Strangers In the Living Room
When I got to Matt's house, he met me at the door with this puzzled look on his face. There were strangers in the living room. “Who are they?” I asked. “I don't know.” “Jehovah's Witnesses? Mormons?” “I don't think so.” “Friends of Donna's?” “I guess so.” “Hi, I'm Bill,” I said, walking in and shaking hands with the nearest person, a woman about our age, early thirties, with stiff light hair and a little too much make-up. “Nice to meet you,” she said. Her voice was kind of strange, rough, like she wasn't used to using it. “Anyhow,” I said to Matt. “We've got to get going. Pete's going to show us how to make a hip zip fly tonight.” “What's that?” said the other person, a curly headed guy who was wearing jeans and a Spandau Ballet T-shirt. The shirt was too small for him, but he clung to it, I could tell, just waiting for the reunion tour. “A fly,” I said. “Like on pants?” “No, for fly fishing,” I told him. “You do that?” said the woman. “Oh, sure,” said Matt. “We're quite the anglers.” “I had no idea,” said the guy. “Donna never told you that?” Matt said. “No,” said the woman. “She never did.” “Well, anyhow, we have to go,” I said again. I pulled Matt back into the stairwell. “Put your coat on,” I told him. “We can't just leave them here,” Matt said in a whisper. “Donna won't be home for awhile.” “So? You trust her friends, don't you?” “I don't know them.” “Didn't she tell you they were coming over?” “She said something about something, but I can't just leave them alone. I have to, you know, entertain them.” I shrugged my shoulders. “I guess a few minutes won't matter.” We walked back into the living room. “But we can't be late. You know how those guys get when we come in after roll call.” “How's that?” said the woman. I liked the way she just jumped right in, though that scratchy voice of hers could get annoying after a few minutes. Lucky Donna was going to be back any minute. “Oh, fishermen are very temperamental,” I told her. “Really?” “You have no idea,” Matt said. He flopped down in his recliner, and I took the chair opposite the couch where the strangers were sitting. “Tell us,” the guy with the T-shirt said. “We have some time to kill.” “Well, it's like this,” Matt said. “See, fishermen, especially fly fishermen like us, have to have everything very precise. You know, put each of their flies in exactly the right spot. Carry their rods in just the certain way. And I'll tell you, it's justifiable homicide if you tangle your line with theirs.” “So you've been doing this for a long time?” said the guy. He must have been one of those guys that was always after Donna back in school. I could see the loneliness in his eyes, the haunted look of a man who had decided she was the one woman for him. Of course, Matt and her were pretty tight all through school, so this guy really had no chance. He probably hooked up with this other woman as graduation was looming and he knew it was hopeless. And Donna, God love her, had always stayed friends with him. I imagined he still pined after her, even with his steady girl right next to him. It must kill him to see Matt so relaxed here in the living room he shares with his life's love. “Yeah, a while,” I said. “About a year.” “You can learn all that in a year?” she asked. “Of course,” Matt told her, taking on the voice of someone who had mastered it all in just exactly a year, thank you very much. “But you never really perfect it, you know? That's what it's all about. Making the perfect cast, hitting the precise piece of water you aim for. It could take years before you really hit your mark.” “Sounds frustrating,” she said. “Quite the opposite,” I said. “It brings you to this Zen like state. When you get that flick down just right, man, you can't believe it. The line spins out like a spider's web, as long and straight as an arrow.” “You catch a lot?” she asked. “We never go hungry on our trips,” I said smugly. “I'd like to try that,” the guy said. I figured he was the kind of guy who'd be named Roger. “You should,” I said. “You'd love it.” We waited in silence for a minute. Roger and his girl — she looked like a Sharon — relaxed on the couch. They didn't seem anxious at all that Donna hadn't come back yet. I would be, though, if I had come all this way to see her and she wasn't even home. It must have been a long time since she'd seen them. We graduated ten years ago. I was wracking my brains trying to remember where I'd seen Roger before, but it wasn't clicking. Those were good times, so good I didn't always quite remember them. Still, he was around, somewhere on the periphery, so to speak. Finally Matt said, “You folks want something to drink? I got some home-brewed root beer, or some real beer, for that matter.” “Your own?” said the