When we pass on the sidewalk, we acknowledge each other with at least a nod and perhaps a “Hey” or a “How’s it going” (though we don’t wait for or expect an answer). But some sort of greeting is usual. After all, we share so much.
A perfect illustration of this phenomenon occurred a couple months ago. My younger daughter was home for a visit, and the two of us went for a walk around the pond at the center of my condo community. On one of our circuits, we passed a family who lives a few doors from me. Someone new was with them—an older man—and as they approached us, he said to me with a smile, “My wife says I’m you.”
His wife was not far off. We were about the same height and build, we were both wearing baseball caps and rimless glasses. And we both had white beards.
We laughed, and I asked, “Same age?”
Yes. The same age.
And I’m you, brother . . .
Even more recently I was in Costco, my cart loaded with so many paper towels, garbage bags, and coffee K-cups I might not be able to use them all before I die, when I noticed a white-bearded man with a khaki bucket hat. Then I saw him again. And again. I saw him so often I wondered if he were following me, trying to figure out what I was trying to figure out—do I know him?
It’s not just the beard, of course, but the motive behind—or is that under?–the follicles. For some of us, it’s a carryover from our long-haired, bearded, beaded, bell-bottomed student days, our way of still identifying ourselves with radical politics or hippie culture or both. You’ll certainly still find these white beards on college campuses, but they also appear at law firms and banks and even on the floors of congress—institutions once scorned by the counter culture. Those beards are likely of the neatly trimmed sort. Wilder growth is often a statement of another kind of rebellion. Think Vietnam vet. Motorcyclist. Life off the grid. Throw in a few outliers—the Hemingway pretenders perhaps. But no matter what else a white beard might say, or might want to say, it makes this declaration: The man who wears this is old, a fact he’s not trying to conceal. But neither is he willing to give in to it, which is why you see so many white beards behind the wheel of ‘65 Mustang convertibles, at the helm of speedboats, or on the saddle of Harleys.
And while the white beard alone is no guarantee of shared politics, values, philosophies, or histories, you can still plunk us down next to each other in a bar or a coffee shop, and it won’t take us long to find something in common. Soon we’ll be sharing our scorn for or bewilderment over cell phones, expensive coffee, craft beer, bottled water, and athletes’ salaries.
And numbers. God, the numbers. Of course we can talk numbers. Our heads are full of them.
We’re all over fifty (think of us as the 1944-50 demographic, indisputable baby boomers), so we’re all doing the mortality math. How many years do I have left? How many years until I’m the age my father was when he died? We’re all amateur actuaries.
And then there are the years to retirement, the years from retirement, dollars in the IRA, miles on the Volvo . . . Birthdays. Anniversaries. Addresses. Telephone numbers. Batting averages. And the older the number the more likely it is to stick. We remember the date when we broke our leg—we were ten years old—but we’re not absolutely certain of the year our youngest grandchild was born. Cholesterol—both HDL and LDL. The latest blood pressure readings—both systolic and diastolic.
So many numbers–and the memories that adhere to many of those numbers . . .
What we were doing, for instance, on December 1, 1969, the night when the new draft lottery was held. The drawing was televised, and I watched from Jerry Carillo’s apartment with Jerry and two other men. We’d all graduated the previous spring, so we no longer had student deferments. When the blue capsules were drawn from the bin, Jerry received what he was sure was “a fucking death sentence,” as he said over and over. (It wasn’t, by the way. Jerry was drafted but never saw combat.) My number was 197, and on that night no one knew yet what that number would mean. Safe, as it turned out. By two digits.
So, yes. Numbers, numbers, numbers. It sometimes seems as though we could communicate better with numbers than language.
How many points we scored in that game against South High. . . how many home runs Mantle hit in 1956 . . . the gas mileage we got in that Volkswagen Rabbit. . . the price of a pack of Marlboros in 1970. . .what we paid for our first house. . .the night she finally said yes. . .and the night she said no. . .
And the number we had never even heard of until we reached a certain age.
Prostate Specific Antigen.
The marker in our blood that signals—that might signal—the presence of cancer in the prostate gland.
