My first friend in kindergarten was a girl named Jenny. Her dad emigrated from England to America, so she spoke with a half-British accent. After my mom had coaxed me, crying, out of the car, Mrs. Townsend placed me across from Jenny at a tiny table using a seating chart divined by some alphabetical, last name lottery. That alphabet was an unintelligible matrix for me at the time, so my and Jenny’s little friendship formed out of a mysterious proximity as we traced cryptic symbols. “Hello,” she said, strangely. I still had tears on my cheeks.
My second friend in kindergarten was Jay. His dad, Jerry, was my dad’s friend and insurance agent. We realized that our dads were friends during recess and that was sufficient reason for us to be friends and chase each other aimlessly around the playground. In the perfectly square grid of streets in Canyon, Texas, there were two turns from the school building to Jerry’s office where I’d raid the candy dish on the secretary’s desk. Outside of recess, Jay was a piano prodigy. By the time we were in fourth grade, he could play Beethoven, but we all thought it was way cooler that he played “Great Balls of Fire” like Jerry Lee Lewis. Mrs. Root had to interrupt his performance at the talent show when he started banging on the keyboard with his foot. Jay sat next to me in Mrs. Childers’s class. He thought I had nice penmanship and told me so on more than one occasion.
That same year, Brady moved to my small town from an even smaller town. His dad managed the co-op where they sold wheat. Brady had three older sisters who were all beautiful redheads. They hosted a Baptist Vacation Bible School in our little Catholic town. That controversy escaped me. I memorized John 3:16, but for those sisters, I would have memorized all of Romans. Brady’s dad, Louis, also coached our little league baseball team. At shortstop, Brady captained the defense through every play, calling out to me in left field. It always seemed like he was playing my position too because he could tell me where batters usually hit the ball and where I was supposed to throw it, like he could tell the future.
I tagged along on his teams through middle school and into high school, but baseball’s commitments soon outpaced my devotions to it and after my sophomore year, I told Coach Hix that I wouldn’t be returning the next year. He wasn’t upset. But Brady and I no longer had that seasonal comradery that we’d shared for half our lives. The next January, when high school baseball began, I drove by the field during practice. Although I would never miss those painfully cold, early practices, I knew something more than baseball was over.
When my dad was in high school, he took a building trades class where he actually built the school where Jenny and Jay and I became friends. One of the guys swinging a hammer next to Dad was Mike, who at sixteen would show up to school on Mondays sunburned and hungover from water-skiing all weekend at Lake Meredith. They were friends, respecting each other’s competency at framing a wall. When my dad graduated, in typical farmboy fashion, he married my mom, started a family, and harvested the crop he’d planted during their engagement. Mike, on the other hand, sowed wild oats and went to work for the railroad. He got a girl pregnant and married her. By the Class of 1976’s ten-year reunion, Mike was a single father. That was the same year I went to kindergarten.
After I’d quit baseball, many of those relationships that had been tended by mere proximity began to fade. I checked in with Jay, but his piano playing was in high demand. The show choir recruited him to play Billy Joel tunes; the First Baptist Church recruited him for their new “contemporary worship” services; a band at the local university needed a keyboard player on Thursday nights. I had a geometry class with Jenny, but she wore bell-bottoms and flowers in her hair and carried the French Horn in marching band, and I was a farm kid with simultaneous pretenses of being a jock and an artist. Despite all the teenage romantic comedies, I doubted our stars would cross.
My friend Eran arrived then, out of the background cast of elementary and middle school characters. Eran was one of five “E” siblings (Eppie, Ethan, Eli, and Eben). Eran is probably the smartest person I’ve ever met. As a junior in high school, he had the highest grade in his college Trigonometry III course, but he could also play the guitar solo to AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” which—with the volume knob set to ten on his brother’s Marshall half-stack—was the most debaucherous thing I could imagine. We started a band. We made big plans, browsing through guitar magazines. Then I was quickly demoted from rhythm guitar to bass player and finally just the lyricist. But we were fast and inseparable friends.
At seventeen, people can become fast friends. I learned in high school biology that my brain was in the process of developing the executive frontal lobe, which would eventually allow me to make good decisions sometime after college. Not in high school though because a great deal of my normal operating behavior was still being controlled by the temporal lobe. That part of our brain processes emotions and auditory stimuli. I figure this is the reason that people are the most attached to music they listened to in high school. Like Springsteen says, “We liked the same music, liked the same bands, we wore the same clothes.” It was easy to become friends because we ran on bare emotion, and as long as someone didn’t send us into fight or flight, then likely those friends would have deeply permanent effects on the formation of our personalities. There’s a picture of Eran and me standing in my driveway, and our postures are identical. We stood the same way; shared the same mannerisms; developed our own accent. My sister would get us confused on the phone.