guy. “I mean, of course it's yours, this is your house. What I mean is, did you make it?” “I never drink store-bought beer, root or any other sort,” Matt said decisively. “Come on, I'll get you two one of each. That way you can both try both.” “I didn't know you could actually make your own soda,” Sharon said. Then she tilted her head, and added, “Though I guess it's just sugar and water, right?” “Hell, no!” I said, even more forcefully than I meant to. “That national corn-sweetened junk is all syrup. No, Matt means that we actually brew the root beer. I mean, it's beer, for God's sake. The same with ginger ale. Most people don't notice that ‘ale' next to the ginger, but it's there all right. But the last batch of that stuff gave us the winds pretty bad. I wouldn't recommend it.” “Sure,” Roger said. “I'll try the root beer.” “Then I'll have the real beer,” Sharon said. That's the kind of comment that I could respect. I was starting to like her. “Me, too,” I added. “We've already missed the beginning of the meeting. No sense getting Pete all riled up when he's about to tie a fly.” Matt went to get the drinks. Meanwhile, I sat back in my chair and said, “So, you're friends of Donna's. What has she told you about me and Matt?” “Nothing, really,” Sharon said. “Though I wish she had. You two are a couple of characters.” “Yeah, Donna calls us Lucy and Ethel.” “Which is which?” Roger said. “Well, let me tell you,” I said, lowering my voice. “I think I'm Lucy, but I bet if you asked him, Matt would claim to be Lucy. Everyone wants to be Lucy, no one wants to be Ethel.” “It's always that way, isn't it?” Sharon said. I nodded. To tell you the truth, there was nothing wrong with being Ethel. I mean, she had her share of good ideas, too. But there was never an “I Love Ethel” show. “Are you married?” Sharon asked. “What does your wife say about this identity dilemma?” “I'm in between relationships,” I said sagely. “She got tired of all your fishing?” Roger said, as if he understood life as much as I do. “Not the fishing per se,” I said, chopping the air with my hand. “Not that per se. See, she didn't understand that a man has to have hobbies. A project. It's part of evolution.” “Could you explain that a bit more?” Sharon seemed ready to agree with me, but she needed a little more guidance. Maybe she wanted me to teach Roger a lesson. Spandau Ballet is just not coming back, not ever. “That's right. Evolution. It goes all the way back to caveman times. Tools, wheels, hell, the first fishing rods. You think that came around from someone who just sat around thinking all day? No, those guys needed hobbies, and by God they invented them.” “You don't think a woman could have invented them?” “I didn't say that. I mean, women back then, they were pretty manly, too. I guess all that sexual equality goes way back then. Sure, maybe some cave woman, tired of getting knocked on the head and dragged off to make babies, made up an invention or two.” “So, maybe you two are more like Fred and Barney,” Roger said. I just looked at him. Where did she find this guy? No wonder Donna had never gone for him. I could just picture it, him sitting there at one of those big cafeteria tables with her and all her friends, me and Matt among them probably, though I still couldn't quite remember which of those guys he was. Anyhow, I could see him, finding that one chair open. He'd ask to join us, and Donna, because she was simply that way, would say, “Of course, Roger. So how are you? Did you get that paper done on time?” She'd make him feel like he was part of the group, but then we'd all get up and go to a movie or something, and somehow the memo didn't quite go to him, and he'd go back to his dorm room to study. Poor guy. Matt came back with the beers. Roger was the only one not drinking real beer. “You want glasses?” Matt said. “Sure,” I said. At the same time, Sharon said, “The bottle's fine.” Now I was in a fix. What kind of guy was I, drinking beer out of a glass? Well, I knew what I was doing. “No, you really do want one,” I told her. “It's not like you're drinking some pasteurized, homogenized, deflavorized tap beer. This is the real stuff. There's sediment on the bottom of that bottle. “I know,” she said with a smile. “It's the yeast. Vitamin B. It's good for you.” “Put away that stein, Matt,” I said. “We're drinking healthy tonight!” We clinked bottles and Sharon said, “Bill has been telling us about his philosophy of life.” “Which one is that?” Matt said. “Is it the one where he thinks he's Lucy? Yeah, that'll be the day.” “See what I put up with?” I said, but Matt and me clinked our bottles again, called each other lousy bastards, and took long yeasty pulls from our beers. “He's also told us about how men need to have hobbies,” Roger