A number subject to change. As mine did.
And there, after all these preliminaries, is where this story begins.
I was out on my balcony recently on a summer morning when my cell phone rang. The number on the screen wasn’t known to me, but I answered, though I fully expected someone was about to tell me that this was my last chance to 1) refinance my home; 2) consolidate my education loans; 3) order drugs to restore my sexual potency.
“George?” The woman’s voice said. “It’s Terry.”
Her voice was as familiar to me as any on the planet and just about as unexpected. She quickly added, “And the kids are fine.”
“That’s always good to hear.”
“So how are you?” she asked.
“Suspicious,” I said.
“Oh, George. Please. Can’t we just talk?”
“Isn’t that what we’re doing?”
“Like normal people?”
“Normal,” I said. “Such a tricky concept. And in actual practice—“
“—Rick has cancer. There. I said it.”
Rick Moore was her husband. “I’m sorry to hear that–”
“—prostate cancer,” she quickly added. Then I knew the reason for her call.
“Ah, I get it. Well, I’m doing fine. I’m not wearing diapers, and I had an erection four days ago. Is that what you needed to hear?”
“Shit. I knew this call was a mistake. But I’ll plunge ahead anyway. He’s having a really hard time. Would you talk to him, George?”
That was when I hung up.
Here’s a little background on that call and the principals involved, most of which could probably be gleaned from the brief conversation itself.
Terry and I were once married. I was her first husband, and she was my only wife. We were together for over twenty years, and we had two daughters. She left me for Rick Moore, a real estate attorney, and after we were divorced, she married Rick. That was the second marriage for Rick too, and he and his former wife, Janet, also had two kids, a son and a daughter.
But before our marriages foundered (foundered? that makes it seem as though the marriages were at the mercy of the currents or the tides, when the truth is those ships were steered onto the rocks) Rick, Janet, Terry, and I were all good friends. Furthermore the friendship between Rick and me came before any of the other relationships. We met when we were both pursuing Master’s degrees in history, though intramural basketball brought us closer than our classes ever did. Our friendship continued even when we took different career paths—law school for Rick and doctoral work for me.
After finishing law school, Rick scampered back to his home town, Devon Lake, Wisconsin, which had been his intention all along. He came from a prominent, wealthy family that had been in the region for generations, and Rick had specialized in real estate law so he could go to work for his father who bought and sold property in and around Devon Lake.
A couple years later—by then both Rick and I had married–when I was finishing my Ph.D. and trying to find a teaching position, two colleges interviewed me and offered me a job: Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minnesota, and Upton College, a small private school just eleven miles from Devon Lake. Rick lobbied hard for me to accept the job at Upton. It wasn’t a difficult decision to make. Upton wasn’t then and isn’t now a school of the first rank, but I accepted the job gladly because it meant that the close friendship that Terry and I had formed with Rick and Janet could continue.
So we moved to Devon Lake, a town that has long been a summer vacation spot for well-off Milwaukee and Chicago residents, many of whom have grand summer homes surrounding the deep clear glacial lake that gave the community its name. Rick helped us find a house, more house than we could afford, but his father reduced the price and persuaded the bank to give us a favorable interest rate.
Our house was only four blocks from Rick and Janet’s. Their kids and ours attended Devon Lake’s public schools, and all four of us parents were at most of their games, concerts, award ceremonies, and graduations. We brought in each other’s mail and fed the pets when the other family was on vacation. Over the years, as Rick and Janet’s guests, Terry and I golfed, swam, and played tennis at the Devon Lake Country Club; we attended social events that college teachers are seldom invited to (though I ran into a few college administrators at those affairs, usually to their surprise). In a year of weekends, I’d guess the four of us spent part of more than half of them together.
In short, we had a good life together, or so I believed. Until the day Terry told me she no longer wanted to be married. To me. Divorce alters not only alters our view of the future, it cracks the lens we use to look at the past. I began to doubt the friendship that Rick and I had. Had I just been a means to stay close to Terry? For that matter, had he wanted us to move to Devon Lake only so he could continue to work on the relationship he wanted with her?