Every few years around the first of September—a.k.a. the beginning of dove season in Texas—Mike pulled into our driveway with a twelve-gauge and a cooler full of Bud Light—I can’t remember a moment where I’ve seen Mike without a Bud Light in a koozie. Sometimes he’d have his daughter, or a new wife, or a trailer with an ATV, or stories about an ex-wife. One year, he wore a plastic back brace because he’d been injured on the railyard. He had a new truck that he bought with the worker’s comp. He couldn’t shoot, but he rode shotgun and regaled us with wild stories of his years railroading. As we cleaned doves at dusk, he stood to the side, holding the beer close to his chest like a sleeping baby, and with glassy eyes and a throat full of emotion, told me how proud he was of me. Now I interpret that sentiment as admiration for my dad who’d somehow kept his life together.
The summer I graduated from high school, Mike arrived out of the blue in a maroon Corvette. The car was fifteen years old, but he wanted to “open her up on a country road” and my dad was the person he knew in the country. It happened that Dad was in a sort of crisis. We’d had a string of bad years in farming. He was forty (the age I am now); he was about to have two kids in college; he had no plans for retirement or health insurance. He parked a tractor in the driveway with a “For Sale” sign in the window. Right there between the tractor and the used Corvette, Mike talked him into coming to work with him at his new job as a prison guard.
I went to college in my hometown. Eran did not. Our private language of jokes didn’t make sense to anyone in my dorm. Our loitering fascination with classic rock was suddenly gauche compared to Dave Matthews. Since it was my hometown, I fell in with some of my old friends. Jay lived on the same floor in Jones Hall. He’d march around the lobby playing “Sweet Child O’ Mine” on the accordion, both poking fun at my collection of Guns N’ Roses and broadening my horizons. He invited me to play bass with him at the Baptist church where I was baptized, though, to my shame, I never understood how to transpose a song from one key to another. One Sunday night after church, in a fit of conviction, I broke all my old CDs. That Christmas break after our first semester, we wound up at the house of someone who owned a grand piano. Jay assumed his usual place at the bench. Our host described seeing Les Miserables on Broadway, and Jay performed an impromptu accompaniment to our host’s singing of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.” I’ve since seen it performed by a man who sang it on Broadway, but I can’t imagine there’s ever been a more beautiful version than the one I heard in Canyon, Texas in 1999.
In 2019, my oldest son and I drove eight hours to Rose Hill, Kansas, under the guise that I would write an article about the farmer-artist Jack Baumgartner. I had followed the slow progress of his work for nearly a decade, and, recognizing a kinship of conviction and method, I decided to meet the man. Within ten minutes of shaking his large, calloused hand, I knew that I’d have to abandon the article. I could write something, for sure. I could describe the acrid smell of linseed oil in his studio, the musk of goats in the milking parlor, the steel wool soaking in vinegar to make his own stain for walnut cabinets. Or the sweet smells of alfalfa hay stacked in the barn, the vetch and clover respiring nitrogen deep in the soil, the bright glow of freshly sawn osage orange in the dark meadow where sheep cooled themselves. I could write those things, but anytime I sat down to write it, I felt that I kept flattening him into a coherent narrative for a grammar that seemed to desecrate the holy moments. I returned this last summer with my second son, and late one evening in his studio, next to a painting that he’s been working on for ten years, Jack made me an offer of friendship. Becoming friends when you’re forty is famously difficult, especially when you live in different states. One of the things Jack told me about his farming is that he has a multi-generation plan to redeem the land he’s been given. He expects that his grandkids will continue, long after he’s dead, the process that he’s begun.
“What if they want to work in an air-conditioned office in the city?” I asked him.
“I don’t have any control over that. I’m just here to begin it,” he said.
I wonder about seeing our new friendship in this way. What might it look like over the course of eternity?
I called Jay last week. It’s been a few years. Occasionally, I receive handwritten letters from him in the mail with perfect penmanship, and I fret about writing him back and never get around to it. Many years ago, Jay became an Anglican priest and was involved in planting a couple of parishes in Dallas. He’s been in ministry since high school. His dad died not long before the lockdown, and his mother moved to the Metroplex to be closer to the grandkids. Like so many clergy, the pandemic caused him to re-evaluate his vocation. The administrative duties seemed so far removed from the ministry he longed to do. So he’s logging hours now to become a counselor. His oldest son graduated from high school this year and plays piano.
I ran into Eran at the hardware store a couple of months ago. We immediately dropped our home improvement plans and stayed from suppertime to last call at the local brewery. We slid back into that accent and my face hurt from laughing so much. I apologized to my wife when I got home for staying out so late. She said, “I knew you’d be late as soon as you said his name. But you can’t pass up those chances.”
My kids come home from school with strange names on their tongues like Xander and Arihan and Trinity and Eden, and I wonder how many of these friends will grow into old age with them.
Last summer, Mike shuttled our family around Lake Meredith. The man is at ease on a boat in a way that is strange for people in our landlocked region. He’s been fishing in that lake since he could walk. He and Dad are almost sixty-five now, and with Mike’s hard-living lifestyle, I don’t imagine he’ll be alive in ten years. We beached the boat, and my kids and my sister’s kids played football in the shallow water. Mike and Dad stood next to each other and joked about bizarre events they’d seen in prison in a humor they’d developed to cope. Their posture was nearly the same, except Mike cradled a beer, and Dad, who’s given up drinking, folded his arms. Life is full and teeming and will not be flattened into a story, but in what other way can we talk about our lives?
Cover image by Kevin Laminto.