Friendship has a peculiar permanence when we're young. The future is wispy and insubstantial and the present is tethered tightly to a past paved with memories and layered with the experiences, joyous and heartbreaking, that bind us together. Which is why we're so often caught unaware as the here and now inches us glacially into our tomorrows. It is there that we find the obligations and responsibilities of maturity tugging at the ties, stretching them taut and tense, until they either snap or ease back in relaxation, forever limp and slackened.
I crouched down against a wet, whipping wind and waited patiently in the mid-morning muck. Despite my best efforts I could never avoid being early for this kind of thing. My internal clock was simply programmed for early arrival. Interestingly, the less I was looking forward to something the earlier I seemed to arrive. Because of this, I tended to spend quite a bit of time in doctors and dentists waiting rooms. It was the same way with job interviews and school exams, and dates. I once showed up at a restaurant three hours early for a date. I guess my anxiety just required time to stew. And sure, the date was a disaster, but on the positive side I learned a lot about how busboys reset a dining room for dinner.
I stared at the silvery stalactite daggers of ice hanging off the roof of the Riverline Cafe. They had just begun to sweat under the glare of a still muted morning sun. I checked my watch again and alternated listening to the distant rush of the river to my right and the much closer rumble of cars passing by on the highway to my left.
I'd begun to wonder if I hadn't been abandoned to do this job on my own when Jake came trudging down the path from the lodge parking up above. He was a big kid, descended of lumberjacks. Literally. Jake's dad, granddad, and several uncles had been fixtures at the local mill that up until the last twenty years had been a major employer in the region. It was now nothing more than a bit of local flavor, a historical landmark in waiting. Jake was bundled in red and black striped flannel. He peered out at me from behind thick dark rimmed glasses.
“Where are the guys?”
I threw out my arms and shrugged my shoulders. I'd known Jake since the first day of the seventh grade. Along with being the only seventh grader to stand over six feet tall, Jake was one of those kids who started shaving before he started driving. His longstanding redneck roots also provided him a sort of immunity when it came to the more rurally inclined of high school antagonists. These factors contributed to him being one of the least picked on kids in school despite his gentle, soft-spoken nature. I won't deny that I benefited from some of this immunity by way our our friendship. Purely in terms of utility, Jake was one of my best friends.
He cupped his hands against the thick paned window of the cafe and strained to see inside.
“Is she in there?”
“I haven't seen anyone.” I admitted.
Jake stuffed his hands back in his pockets and kicked at some sidewalk gravel.
“Well... Maybe she's in back?” He seemed concerned. If she wasn't there, we'd just thrown away an entire afternoon for no good reason. Perhaps the others had been tipped off? Maybe that's why they hadn't shown up?
“Maybe...” I was about to forward to possibility of bailing on the job when Dean came skidding down the path towards us. He was a gangly mass of arms and legs, and had a head topped with a frizzy shock of sandy blonde hair. He smiled as he carefully navigated down the icy path, slipping and sliding occasionally. Balance and coordination had always been Dean's mortal enemies, much to my constant amusement.
“Dean!” Jake slapped him on the back, nearly knocking him to the ground. “Where you been?”
Dean gathered himself. “Had a study group for AP English. We just finished.”
He tried to look casual as he scanned the length of the wide cafe window.
“So... have you guys seen her?”
Jake and I answered in unison, “Nope.”
“She could be in back.” he offered. Jake nodded hopefully.
Dean dusted some frost off of a nearby bench and plopped down. I hadn't known him all that long, but I liked Dean. He was a funny kid. Unintentionally, usually, but always a lot of laughs. We'd met through a mutual friend, my life long buddy Brandon, and Dean had quickly become an essential member of our group. His awkwardness and dearth of grace always led to some wonderfully memorable catastrophes. It was like having a teenage Don Knotts in your circle of friends.
“You think Brandon's going to show?”
“Oh. He's coming” Jake laughed, “He's not gonna miss a chance to work alongside Janey all afternoon.”