To say I saw none of it coming would be an understatement of the first order. I was so taken off guard that when Terry delivered the news I said exactly what I said when I was mugged outside the Pick Congress Hotel in Chicago when I was there for a conference. “You’re kidding,” I said to the young man who had courteously showed me the butt of a gun in the waistband of his jeans. And both he and Terry gave me the same answer: “I’m serious.” She added, “I want to be with Rick.” I almost said, But you are with him; the four of us are together all the time.
But Terry had always been a woman sure of what she wants, and when it came to terminating our marriage her mind was made up. She had no interest in talk of a trial separation, much less of reconciliation. She wouldn’t agree to marriage counseling. She wanted out, and as quickly and cleanly as possible.
Maybe I would have put up more of a fight, but truthfully, Terry’s announcement stunned me. For weeks after, I walked around in a fog of confusion and disbelief. By the time the fog cleared, the divorce was all but final.
I kept our house, and Janet kept theirs, so the children, who weren’t children any more, could return to the homes they had grown up in. That return meant, for our daughters and for Rick and Janet’s daughter, coming back from college; for their son it meant coming home on furlough. Today, only that child who had traveled first and farthest—to Germany with the army—has come back to Devon Lake to take up residence. Janet still lives in the house she shared with Rick; I sold our house (our!—so many habits of language are hard to break) and moved into a two bedroom condo in the Tall Oaks community. Terry and Rick moved into one of the city’s stately old homes, which they remodeled to suit their new lives.
I’ve been in their house on a few occasions—a wedding reception, a post-baptismal gathering, and a birthday party. I was included on the guest list for these courtesy of our kids. And a few years ago, Devon Lake had a Parade of Homes Tour, and because Terry and Rick’s is a historic home, their house was one of the stops. I knew it was stalker behavior to take the tour, but take it I did. And every time I’ve been in their house, I’ve been surprised at the décor. Terry always favored the modern minimalist look, but her home with Rick is filled with antiques, floral prints, dark woods, and overstuffed, chintz-covered furniture. Maybe what I guessed she wanted our home to look like was just one more way I misjudged her desires.
I could go on at length about the demise of my marriage and the simultaneous end of my friendship with Rick Moore, but it’s a tiresome subject, and interesting to me and nobody else. But before I leave off the subject I want to mention two things Terry said when I asked, as spurned men and women inevitably do, why and how it happened. Even then I realized how dangerous the questions were, but I couldn’t help myself. I was certain however that the answers would be honest and direct. It wasn’t in Terry’s nature to equivocate.
“I wanted to be with someone open and beautiful,” she said.
It was a brilliant response because it closed off any further inquiries.
First of all, it had a certain utilitarian ambiguity. Did she mention them together because they were so closely joined they couldn’t be separated? That is, was his beauty part and parcel of his open nature? Or were they separate categories? Terry wanted to be with someone open. She wanted to be with someone beautiful. And in Rick Moore she had someone who was both.
And I’m neither.
On the ladder of male looks, I would probably rise no higher than nice-looking. No troll but below the handsome and the beautiful rungs. But Rick? Without question. Beautiful. Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Jon Hamm handsome.
Yet plenty of people might look at Rick and Terry together and ask, Huh, what’s he doing with her? Because Terry is not your classic beauty. Upper lip a bit prominent. Eyes a little downturned.
But the people who might say that about Terry are the people who always see the parts but miss the whole. Because Terry Moore has Something. Even if she enters a room with a group of swan-necked, sculpted-cheekboned beauties, every eye would, sooner or later and most likely sooner, be on Terry. And what is that Something? Vivacity. Sensuality. Qualities felt as well as seen. In our years together, I noticed a good many men, and a few women, caught in her force field. Thanks to a lifetime of practice, Terry was always able to deflect their advances and usually without humiliating them. They approached her, smiling and hopeful, and they walked away still smiling, though with chagrin in place of hope.
But only Rick, my best friend Rick, made it past her defenses. How? Well, certainly that aforementioned beauty helped, and that openness, which may have been nothing more than a willingness to come right out and unsubtly ask for what he wanted. For I learned, when I asked Terry the second of the inevitable questions, the how to accompany the why, that persistence had paid off for him. “The second time he tried to kiss me,” Terry said, “I let him. So I knew that had to be it for us.”
