His coffee didn't taste good to him tonight. Nor, for that matter, did his cigarette. It's as if decades of his old reliables had eroded any pleasures his pleasures had afforded him. But he didn't mind. He knew the time was coming. And, so, he wrapped himself up in his ragged Army blanket, barely noticing the pain in his chest, and returned his attention to trying to keep warm in front of the roaring fire.
His memories wandered as the flames ebbed and the embers cooled. Family would have been on his mind, but he had none to speak of. Instead, he remembered his friends. His ages of friends.
When he was a little boy growing up in a San Diego suburb, he remembered that all he had to do to see most of his friends was walk a few hundred feet west or east, down a few houses on his block, and ring a doorbell. Sometimes a mother or a sister who he would feel attracted to would answer the door, and his shy little voice would ask, "Can he come out and play?"
Occasionally the question would be answered with a seemingly heartless "no," usually on Sundays when one of his overly religious friends had to read from something referred to as "the Good Book" or some such nonsense. His agnostic upbringing couldn't discern the concept, so he would continue down the street and ring another doorbell.
Usually, though, the answer would be yes, and he and his friend or friends would revel in a game of street ball (either baseball or football, both of which often resulted in broken living room windows or dismembered rearview windows from an unluckily parked car) or mock costumes consisting of blankets for capes and last year's Halloween masks in an imaginary world of superheroes.
Later on in life, through high school, college, and the military, he remembered that hanging out with friends required a bit more effort. Plans had to made, times had to be coordinated, and walking places was generally out of the question. Everybody had to drive, since everybody lived in different parts of the city. Being friends with neighbors was in the process of becoming an afterthought, and camaraderie seemed to belong in the realm of the workplace or the classroom. Back then, though, he didn't even notice. It just seemed natural.
Despite being older and more "free," hanging out with friends was more limited. Occasional movies, more than occasional drinks, and frequent loud, crowded, yet ultimately boring parties rounded out his repetoire. Sometimes he and his friends would get more creative and actually go away somewhere for a while... perhaps a camping trip, or an overseas adventure, maybe a skydive or a scuba dive or two... or both.
Still later in life, his friends were even farther away from him, as most moved away, or back home, or to one of those countries they might have visited during the overseas adventures. Neighbors once again became "friends" of sorts, but only because his mobility was becoming more and more hampered. Acquaintances, more likely, as he knew who his real friends were. Those men and women he grew up with, when friends were made without prejudices, and those men and women he served with, when friends were made in spite of prejudices. Everyone else, it seemed to him, were just faces in the crowd. Touched and gone, as it were.
Walking was definitely out of the question this time, as was driving... at least most of the time. Usually, seeing a friend involved a few hundred dollars and an uncomfortable plane ride. He went through a period of time in which he avoided them, under the auspices of saving a little cash, but when the destinations starting becoming funerals... well, he had too much respect for his friends not to go.
He remembered how he used to love hopping into an airplane, either on his way somewhere exotic or new, or on a one-way trip to a drop zone. Now, he hated them. Airplanes merely became a symbol of seeing a friend that one last time... only the friend wouldn't remember him coming, or even know he was there, laying the flower on the casket, throwing the dirt into the freshly filled grave. His tears went unnoticed... so much so that he soon quit shedding them altogether.
The fire had died long ago. The coffee long cold. The cigarette burned to ash down to the filter.
He remained there, curled up in his chair, underneath his blanket. His face seemed peaceful, serene, and had a hint of a smile.
A smile one only has when with friends... forever.
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