“Like any of us would...” Dean added.
They were right, of course. None of us had signed up to paint the Riverline kitchen for the money. In fact we'd all roundly dismissed the notion when Franklin, the cafe manager, had swept through the Lodge kitchen looking for workers. That is, until it was recalled that Janey worked there part time. Minutes later we were scrambling over each other, clawing and kicking our way to the sign up sheet, motivated by a desire for proximity to a girl that our hormone hazed brains were fooled into believing was remotely attainable. And fifty bucks.
I was drawn from my thoughts by the sound of a vehicle choking and gasping to a stop in the lot up above. It was a brown van with splotches of gray primer patching the sides. The fourth member of our crew swung open the driver's side door and hopped out. Diego was heavy set and rounded in the middle. His black hair was tied back into a ponytail and he had a hint of a goatee sprouting on his chin. Diego was the requisite aspiring rock star of the group, and as he made his way down the path toward us I could see the natural rhythm in his gait that only musicians seemed to possess. He wasted no time getting to the heart of the matter.
“She's here, right?”
We were a trio in response. “No!”
“I bet she's in back.” he countered predictably, “Hey, where's 'Freaklin?' It's almost time to do this.”
I checked my watch again. It was nearly time. Maybe Brandon wouldn't show up? The thought sort of encouraged me. Why was that? I'd been friends with Bran since we were babies. The legend went that we had both been placed in the same crib as toddlers and ever since that day had been inseparable. It was like we forged a bond behind those bars, like two convicts serving time, plotting their escape into life. And then we got out, and the real crime spree began. We had been the best of friends for over fifteen years, and in a way had become reflections of each other. We dressed alike, thought alike and shared the same passions. We were tight. But something subtle had changed lately. There was a friction, imperceptibly buried most of the time, that occasionally rose up into my consciousness and injected a reluctant antagonism into my feelings for my best friend.
I suspected that our shared interest in Janey was provoking some of this anxiety, but why was it so specific to Bran? Why was I not equally annoyed with Jake, Dean, and Diego?
I heard keys jangling from inside the cafe. I looked up, hoping to see the short blonde curls of Janey dancing before my eyes, but was disappointed to find the plodding bald mullet of Franklin the cafe manager instead. He swung the door open.
Hellooooo Booooooys. The way he held the sound of his o's was so creepy.
“Is this all of you then?” he held the door open, inviting us in.
We hesitated and Freaklin flashed us a quizzical look. He scrubbed at the stringy hair draping the back of his neck and pulled a cheap gold necklace out into better view.
“Ummm. One more guy is coming.” I replied. “We should just wait out here, right?”
“No, no... Nonsense. Come in. Come in!” he waved us forward, the fingers on his hand heavy with garish gold rings. We dragged ourselves warily into the cafe.
We all poured into a booth to wait. Four sets of eyes gazed hopefully at the back kitchen as Freaklin gave us the lowdown on the job.
“Alright boys. You're going to be on your own today as I have a very important, uh, meeting to get to.”
“So, it's just us... No one else? ” Diego asked.
Freaklin was laying some drop cloths on the counter top. He considered for a moment.
“Well, my assistant Janey might swing by to drop off some supplies later.”
I wondered if he might have suspected an impending mass evacuation on our part and thrown out the possibility of Janey as a lure to keep us on the job. If so, he was far smarter than he looked.
Freaklin's phone rang and he pointed out the front window as he stepped aside to answer.
“Looks like your friend is here. Let him in for me. I have to take this...”
Brandon huffed and puffed as I opened the door to let him in. I couldn't believe what I saw.
“Dude. What the HELL are you wearing?”
He wore a pair of neatly pressed black slacks and a teal button down shirt that looked brand new. His black dress shoes, which I hadn't seen him wear since we went to his uncle's funeral three years ago, were polished to a brilliant shine.