I’m very poor at argument. Hell, I’m not that great at conversation. There’s so much I fail to pick up on. Only after hours, days, weeks—hell, years!—do I get the significance of what’s been said. And what I should have said in response.
For example, I should have said to Terry: Second time? There was a second time? How much time elapsed between his attempts? A minute? A year? Why did you allow it a second time? What happened in the interim? When you said, I knew that was it for us, what was the antecedent of “it”? Of “us”? You and I? Or you and Rick?
But I didn’t ask any of those questions. By the time I realized what I should have said, it was all over. L’esprit de l’escalier? Tell me about it.
All this happened long enough ago for any wound to heal, for any bitterness to dilute, for any anger to cool. Or so you’d think. But all it takes for all the old resentments to flare up again, like a virus dormant in the body for years, is a sight—Rick and Terry together in Piggly Wiggly. Or a smell—the odor of lilacs that were blooming outside our window the night Terry told me she wanted to be, had to be, with Rick. Or a sound—Terry’s voice. And after I heard it, I left the condo. As a precaution, I didn’t take my phone with me.
I headed for the paved path circling the pond, planning to jog a few miles and in the process clear my head of the cloud that Terry’s call put there.
But while I was slogging away in the heat, I was replaying the conversation with Terry, brief as it was, and listening now for what I might have missed then.
My mind thus occupied, I didn’t hear the cyclist coming up behind me. He called out a warning, and I stepped off the path to the right. But he must have yelled that he was passing on that side because we collided.
The collision could have been much worse, for me anyway, because he dumped his bike, damn near going over the handlebars in the process.
He hit the ground with a thud I felt as well as heard.
I was still standing, and I quickly bent down to help him. “Sorry,” I said. “Sorry sorry sorry.”
The apology was unnecessary only because he wasn’t interested in hearing it.
“Jesus Christ!” he said. “Are you fucking deaf?” A question that might have been prompted not only by the collision but by my white beard.
“Are you okay?” I kept reaching out to help him, but he was up on his feet without assistance. He picked up his bike and gave it a more careful going-over than his own body. Both seemed okay, but what did I know?
“Fucking prick,” he muttered. He got back on his bike, a lime green Trek, and no doubt very expensive.
As he pedaled off, he shouted, “You’re a fucking menace, you know that? A fucking menace!”
It seemed to me his reaction was excessive in its anger, but it wasn’t really my place to make that judgment. I was clearly at fault; he was the aggrieved, if not actually injured, party. I couldn’t do much of anything but accept his curses, his anger, and his blame.
If it hadn’t been for the call from Terry less than an hour before that collision, would I have been able to see a parallel with my own behavior during and after our divorce? I had been the wronged party. My anger and my hurt were righteous. Also excessive. But I didn’t want to let go of any of it. It had become part of who I was, perhaps the biggest part. George Cooper, wronged husband. George Cooper, victim.
Back home a phone message was waiting for me. It was from our daughter, two states away, and it was simple and straightforward: “Hey, Dad. Call me.”
Some calls I might not bother to return, but not one from Daphne.
When she answered, I said, “Hi Daph. What’s up?” I’ve never been good at chit-chat, and if something important were the reason for the call, I wanted to get to it.
In this way and perhaps no other, my daughter is like me. “Mom says you hung up on her.”
“Guilty.” Daphne’s a lawyer and understands a guilty plea. But I couldn’t help thinking, Terry called our daughter to rat me out?
“What’s going on anyway?”
“She must have told you she called me. And why.”
“Yeah. Rick has cancer. And she wants you to talk to him.”
Rick. For a brief period, she tried to call him Dad, but it didn’t take.
“And doesn’t that,” I said, “strike you as at least a little strange?”
“For fuck’s sake, Dad. Cancer. He has cancer.”
Was there a ritual passage that parents went through and when they came out on the other side they were no longer unsettled by their children’s profanity? If so, I hadn’t arrived there yet.
