off on that. Right now they’re monitoring all kinds of factors relating to Gene’s condition, of which I only understand a little bit and, remember, I’m a science teacher. It’s pretty complicated.
For the rest of the year he got progressively weaker. The doctors attributed it to the radiation treatments and it looks like there were correct, because I’m glad to say that around the first of the year Gene turned the corner and started getting a little stronger. In fact, he seems to be getting little bit better every day. He’s lost maybe thirty pounds and most of his hair has fallen out. The pony tail is long gone. So is the beard. At least he’s not as weak as he was. I prefer to think of him as not dying, but getting better, and the weight loss and hair loss is just part of that process, but then I’ve always been a glass half full kind of guy. I’m just not ready to lose him yet, so I’m not planning to. He’s the best friend I’ve ever had.
Anyway, the point of this story is really not about dying and death. It’s about Gene and his stories. See, the interesting thing about his form of brain cancer has to do with one of its side effects. Gene has always been a talkative guy and way more expressive than me. If he was a good story teller before the brain tumor…well, let me tell you, he’s an amazing story teller now. We’ve taken to spending one or two evenings a week together out in the garage with the wood burning stove cranked up. It’s deep winter, so we’re listening to the Minnesota Wild hockey games, drinking herbal tea, which believe me, we are still getting used to, but it’s supposed to be better for him than beer, and I guess neither of us can argue with that. Anyway, I swear, put a quarter in him these days and he just won’t stop talking. He’s telling stories about playing minor league baseball, stories about hiking both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest trails, stories about training to ride the Tour de France, stories about when he was a Peace Corp Volunteer in Sierra Leone, and on and on and on. I asked his doctor about it and he told me not put too much stock in the stories Gene is telling – that they’re probably not true and just a crazy aspect of how his mind is working and a unique side effect of the tumor. Like an hallucination. I guess the doctor’s the expert and I’m supposed to believe him. Maybe I should but, hell, whatever the case, Gene’s stories are fun to listen to. Besides, it’s great to be with him and hang out together and listen to him talk. It’s just like the old times, back before the tumor.
But it’s gotten me thinking back to that day when it finally came out that Gene had a brain tumor. He had just told me about his encounter with the prostitute, Jackie, and how they had talked, became friends, then lovers, and how it turned out that her name was not Jackie, but Bobby Jean, BJ, who eventually became his wife, and Jackie was just her stage name, if you know what I mean. The thing was, was the story real or not? Or did Gene make the whole thing up?
The logical thing, of course, would be to ask BJ, but man, that seems like an insane thing to do. I can just picture that conversation:
“Hey BJ, I have a question for you?”
“Sure, Eddie, what is it?”
“Gene tells me you guys met when you were a teenage hooker. Is that true?”
I can just imagine the look on her face. It wouldn’t be pretty. In fact, my guess is that it’d be pretty scary. Anyway, she’s got enough to deal with now taking care of Gene without having to deal with my idle curiosity. Plus, I really can’t think of a good way to broach the subject without offending her. And, to tell the truth, what good can come of It? I do know that their story has always been that they met at a bar after one of his ball games in Davenport, started talking, started dating and the rest was history. Which, in a way, is close to the truth. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think, who really cares? Gene and BJ are happy together. They’ve raised a fine daughter in Samantha and now are dealing with the most challenging event of their marriage – Gene’s brain tumor. I’m going to help out as much as I can, and be the best friend to him I can possibly be, and leave the story of her being a prostitute alone. True or not.
Besides, for the last few visits he’s been telling me about playing goalie for the Hamilton Bulldogs, a minor league affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers. My favorite sport when I was growing up was playing hockey so to me they’re highly entertaining. You see, when Gene was with the Bulldogs one of the guys on his team was an eighteen year old hockey phenomenon, the soon to be hockey legend (get this), Wayne Gretzky of all people! Since I’ve always liked (well, loved, maybe is a closer word) hockey those have been some great stories to listen to. But when they run out, I’m optimistic there will be more. Who knows where his mind will take him? But Gene is definitely on a roll – it’s hockey this and Wayne Gretzky that, and I’m more than happy to sit there and be with him, spending time together, him telling me his stories and me listening. Hopefully it’s something we’ll be doing for a long, long time, because, I mean, really, what better way is there to help a friend deal with a crisis like Gene’s going through than to hang out and talk and listen to him tell his stories? None that I can think of.
Besides, when he tells me about being in the nets playing goalie and stopping the greatest hockey player of all time on breakaway after breakaway, time after time again, well, hell, I could listen forever.