At ease behind the wheel of his Lexus rental, Professor Matthew Blake felt good -- damned good. The sixty-year-old man, slim, crew-cut, and tan from a recent series of tennis matches, was infused with anticipation. Chance had delivered him back to Middleton, the town of his youth, a place he’d never expected to see again.
Invited to present a paper at Lake Country College, Matthew initially hesitated, immersed in a stew of emotions. In the end, however, he opted to take advantage of the opportunity to visit his hometown, an hour’s drive from the campus. Off the interstate and accessed by a two-lane blacktop, Middleton, Wisconsin was a one-time logging town, perched narrowly between the Blue Pine River and a low range of forested hills. Driving in that morning, Matthew felt upbeat; optimistic. He aimed to do something that had long-needed doing.
Memories rushed in. It had been forty years since he climbed onto the Trailways bus that carried him away to basic training and to a new life. First, there had been Viet Nam and, then, decades in a far-removed university world, a world that included years of living abroad. Once gone, he’d soon lost touch with members of the old crowd. But two of them still traversed the landscape of his mind. One was Molly Chandler. He knew Molly, who’d broken his heart, no longer lived in Middleton.
The other was Jack Foley, his boyhood best friend. At last report, Jack remained in their hometown. Jack had been Matthew’s buddy from elementary school through college. Filtered through the reassuring lens of nostalgia, Matt summoned up an image of a friend who was buoyant, fun-loving and energetic. Good old Jack, an all-around good guy. They’d played ball together, got drunk together, made road trips together, and, unfortunately, pursued the same girl. With all these things in mind, Matthew hoped for the intimacy that often reasserts itself between old friends, even after years apart.
Matthew’s hope was qualified. He could not escape the fact he had treated his one-time friend shabbily. But perhaps, even decades later, he could somehow make amends. It was this desire to settle unsettled things, combined with the burst of warm memories, that drew him back to Middleton.
As Matthew cruised across the bridge and on to River Road, spring was well-launched. The splurge of tulips, daffodils, and hyacinths along the water welcomed him like a colorful honor guard. Feelings of optimism circled him like spring zephyrs. It was not too late to do the right thing.
On first impression, the town appeared to be much as he remembered it. It had, he thought, been a good place to grow up. But, he supposed, people always said that about the place of their youth. As a young man, he had, in fact, wanted to be free of the town, especially once Molly rejected him.
Matthew turned off River Road and pulled up to the Blue Pine Inn, a wooden structure with a gabled roof, modeled after someone’s notion of a Swiss chalet. When he’d searched for a weekend accommodation, Matthew had been delighted to discover the inn still existed. Reminiscences surged back - homecoming parties, after dance get-togethers, family dinners, and more. It felt like encountering an old and well-considered acquaintance.
The Blue Pine served as Middleton’s sole lodging for out-of-towners (mainly summer tourists, antique hunters, and salesmen). Carpets worn, paint a tad faded, the place seemed afflicted with genteel poverty; but then it always had. Matthew’s dad, dead for more than thirty years, had maintained the inn seemed comfortable that way, lived in.
Matthew crossed the lobby and sniffed whiffs of French Toast and sausages from the dining room where people at breakfast occupied three or four tables. He met no other guests, save for an elderly couple who informed him they’d arrived from Iowa to visit their grandchildren.
Matthew checked in at the front.
“First time in Middleton,” the young woman behind the desk said.
“No, I used to live here. But that was a long time ago.”
He picked up his overnight bag and carried it to a first-floor room. It occurred to him that, in a place where people lived in jeans, tee shirts and ball caps, his gray flannels, turtleneck, and jacket might mark him as pretentious. He hung his navy blazer in the closet and decided to go with chinos and a long-sleeved sport shirt.
Matthew peered through his reading glasses to check the thin phone directory he found in his room. He located no entry for Jack Foley. He did, however, track down Audrey Goodson, Jack’s sister. She resided, he learned, above O’Brien’s Waterside Bar.