“Rick and I are no longer friends, Daph. Do I have to say more?”
“And what? You want him to die?”
I didn’t answer right away, and Daphne heard something in that brief silence. “Oh, no!,” she said. “Don’t fucking tell me—are you thinking you and Mom could get back together if Rick—“
“—Hey, hey, that’s not fair, Daph. I just meant there’s nothing I can do one way or the other. What’s going to happen is going to happen.”
“That’s not what Mom’s asking. You know that. Stop being a hard ass. It doesn’t look good on you.”
“And what am I supposed to say to him?”
She laughed. “Just call him, Dad. Let him talk. One old guy to another.”
To resist any command or request from Daphne was always difficult for me. And when it was accompanied by her laugh? Forget it.
But even having decided that, OK, I’d do as both my ex-wife and daughter had requested, I still didn’t dial Rick’s number. And it wasn’t my decades-old hatred that kept me from picking up the phone. Or it wasn’t just hatred . . .
I didn’t know what to say.
I hear you have cancer . . . Terry tells me you have cancer. Either would reveal that Terry and I had talked and that she had revealed confidential information. While there might be a snarky satisfaction in that, I knew I’d regret it almost immediately.
How’s it going? Falsely hearty. Plus too much water under the bridge.
What about opening with a little nostalgia? Hey, Rick. I was just sitting here having a beer and remembering . . . How about when you and I walked out of the stands to watch the football game from the sidelines. We’d been drinking brandy from a flask, laughing about the Scott Fitzgerald cliché of it all and thinking we were getting away with something when in fact we were at a game between colleges so small no one much gave a damn where we watched from . . . Or the time we were golfing in 104 degree heat, and Jeff Furman fainted in a Port-a-John . . . Or the potluck when June and Ashley got into an argument over whose flan was better—and Bill Martin settled it by scooping up both in his bare hands and dropping them off a balcony . . . Or when you and Terry both went to pick up a pizza, and you were gone so long . . . Was that the first time you tried to kiss her? The second? Or was your relationship already well past the kissing stage?
Golf. That was the answer. Golf.
Coming as he did from the private country club world, Rick took up golf when he was a grade schooler. Many years later he introduced me to the game and gave me my first lesson, if it’s fair to call it that.
We’d spent a summer afternoon putting up shelves in his garage, a job Rick certainly could have hired someone to do, but since he knew I was handy at that sort of thing, he enlisted my help. After the work was done, our wives and kids joined us for a backyard cookout.
Hot dogs, burgers, Frisbees, kids, dogs. Wine coolers, gin and tonics. Beer, lots of beer. Back then, those gatherings, because they had no official start, had no official end either. What started on a Saturday afternoon might extend into Saturday night . . . and Sunday morning. Someone would call Chris and Samantha. Bill and Kate came over, too. And Milt and Laura. Soon it was a party.
That was exactly what happened on the day of the garage shelves. The party kept building on itself, and it was well after dark—and most of us were drunk—when Rick said something about playing golf the next day. I mentioned that I’d always meant to take up the sport.
“My clubs are in the car,” Rick said. “Let’s go!”
We headed to a lighted driving range a few miles out of town in an area carved out of what was once a farmer’s field. The shed where the owner took our money and gave out buckets of balls was brightly lit, and so were the hitting bays. But not all the lights were working that night, and the range itself was lit only for a hundred yards or so. Beyond that, darkness, so anything more than a wedge sent that yellow ball into the invisible mysteries of night. Only by feel could you tell how well or how poorly the ball was struck.
But Rick put a driver into my hands, the club most difficult to hit. He gave me the briefest of lessons—grip, stance, takeaway—and told me to swing away.
And swing I did. I’ve often wondered whether my being drunk that night helped or hindered my performance. I missed the ball altogether a few times. I topped a few more, popped up others, and sliced still more. But every now and then I connected and sent the ball soaring on a lovely, rising flight, vanishing into the darkness before it reached the apex of its trajectory. Hitting the ball into total darkness has always seemed like a metaphor for something; I just don’t know what.