“What?” he smoothed his shirt and puffed out his chest, swinging his gaze around the room.
“You're dressed like you're going to Prom! We're just painting the kitchen!”
“Yeah... I know,” he carefully framed his freshly gelled hair as the rest of the guys gathered round.
“Whew! You clean up nice, boy!” Jake laughed. Diego gave a whistle of appreciation.
Brandon had only been here for a few moments and already my annoyance with him was swelling. “She's not even here, you tool.”
His face crinkled in concern. “Have you checked in back?”
As Dean explained that there was still a chance she might come, I found myself hoping for the first time that she didn't. I felt ambushed by Brandon's fanciful appearance. He'd sought a strategic advantage over the rest of us, and done it on the sly. I found it unseemly, and perhaps more disturbing, potentially effective. I was drawn away from my spite by Freaklin approaching. He was still on the phone.
“Right...okay. Well, see if you can get two seats at a blackjack table. Ten dollar... yeah. Okay, I'm almost out of here. See you in a few.”
He turned towards us.
“Okay guys. I gotta get to that, ahem, meeting” he said, slipping on a worn black jacket.
Five sets of eyes rolled back in concert. This guy was so full of shit!
“The supplies are behind the counters. When you're finished just toss all the garbage in the dumpster out back and remember to lock up.”
Within seconds he was gone and there was little left for us to do but start working.
“Umm. So does anyone actually know how to paint?”
I looked around hopefully. Diego was using the long handle of a paint roller to reach a persistent itch on his lower back and Brandon was dusting some crumbs off a worn marble counter with the freshly stiff bristles of a new paint brush. Jake busied himself punching holes in the lid of a paint can with a screwdriver, while Dean hopelessly tried to disentangle himself from the folds of a drop cloth he had somehow lost himself in.
This was not going to go well.
We spent a few minutes prepping the area to paint. Unlike the well manicured dining area, the interior of the Riverline kitchen was in a state of extreme disrepair. The kitchen was a wreck. A thick sheen of grease sealed in the worn yellow color of the walls, and the linoleum floor, where it hadn't peeled away exposing rotting wood underneath, had faded under years of neglect. The once impressive marble counter tops were now chipped and the edges were rough. Two antiquated fryers housed oil that hadn't been changed in years. The air was heavy with deep fried despair. The place needed far more than a hasty coat of paint slapped on by a bunch of slacker teens.
After nearly a half an hour of carefully laying drop cloths and wedging open cans of paint we were finally ready to put paint to walls. Dean stood ready, brush in hand.
“Soooo. How exactly do I do this?
“I think you do it in little circles, like this.” Diego motioned with his brush. “You know, like in the Karate Kid.”
“No, man. The circles were for waxing the cars” I said. “Wax on. Wax off.”
“I thought the circles were for sanding the deck?” Jake asked.
We were beginning to wander...
“Well, he painted something in that, right?” Diego countered.
“Paint the fence!” Dean exclaimed as he gave the wall a long stroke with the brush north to south.
“No. I think he stained the fence, didn't he?” Diego asked.
“It doesn't matter!” I snapped. “It looks good.”
“Actually, Diego's right. Paint the house was side to side...” Bran added.
I wanted to crane kick him in the face.
Dean was now alternating north to south and side to side. It looked good enough.
“You know who was really hot in that movie?” Bran said.
“Pat Morita?” Jake quipped.
“Oh yeah. Her too...” Jake deadpanned as we picked up our brushes and began painting, visions of Shue dancing in our heads.
An hour later we had made more progress than I would have imagined possible. We were close to a quarter of the way done. We chatted to pass the time. Diego had just come up with a name for his new black metal band.
“Yeah! It's cool, right?” he said.
“I don't know, man...” I shook my head. “Do you even know what it means?”
“Who cares? Doesn't it sound dark and sinister?”
“Yeah, but I mean... Doesn't it mean...”
I looked at my chubby, rock star friend. It was the worst possible name. I just didn't have the heart to bring it up.