“Hello.” Matthew recognized the same gravelly voice.
“Audrey? This is Matthew Blake. Can you tell me how I can find Jack?”
“Don’t joke with me, Mr. Whoever You Are.” She exhibited all of the wariness of someone fending off a crank call. “Matt Blake hasn’t been around here in years.”
“It’s really me. I’m in town, and I need to see your brother. It’s important.”
“Jesus. It does sound like you, Matt. What do you want? He’s not well, you know?”
“I just need to see him.” Not sure what she meant by not well, he wondered if it might have to do with Jack’s Vietnam experience. But that had been so long ago. Matthew had been vaguely aware there’d been issues when Jack returned, but few particles of information had drifted his way. More likely, Audrey simply referred to the infirmities of old age. Matthew could certainly relate to that.
“Okay. I gotta take him his lunch. I’ll let him know you’re coming. I can tell you one thing, though; he won’t be happy to see you. If you think he will; you’re wrong.”
“I suspected that might be the case.” Matthew hesitated. “I want to tell him, well, I want to tell him I’m sorry.
“Good luck with that. Anyway, it’s just a few blocks. You know, Matt, we all thought you turned out to be some kind of big-shot celebrity. I even heard you wrote a book. Never thought you’d bother with the likes of us again.”
Audrey gave him directions and hung up.
What had her words meant? Although he had tried, Matthew had never succeeded in fully suppressing memories of his contentious falling-out with Jack. Now they were both getting old. He again told himself there might still be time to make amends.
~ ~ ~
Matthew walked through the town seeking the familiar, but it evaded him. He’d hoped to spot the Wilson Elementary School where he and Jack had struggled with multiplication tables and to sight the little Carnegie Library where he’d first found joy in books. Both had vanished.
Sighting Parson’s Drug Store, still on the corner of River and Elm, briefly reassured him; but an unfamiliar name over the entrance deflated his enthusiasm. At least, Gordon’s Bakery survived. Did kids still relish the morning aromas of cinnamon rolls emanating from the place, as he and Jack had done before setting out on their paper routes?
The post office, a product of the WPA era, with its contrived classical façade, looked as out of place as ever. Matthew chuckled inwardly, recalling that he and Jack Foley had been employed there more than once as useless Christmas help.
He could hear his own footsteps in the morning quiet. Three or four cars randomly drove by. A pickup truck pulled into a parking space and, leaving the engine running, the driver scurried into a grocery store. Matthew encountered few pedestrians. Those he did passed him by; another stranger in town.
Deep into the past, Matthew paused at the intersection of River Road and Third Street; despite the changes, he fleetingly felt he’d never left. Logic, of course, informed him otherwise. At best, the past existed as a truncated remnant; more likely it had been obliterated. But, like a pilgrim seeking something soul-affirming, he resisted that reality.
He turned down a side street and stepped into Voyageur Park. Trees and shrubs, green with foliage, flourished there. He savored the aroma of newly mown grass. The park looked the same; it felt the same. Matthew loitered for a while on a bench worn smooth by use. Could he be having second thoughts about meeting Jack? He dismissed the idea. He was simply enjoying the comfort of the place and the cords of memory that went with it. Warmed by the sun, he closed his eyes, and luxuriated in the once-familiar environment.
After a few minutes, Matthew studied his watch, got up, wind milled his arms, and set out to see his one-time best friend. Despite Audrey’s caution, he wanted to believe it would be a good day, a day of resolution and reconciliation. He counted on it.
~ ~ ~
Matthew hesitated in front of a low-slung brick apartment building. Stained and tattered drapes, broken blinds, and cracked glass festooned the building’s windows. Like forlorn sentinels, a few pathetic dead or dying shrubs lined the front of the structure. Cigarette butts cluttered the ground, and the entrance handle seemed to be at risk of falling off.