That night was the start of a new onslaught of digits. Seven irons, nine irons, 56 degree wedges, par threes, par fours, distances to the green, bogeys, double bogeys, pars, birdies, three putt greens, foursomes, tee times, handicaps. A round of golf is an exercise in applied mathematics.
On that drunken night at the driving range, Rick and I added a component to our friendship. Over the years, until our friendship ended, we played a great many rounds of golf together. My skills never matched Rick’s, but I reached the point where I could hack my way around the course well enough to bring my handicap close to his.
So, yes. Golf. Of course.
I looked up the number and called Rick.
As the phone rang without answer, I imagined Terry looking at caller i.d., knowing it was me and hoping I was calling Rick. And hoping she wouldn’t have to be the one to pick up.
Finally someone said hello. It was Rick.
“It’s me.” Which of course any caller can say. “George.”
“What can I do for you, George?” I could hear the same wariness in his voice that Terry had no doubt heard in mine.
“Feel like getting out on the links?” I asked. “I have a twelve thirty tee time at Circle Pine tomorrow. What do you say? For old times’ sake?”
He hesitated, wondering perhaps if this was a crank call, since I was the least likely person to suggest doing anything for “old times’ sake.”
Then he said, “I haven’t been playing much golf.”
“Hey, you’re not trying to sandbag me, are you?”
“I’m surprised at the invitation. That’s all.”
“If your calendar is full, just say so.” That came out more aggressively than I expected, and I quickly added, “We can just play nine, if you’d rather.”
“I have to take a cart. On hot days anyway.”
“Jesus! Enough with the excuses! I’ll pick you up tomorrow at eleven forty-five. You’ll either be out front or you won’t.”
He must have known I’d be on time because he was outside, standing in the driveway next to his expensive Ping bag that held his expensive Ping clubs. Rick had always been a Ping man.
I knew as well as anyone that prostate cancer, at least in its early stages, didn’t alter you physically, unless you counted the way stress might draw a few more worry lines on a man’s features. But here was the thing: Rick really did look different. He’d grown a beard! A white one! Well, not as white as mine. Salt-and-pepper, and of course perfect in its shape and fullness, not patchy and streaky and uneven. Again, not like mine.
Otherwise, Rick was Rick. Aging more gracefully, i.e. more handsomely, than the rest of us. Still a full head of hair, though more pepper there than in the beard. The great grin, with the perfect teeth and the perfect creases in his cheeks and the perfect eye wrinkles, wasn’t there. That might have been the cancer. More likely it was me.
After we loaded his clubs into the back of my Rav4 and got ourselves buckled in for the ten mile drive to the course north of town, I said, “You haven’t been playing much? How come?”
Might as well give him an opening to mention cancer right away.
But he didn’t take it.
“Courtney and the kids have been staying with us for a few weeks.”
“John’s doing research in Germany for a couple months.” John was Rick’s son-in-law, and an associate professor of history at the University of Illinois.
“How old are the girls now?”
“Eight and six.”
“Jesus, I’d think you’d want an excuse to get out of the house.”
Rick gave me a look that corresponded to the mild scolding that followed. “Is that how you feel about your grandchildren?”
The old Rick—that is, the young-old Rick, the one before the divorce, the remarriage, the cancer, and the beard—would have gotten on top of my joking remark and ridden with it. And he would never have apologized, which was what he did next. “Sorry,” he said. “Touchy subject for me.”
He didn’t explain, but he didn’t have to. Rick and his daughter had had a few years of estrangement after he and June broke up.
“They grow up fast,” I safely remarked.
We probably should have arrived earlier; old muscles, tendons, and ligaments need more time to loosen and stretch than we gave them. But we didn’t have time to do much more than pay our green fees, check out a cart, strap in our clubs, and drive off to the first tee. Rushing like that didn’t help either of us. Rick’s drive went into the rough on the left, and I sliced my drive into the trees on the right. We both took double bogeys on the first hole.
The course was crowded, mostly due to a company outing that had started before us. Outings often meant lots of inexperienced, lousy golfers, their games made worse by the amount of beer they drank. There was no point in trying to jump ahead of the foursome ahead of us because there would just be another equally slow—or slower—group ahead of them.
