by Peter Byrne
(Swans - January 13, 2014) The tall man left his car and walked to the river. You didn't drive past your home town after thirty years away and not stop to have a look around. You didn't do it, though he would have liked to. Hard to explain, it nevertheless made sense. He wouldn't know anyone there now. A place like that changed every decade, farming crossroads, country town, vacation centre, commuters' dormitory -- in no time it would be absorbed by the metropolis. Still he'd spend the afternoon there. The sun shone. The riverside had been cleaned up and planted. He walked along until he came to a bar with tables under an awning.
The short man was sitting alone at a table. He'd moved away from the town too, but only to the nearest fringe of the metropolis. He came back regularly to take his dog for a run along the river. The changes in the town didn't surprise him as he'd seen them take place year by year. Everyone he knew as a boy had left. A freeway had made a dead end of Main Street. Stores had changed occupants a half dozen times and mostly been replaced by out-of-town malls. He did his shopping elsewhere and on most visits never left the green strip by the river. His fox terrier lay a few feet from him, now back on its leash.
The tall man got a bottle of beer at the counter and made false starts this way and that looking for a seat. There was no free table. He caught his foot in the fox terrier's leash, one of those long ones that unwind out of a reel. His eyes moved along the leash to the reel that was on the table in front of the short man. Their eyes met. The short man jerked at the leash mumbling a reprimand to the dog. The tall man smiled at the fox terrier and then, as their eyes met again, at the short man who smiled back. It was a pleasant afternoon, not too warm or too cool.
"No harm done," said the tall man.
The short man nodded to the chair beside him. The tall man dropped into it, saying thanks under his breath. He set down the plastic cup that had rode reversed on the open bottle.
"I like to drink from a glass, but this town has gone plastic," he said.
"Say, don't we know each other?" asked the short man.
"By God, I think we do, from way back when," said the tall man.
"That's it, from grade school, up on the hill."
"Of course, eighth grade, Mrs. Macarthy."
"Right on!" said the short man.
"So how have you been?"
"Thirty years a growin' and then the roll downhill."
"Same here. You want a beer?" said the tall man, tasting his.
"I'm fine. You were always one ahead of me."
"That's right. You didn't even drink soda."
"I wanted to make the first team."
"We were both going places."
"You had the height. Shot put was my thing."
"You had the muscle."
"I worked at it from kindergarten. You remember how I pushed my coaster wagon full of rocks up schoolhouse hill?"
"Do I remember!"
"That was for sinew above the knee. I'd read about it on the back of a comic book. Many a time I puked bucking that hill. That was because of the quart of milk I gulped for breakfast. They said at school that it built bone."
"I was out behind our garage shooting at the hoop my dad put up. I never learnt to dribble because of the rough gravel. But I was a deadeye on set shots. You remember?"
"How could I forget? You there squinting for hours, potting one shot after another."
"I never made the team. Height wasn't everything. I got a paper route."
"Me neither. Shot putting wasn't much fun."
"Am I wrong or did you have a dog then too?"
"So you remember Pal! Our family always had a dog, almost always a fox terrier, and always called Pal."
"With us it was squirrels. No names. We fed them, which surprised them at first. But they took to it. Rotten fruit, macaroni, even dog biscuits. They weren't fussy. My mum wouldn't have them in the house but sometimes they got into the attic."
"That way there was no forgetting our dog's name. The mutts might only live a few years, but we always had a Pal. It was, 'Get in here Pal' or 'Sig 'em Pal' or 'Where's Pal?'"
"I know, the king is dead, long live the king. You were a friendly family."
"Good tempered, I'd say, mostly," said the short man.
He looked over at his fox terrier that was up and restless. He jerked the leash and the dog lay down again.
The tall man finished his beer. But he had to clear his throat anyway, "The serious stuff started in high school."
"You're telling me," said the short man, "girls and what are you going to do with your life?"
"That was an easy one," said the tall man, "get married and work ever after."
"What else," said the short man, "but it took time to sink in."
"We had to close the other doors."
"I did that, starting with Junior college. Then some goofing around on the road. I almost joined the army, sidetracked by a lucky case of the mumps. Those damned open doors scared me. When a passing fancy got pregnant, I cursed my luck and breathed easy for the first time since pushing those rocks uphill. I got married."
"Not me," said the tall man. "I mean, me too. I wasn't going through those doors. They were for chumps. I'd flit like a butterfly and get me a temporary job. It lasted twenty-five years. Marriage wasn't going to catch me either. I went in for divorce. I had staying power as a divorcee and a settled family life, three times."
"You remember Sid?" asked the short man.
"Sid? Didn't he give the girls a bad time?"
"Maybe. He ran the big Toyota dealership."
"Yeah, he was famous."
"Beat the sales quota?"
"He did, but only for this area. He was famous because he got shot."
"Stray bullet. Kids were playing cowboy."
"Was he the guy mixed up with Tilda Swenson?"
"Could be. Sid was a mixer all right."
"She got her start sexing up those spin-the-bottle sessions. No wonder she went into politics."
"And then some. She didn't get my vote."
"Me neither. Politicians get nothing done."
The short man changed position in his chair. He looked at his dog hoping it would tug him up. The tall man had begun to hum and tap his toe. The two men looked at the same time into one another's face and then beyond. They stirred. They rose. Hysterically jovial, they exchanged words to the effect of wishing to see each other again for "old times' sake." They left smartly in opposite directions.
The tall man was happy to get back into his car. He wondered who the hell Sid was. Some flashy dresser with a bow tie, he supposed. A loose bullet would be big noise on Main Street, making the day of man and dog, stubby stroller and Pal. That made him laugh, a family tree of Pals. He saw fury ears flapping away his master's guff. That it takes all sorts, he understood, but begged to be preserved from them. If that dwarf had been in his class, he wouldn't have forgotten him.
The short man walked his dog, reeling it in and out. He marveled how the oddballs tracked him down. He shook his head over the squirrels. The gawky know-it-all got Mrs. Macdority wrong, calling her -- what was it? -- Macarthy. Hung up on the woman thing was our divorcee. He should have got himself a pet. Some guys never grow up. The Tilda person sounded like a kid's daydream. He wouldn't have forgotten the long drink of water if he'd graduated with him.
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