(Painting by Pino Dangelico)
They were old friends.
Or, to be precise, they were old acquaintances who became old friends after all their older, better friends had up and died.
Now it was just the two of them, Max and Jerry, 80-something inmates of The Laurels assisted-living home, staving off death with a little friendly competition.
These were their stats, heading into 2015: Max was the older by eighteen months, but Jerry was the lifelong smoker with COPD. Max drank for twenty-six years, before jumping on the AA wagon, but Jerry had never married, and it was a well established fact that single men tended to go faster. Though Max's wife, Bev, had been dead for three-odd years, which might have evened out the playing field a bit . . . Max really couldn't say.
And, if he was being fair, Jerry had the more optimistic disposition, which was likely the cause of his making mincemeat of his lungs for so long. Giving up liquor might have made Max a less indifferent Christian, but it had done nothing to change his overall outlook on life, which was skeptical, at best.
But not here. Here he was going the distance. They even had a wager on it. If Max outlived Jerry, he got Jerry's pocket watch. If Jerry won, he got the baseball signed by Mickey Mantle.
"How's your blood pressure this morning?" Max asked his friend, biting into a piece of dry toast.
"140 over 95."
"You?" Jerry said, stabbing his sausage with his fork and stuffing the whole link in his mouth.
"Same as always.130 over 75."
"Yeah? Well, you look like shit." He smiled at Max with his greasy sausage mouth. Max looked away.
It wasn't that he wanted Jerry to die. The man was a serviceable bridge partner, and they had shared some memories over the years. Jerry's contracting firm had built the addition on his house back in the 60s (granted, he'd tacked 5% onto the initial estimate, a figure Max would take to his grave). Bev had tried to set up Jerry with a number of her single friends back then, but he'd resisted her "handling" him. He liked living on his own. Didn't see a need to make life complicated, though Max recalled a roommate somewhere along the line.
The two men didn't bring it up anymore, but it was Jerry's place Max had slunk off to, back in '83, when Bev had finally tossed him to the curb. All his other friends were married. And then, Jerry wasn't the judging sort.
He'd dried up at Jerry's, gotten himself back on the straight and narrow, thanks to some spiritual grunt work and Jerry's knack for keeping a range of salty snacks around. The two men didn't discuss their problems with one another--they weren't the discussing sort--but Max had become a fan of the prime-time soaps Jerry watched, a fact which delighted Bev, once he'd been taken back into the fold. She loved her Falcon Crest. So did he, and more than he let on.
When Bev died of lymphoma, Jerry had come to the funeral, though it had been years since they'd seen one another. Max took note of that. There were plenty of others who hadn't shown. Max took note of that, too.
Still, Jerry could be difficult. He hollered at the nurses. He swore like someone who'd only been around a rough group of men all his life. But the thing Max just couldn't get past was that Jerry was an avid, and vocal, Steelers fan.
The man was born in Dayton. It didn't make any sense.
"You done with that mealy toast yet?" Jerry said, blowing his nose on his handkerchief.
"Studies have shown that chewing twenty times before swallowing aids in digestion."
Jerry rolled his eyes and reached for his walker. "Your plan is to kill me with boredom, isn't it?"
"Wait, Jerry. Let me see it again."
Sighing, Jerry pulled the watch from his breast pocket and handed it to him.
God, but it was a beauty.
"Aw, go ahead and open it," Jerry said.
Max sprung the hinge, opening the silver cover. Holding the timepiece up to his ear, he smiled.
"Runs nice," he said.
"Better than your ticker."
Max turned the watch over and squinted through his eyeglasses. "What's this on the back? Your initials?"
Jerry shook his head.
Max peered at Jerry over the rims of his glasses. "A.C. Who was that? A relative?"
He was starting to get dyspeptic. "Why the big mystery? Just tell me who it is, goddammit."
Jerry held out his hand. Max relinquished the treasure. Jerry tucked the watch back in his pocket and reached for his walker again.
"A.C. is Arthur Cooper," he said, gripping his handles and beginning to wheeze.
Somewhere in the dark of Max's brain, the name rang a bell. Now if he could only--
"Christ, Max. You knew him. He lived there the summer you stayed with me. Slender guy, with a beard?"
Max's brow cleared. "Of course! Artie. Big Bengals fan, if I recall?"
Jerry grunted. "Yeah, well. Nobody's perfect."
"He gave you his watch?"
"No," Jerry said, grimacing as he got to his feet. "I gave it to him on our fifth anniversary. And I took it back before burying him."
Max squinted at the remains of his friend's breakfast, before looking up at Jerry for clarification.
"You numskull. Bev was the one who introduced us."
It would come. He knew it. There were just these moments, nowadays, where he seemed to be traveling a beat behind the rest of the world. But it would come to him. He just had to wait for it.
Jerry suddenly looked tired. "Never mind. I'm going back to bed. Finish your toast, Max."
He watched Jerry shuffle off, suddenly recalling an old conversation he'd had with Bev, after their "second honeymoon" in that born-again autumn of '83.
We should do something for Jerry. He was all right to me, you know.
Yes, we should.
How about setting him up with Patty? She's a hoot.
She hadn't responded so much as given him a look. There was something incredulous in that look. If cautious, too.
Max's mouth pursed over his last sip of orange juice. It was funny what stuck with you. How long a simple thing could take to digest. And then, suddenly: blam-o. Like getting sacked behind the line of scrimmage.
He swallowed the juice and wiped his mouth, beginning to reach for his walker when another thought stopped him.
It was nice that life could still surprise.
There was that, he supposed . . .
Leaning across the table, Max stabbed the last link of sausage from Jerry's plate, swiping it through the heavy syrup, before stuffing the whole thing in his mouth and closing his eyes, in relish.
I started my tradition of writing a "New" story back in 2008. In spite of missing last year (I know, Aniket, I KNOW), I'm glad to be back on track in 2015. Happy New Year, everyone!