As a consequence, Rick and I spent a lot of time in the cart with our feet up, waiting for the fairway or green to clear. We had, in other words, plenty of time to talk.
Now, golf always provides plenty of topics for conversation—course conditions, pin placements, the speed of the greens, the hole just played, the hole coming up. None of these subjects lead to talk of any intimacy, which for me has always been part of golf’s appeal. But I hadn’t invited Rick out for the day to discuss how far the ball was traveling in the heat and humidity.
Finally, on number eight, a par five, we found ourselves waiting behind a foursome who were no more than a hundred yards down the fairway. The cart girl drove up, and I bought my second Miller Lite of the afternoon. This time, when I offered to buy Rick one, he said yes.
After we’d each taken a few swallows, I thought, fuck it. Might as well dive right in.
“What are you more worried about,” I asked, “pissing or fucking?”
Rick continued to gaze impassively at the wide swath of fairway with its alternating shades of lighter and darker greens according to the mower’s directions.
That blank expression was especially disconcerting. In addition to his great smile, Rick had always had a full repertoire of expressions, each of them brightly appealing and showing off his looks to their best advantage. If he’d been a film actor, people would have said the camera loved him. But his usual animation wasn’t there now and hadn’t been for most of the day.
Was he feeling betrayed, knowing that Terry must have told me? Bewildered? Angry? All of the above?
Was he wondering if he should just tell me to fuck off?
I tried again. “For me, it was the idea of diapers. But you know what? The way they make them now, they’re not much more than a pair of briefs.”
Then he pointed to the trees and the heavy rough along the right side of the fairway where four golfers were tramping slowly through the weeds looking for another lost ball.
“Let’s time them,” Rick said. “When their five minutes are up, let’s go ahead and hit.”
But neither of us looked at our watch.
And then he said, matter of factly, “You want to know the truth? Shitting. I’ve been planning to do the radiation treatment. Sounds easiest. Once a week for nine weeks. Best chance of not being incontinent or impotent. But then the doc says there’s always a chance of bowel involvement. Because they can’t be all that sure of where their beams are shooting. So now I don’t know.”
“That’s why I decided on surgery. Get rid of the cancer and the suspense. And no reason to keep having those goddamn biopsies.”
“But how do they know if they got it all? Or if it’s come back?”
“PSA, baby. Same as before. As long as I keep coming up zeroes, I’m fucking golden.”
“Did you have the surgery here?”
“Oh, hell no. Madison. I had a doc who’s done about a thousand of them.”
“And it was robotic, right?”
“Like a video game, man. The guy’s probably a fucking wizard with Nintendo.”
The fairway was clear now, and Rick had the honor but he made no move to get out of the cart.
His voice dropped down to a whisper. “But can you still”—he paused, waiting for the word to come to him rather than go out after it—“perform?”
My first impulse was to laugh. Perform? Hell, my urologist used to say “hard-on” and “fuck.” But then I saw how much this conversation had cost Rick already.
“Hell, yes,” I said. There was no point in telling him how long it took to get hard enough for penetration—and that was a word from my surgeon—or how uncertain and distant a satisfactory conclusion could be. Yes, there were pills to help. And he’d be able to afford a lifetime supply. I couldn’t, though my surgeon gave me a ten pill sample pack. Did they work? Maybe. But they gave me a headache and a stuffed nose for sure. I used three and threw the rest away, even though I probably could have made some money selling them to my white-bearded brethren.
I put my hand on his shoulder. “It’ll be okay,” I said. “Trust me.”
Was he convinced? I don’t know.
I pointed down the fairway. “You’re up,” I said. “Hit away.”
He climbed out of the cart and headed for the tee box. He teed up his ball, took a practice swing, but then stepped back. He gave me a wan smile and a look I can only describe as beseeching. Jesus Christ, what the hell else did this guy need?
And then I knew.
“Besides,” I said, “you’ve got a wife who’ll love you no matter what.”
His drive was about 250 yards. A little draw that landed right in the middle of the fairway.