So, Jack lived here, in what Matthew perceived to be a small-town tenement. It gave Matthew the creeps to step into the barely lit hallway. He’d had no idea his old friend had been dealt such a bad hand.
“First door on the left,” Jack’s sister had said. Matthew knocked and waited. Nothing. He knocked again.
“It’s open. My sister said you’d be coming by.”
Like the stench of their old fraternity basement, the smell of beer and things unknown assaulted Matthew’s nostrils. The condition of the apartment complemented the smell: gauzy rays of sunlight struggling through smeared windows, tired rugs, battered furniture, a twisted window shade, neither open nor closed. A half dozen beer bottles littered the floor. Four or five more stood in formation on a side table.
“I’d get up. But as you can see, I might have trouble doing that.” Jack waved an age-spotted hand toward a cane leaning against his worn leather recliner.
Matthew tried hard to mask his dismay at the image presented by his former teammate. “I was in town, and I wanted to see how you were doing,” he said.
God. Jack’s face looked like a piece of dried fruit. Could this unshaven guy in sweatpants really be Jack Foley, Matthew’s high school and college buddy? Tufts of long hair protruded from under a sweat-stained Brewers’ cap. The skeletal figure, furrowed eyes, and saffron-stained fingers repulsed Matthew.
“Okay. You’ve seen me. Now why don’t you get the fuck out of here?” Jack underwent a bout of breath-grabbing coughing and then added, “Or would you like to see the scars first. They never got all the shrapnel out, you know.”
Matthew had clung to a faint hope for at least a bit of reminiscence; some recollections, some recall of the good times. Perhaps he’d been overly optimistic, but he’d hardly expected to come under immediate attack.
“Come on, Jack. Give me a chance. The last I knew; you’d headed off for Canada. I only heard later that. . .”
“I should have kept going. God, I should have kept going,” Jack said.
“Why didn’t you?” Uninvited, Matthew took a seat on a ruined chair.
“You wanna know why? You were so high and mighty, so goddamned self-righteous. It was all so simple for you. Already signed up to go.”
“But, how did that . . .?”
“Jesus, Matt. You’re still a phony. You’ve got a pretty selective memory. Did you just wash everything out of your mind? I sure as hell didn’t.”
Matthew realized that perhaps he had erased the memories of those days and of his own behavior—or at least attempted to. But they had always lurked in some deep recess. Those indestructible memories, after all, were what had motivated him to come back, what had inspired the need to acknowledge he had been a jerk—a hurtful jerk.
“I was wrong. I’ve known that for a long time. I’m sorry Jack. I’m truly sorry.”
“Lot of good that does me.”
“I came here to let you know how much I regret the way I . . .”
Jack ignored him, piling up markers of unhappiness like small stones. “You kept telling me my family would think I was a coward; my friends would think I was a coward. When I said going over there to kill people was wrong, you said I didn’t have tender morals. You said I just had tender courage. Your words, Matt. Your words.”
Caught off guard, Matthew groped for an answer. “Yes, but in the end, you decided for yourself,” he said.
Jack responded with a sharp look. “You and your pals shamed me. Said I was draft dodger. Later on, being considered a draft dodger wasn’t such a bad thing. I should have had the guts to follow through. I knew the war was wrong. And you had it right; I was scared. But I didn’t want to lose my friends. Funny thing is that you all disappeared, anyway.”
“But you didn’t have to . . .”
“Yeah, right. Who was it told my Uncle Alex I was practically a traitor—and him the deputy commander over at the American Legion? Oh, you did a good job, all right. When that draft notice came, I went. I didn’t want to go, Matt. But I went.” Jack’s words came washed in unchecked emotion.
Matthew simply nodded. Should he tell Jack that he, too, had considered fleeing to Canada? Tell him that he feared his father, a World War Two veteran who condemned those who failed to answer the call. Should he tell Jack that his criticism had been a form of self-protection; a self-serving effort to demonstrate his patriotic bona fides. Would doing so bring them closer together? Matthew could hear the words in his head, but he could not bring himself to speak them; to more fully explain, even after all these years.