“It means 'excessively fat', Diego” Dean interjected.
“Dude!” I shot him a nasty look before turning back to Diego “It's not that you're, you know, fat... but maybe you should go with something else.”
“I guess...” Diego gave a shrug, “I could have sworn it had something to do with pus.”
“Hey, what about my idea?” Jake asked.
“Dude. I told you. I'm not naming my band Various Artists!”
“Whatever, man. It's clever.”
We had a few empty paint cans starting to stack up.
“Hey does someone want to dump these cans out back?” I asked.
Diego hopped off the counter top where he had been angling uncomfortably to paint a ceiling corner.
“I got it” he said.
Dean had just finished painting a section of wall and I noticed that he had stopped in front of a large chrome dispenser.
“Check. This. Out” he said rapturously. “Ice cream machine! I wonder how it works?”
I paused painting and looked over. Dean had already started twisting knobs and tugging at levers, so far with no success.
“Hey... I really don't think you should be fiddling with that, man.” I cautioned.
“Come on. Don't you want some?” He kept pulling, pushing and manipulating the controls, but nothing would come out.
“It's probably empty, dude”
Just as Dean was about to give up the machine began to hum loudly. He jumped back in surprise, nearly falling to the floor. I rushed over expecting to see ice cream pouring out of the spigot, but there was nothing. The machine still hummed.
“Hmm. It's probably just the generator. Leave it alone though, okay?”
He nodded and picked back up painting, but before I could return to my spot I heard some vicious barking and a bloodcurdling scream coming from the back exit. Brandon dropped his brush, splattering paint on the surrounding floor, and bolted for the back. I followed.
Diego was standing, his back pressed forcefully against the closed door. A dog barked ferociously on the other side.
“Dog... Big...Dog. Very. Big. Dog.” he panted.
Bran guided him away from the door and took a look through the peep hole.
“Whoa.” he exclaimed.”Looks like a mixed breed... Doberman and... Triceratops?”
“There is NO WAY I'm taking these things out” Diego kicked at the pile of empty paint cans.
“Well, I'm not doing it!” I turned to Brandon. “Your step-dad is the one who raises pit bulls. You do it.”
He shook his head vigorously. It was worth a shot.
“Alright. Well lets just stack the garbage up here. Maybe he'll go away before we're done.”
Happy with this compromise that allowed all of us to escape the possibility of savage canine mauling, we returned to the kitchen. Thankfully, Dean had refrained from playing with the ice cream machine further, although it continued its low vibrating hum.
It was around the two hour mark, just over half way done, when nerves began to fray. It was looking more and more likely that there would be no Janey. And without the promised carrot, we were left only with the stick, and we proceeded to beat each other over the head with it.
It started when Dean kicked over a paint can, splashing a bit on Brandon's fancy shoes.
“Watch it, you klutz!” he barked, hastily wiping his foot down with a cloth. “My mom will kill me if these shoes get fucked up.”
“Well, maybe if you didn't come to work dressed like some club hopping douche it wouldn't be a problem” I muttered.
“What the hell is your problem, man?” he turned to me, “So I dressed up a little bit! What, are you jealous or something?”
“Oh yeah, I'm jealous!” I said. “If only I could dress like Don Johnson's retarded cousin...”
“Whatever, man...” he glowered at me. “Lets just get this done. This whole day has been a waste.”
It was the first thing we'd agreed upon all day.
We were making good time once again when Diego started whining.
“Man, I'm starving!” he tossed his roller in the pan and hopped off the counter. “There's got to be something to eat back here somewhere...”
“Oh come on, man” I groaned. “Can we just get this done?”
“Relax, dude” he said, digging into a cabinet drawer. “Since when are you such a taskmaster?”
I could hear Jake chortling behind me.
“Ah, excellent. Bagels!” Diego grabbed two from the drawer. “Here, have one!”
He wound up and flung one in my direction, like a miniature Frisbee. I ducked instinctively and watched the bagel slam into the back of Jake's head. He turned, his eyes flashing with a mixture of surprise and amusement. He scanned the counter in front of him and dug his hand into a large container of dried macaroni. He whipped a handful in a wide arc, scattering the dried pasta like shrapnel over us all. The macaroni made a rat-a-tat sound as it bounced off of walls, ceiling and kitchen appliances.
At that point there was a pause. We all silently considered the consequences of what was about to happen. And then we made it happen. In an instant the Riverline Cafe became a war zone. The five of us scattered about the kitchen, over turning prep tables for cover and digging into every cabinet, drawer, and storage bin we could find looking for ammo.
I found myself stocked with mostly breads and pastry items. I caught Dean in the ribs with a dinner roll that was so hard it might have been petrified. He shrieked and discharged an over ripe tomato in my direction. It sailed high and splattered against a freshly painted wall.
“Ha!” I cackled, and reached down for a crumbly muffin. I whirled around looking for a target and spied Brandon. He was flinging dried oats in the air in every direction. They stuck to the freshly painted walls and floated to the floor like confetti in a parade. I cocked and fired the muffin at him, missing wide left. The muffin exploded on contact however and bits of bran and blueberry sprayed everywhere. Turned out it was a Frag muffin.
Bran turned my way, and for the first time in a long time, we shared a smile. Somehow the anarchy that we created had released something in all of us. In the madness and delirium of that moment we found something that had quietly been stolen from us in our ascent away from what we had always been and toward what we almost certainly had to become. In the chaos of that food borne war zone we set aside consequence and accountability, and allowed ourselves to simply become what we were in that moment: five best friends who didn't give a shit whether that kitchen got painted or not.
We spent the next several minutes propelling every bit of organic matter in that kitchen at each other, roaring with laughter the entire time. The war might have lasted hours had Jake not taken control of the walk-in cooler and its armament of extra large eggs. By the fourth dozen he had bombed us into a sticky submission. We were about to offer our unconditional surrender when I noticed a familiar hum. It seemed to be getting louder.
“... Do you guys hear that?” I yelled above the din.
“I think it's coming from the ice cream machi-” Dean was cut off by an ear-splitting pop, as ice cream exploded out of the pressurized spigot of the machine. Streams of chocolate, vanilla and strawberry splattered every square inch of the kitchen, along with us. The ice cream machine had dropped a Neapolitan nuke. The war was over.
I took a moment to survey the battlefield.
The walls of the kitchen were coated with food. Fruit stains blended with the fresh paint and streaked down the walls hideously. Globs of melting ice cream pooled on counter tops. Paint cans had been turned over everywhere, The floors were coated with a thick layer of gummy egg mixed with flour and assorted cereals. Dried pasta crunched underneath our feet. There was chocolate sauce drizzled all over one wall. I giggled, recalling Diego spraying it around madly like it was napalm.
Dean was looking at the wall, arms folded like he was at an art museum.
“Maybe they'll think we were going for a whole Jackson Pollock kinda thing?”
We all laughed and began smearing the walls with our hands like flamboyant artists, reluctant to let our hysteria pass.
Eventually it did of course, and we were left to ponder what to do about the mess. Thankfully, we were all in agreement on the first principle.
“So... We're not actually going to clean all this up, right?”
Five heads shook in unison.
“So then we're all just going to quit our jobs?” Diego asked.
I could hear the alley dog barking out back again. An idea flowered. What if we had finished painting the kitchen? What if we opened the back door to take out all the garbage like good little workers? What if an aggressive, possibly rabid, dog bolted through the open door and tore apart the kitchen while we all watched helplessly? Could we do this? We'd shirked our responsibility, gone berserk and destroyed a kitchen, and now we were going to frame up an innocent dog. It was good to be young.
“Actually, that might not be necessary.” I smiled as I gathered my friends around. “Listen up, here's what happened...”