A long silence ensued between them. A cheap electric wall clock filled the void with its ticking.
“Didn’t you ever try to find out what happened to me? Didn’t you ever wonder?” Jack finally said, his tone still accusatory.
“Well my dad was dead and . . .” Like a defendant seeking to evade self-incrimination, Matthew could not admit he had consciously avoided asking questions, avoided coming back.
“I’ll bet you didn’t even know I used to be married,” Jack said.
“No, I didn’t. Was she from around here?”
“Doesn’t matter. Didn’t last long. I had a dog, too. But she died. Better than the other bitch. How about you? Married?”
“Yes, briefly. Army nurse I met in Viet Nam.”
For a moment, Jack’s bitterness appeared to dissipate.
“Hey, Matt. You want a brewski,” Jack said. “There’s some in that little fridge.”
Matthew shook his head. “Too early for me.”
“Not for me. How about getting me one?” He again pointed to his cane.
Matthew delivered the beer and said, “I had no idea how badly things turned out for you.
You have to believe me. I know the way I behaved must have been gnawing at you. But I was already gone when you ditched the Canada idea and came back. When you joined up.”
Jack’s bitterness reasserted itself. “I heard you had a cushy job in Saigon. Some kind of clerk. Well, Matt, old buddy, I was out in the bush getting my ass shot off.”
Matthew stared at the floor. “I took the assignment they gave . . .”
Jack cut him off and gestured toward a dog-eared black and white photo propped on a shelf. “Those were my buddies. A lot of them blown apart, gut shot, you name it.” For a moment, the ghost of battlefield horrors hovered over his face. Sure as hell, I don’t see any Matthew Blakes in that picture. How about you? See any Matthew Blakes?”
“But, Jack, I never claimed to be . . .”
“You can find a lot of their names on that wall they put up in Washington.”
Initially overcome by pangs of shame and guilt, Matthew found himself on the defensive. He had wanted to do the right thing; to ask forgiveness for his long-ago behavior. But he’d had no idea Jack had rendered him a scapegoat for his entire unhappy life. What happened to Jack struck Matthew as far worse than he had anticipated. In retrospect, it seemed it would, indeed, have been better if Jack had, indeed, run off to Canada and stayed there. Instead, he’d returned, gone to war and come home broken. However unfairly, he blamed Matthew
The anticipated reconciliation foundered. The passage of time had provided no softening patina. The apologies, likely insufficient in any case, came too late.
“At least Molly knew you for what you were,” Jack said. “She made the right choice to dump you.”
Jack had been in love with her, too. Matthew could not blame him for that.
“Have you ever heard from her?” Matthew asked.
“You’ve gotta be kidding. Look at me, for Christ’s sake. I haven’t seen her in years.” He took a gurgling swig of beer. “Last I heard she was living in Oregon or someplace out there.” Then, as a kind of afterthought, he said, “She had a sweet smile, didn’t she?”
Matthew’s own wistful smile communicated his agreement. “Yeah. She did.”
For a brief time, the two men looked back down the corridor of life to the time of their long-gone youth.
Matthew spread his hands in a gesture of spontaneous sincerity. “Is there anything I can do to help, Jack?”
Jack shook his head.
Money? Anything at all?”
“No way, Matt. There’s nothing I’d take from you. Nothing.”
“But surely . . .”
Jack’s resentment had long marinated.
“Just beat it. Get the fuck out. Amscray.”
Seized by despair and the aftermath of war, Jack had journeyed down an alcoholic river into oblivion. Matthew had wished for something better. Perhaps he’d been kidding himself all along. He should have known. Perhaps, in his heart of hearts, he had known. Jack had presented a bill Matthew’s deflated spirit could not honor.
As Matthew stepped into the corridor, like a hard-thrown expletive, a bottle smashed against the door behind him.