added. I'd had enough of him. “Hobbies, yeah, that's right,” Matt said. “A man's got to have something to do, preferably involving a lot of equipment. I guess we've had our share of hobbies.” “Like what?” Sharon said. But she was looking at me. There was a real rosy glow showing through her make-up now, her natural glow, so to speak. “Well, there's the beer, of course, and the fishing. They kind of go together.” “We haven't made the beer in a long time, though,” Matt said. “How come?” Roger asked. “Well, did Donna ever tell you how she came to get that nice new stove?” “No,” Sharon said. “What happened?” I jumped in. “See, we were making mead. Fermented honey, like the Vikings drank.” “They used honey?” “Yeah, lots of it. What was it, Matt? Ten? Fifteen pounds of honey?” “Something like that.” We almost burst out laughing, the story was so funny. “Must‘ve been expensive,” Roger said. “You have no idea.” I turned back to Sharon. “Anyhow, we had to boil all that for about three hours. A big, roaring boil. But a couple of times, the pot boiled over. By the time we had racked the stuffÃ¢â‚¬Â_” “Racked?” I liked the way she stretched the word out. “That's right. We put it in a five gallon bottle. We call it a carboy. So first we sparged it, that's another highly technical term, then we racked it, and there was this sticky mess all over the stove, and under the burners, too. Must've been half an inch thick. There was no cleaning it. Every time Donna cooked something, it smelled like honey. That lasted all of about two days, and we had to go out and put in a new stove.” “Not that we minded that much,” Matt said. “Because it was another project,” Sharon said. I tipped my bottle to her. She got the idea. “Precisely,” I said. “What other schemes did you have?” We finished our beers while Matt and I told her about the time we'd perfected our rib recipe, on the smoker we'd built from scratch, and the failed attempt to build a house of rolled up newspapers in Matt's backyard. I'd read about that in a magazine somewhere. “What happened?” she said. “Did it rain?” “No, we treated the stuff. They were like big Lincoln Logs.” “What, then?” Roger didn't get the last word out. Instead, it turned into a long belch. I forgot the root beer was pretty windy, too. “Newspaper strike,” I said when we finished laughing. “We had two walls up, and I was making an end table with the scraps, when the damned printers went on strike for almost a month. When the recycling market dried up, we couldn't afford to buy enough out-of-town papers. Then a late summer thunderstorm knocked it all down. The papers flew everywhere, mostly sticking to the house.” “Donna hated that. We had wet newspaper stuck to the side of our real house. There might still be a piece of the Sports page under the eaves. The hose won't reach that high.” We had another round of home brews. Roger joined in this time. Matt told about the time Donna had gone to get the oil changed in her car, except the dope at the garage forgot to put the oil back in. “I said I'd get to it myself, but she didn't want to wait. So anyhow, the engine seized. They had to buy us a whole new car.” I knew that was my cue. I put on my innocent face. “Of course, while they were trying to salvage the car, they got him a rental. A brand new Mustang.” “Slobs like us shouldn't be allowed to drive those things,” Matt said. “And we weren't, “ I said dramatically. We'd rehearsed this one for years. I was glad we got to tell it one last time. “Well?” Sharon put her hand on my knee. Roger didn't even notice. He probably thought somehow he'd do the same thing to Donna later on. Poor guy. Donna wasn't that kind of woman. Never had been, never would. Believe me, I know these kinds of things. But right now I was thinking about Sharon, not Donna. “Well, we had to take pictures of ourselves, and we took every conceivable picture. Then someone locked the keys in the car.” “You, Matt?” She looked at him with a sly smile. “No, it was me,” I said, with my best guilty nod of the head. Sharon really liked that. She tipped her bottle at me, and I winked. Matt, hooking his thumb at me, said, “We ended up driving around his old car, the one he bought from us in the first place.” We all laughed, me the loudest. I can take a joke. I'd been there an hour now, and who knows how long the strangers had been waiting. I'd be furious with Donna, if I were them. But I wasn't, and this was Donna's house, so she could do what she wanted. If she wanted me to entertain her guests, if she wanted us to entertain her guests, I mean, then we would. Then again, Sharon and Roger had known her from way back, and even though I was having trouble placing them, at least we had that knowledge in common. Donna was just too nice to stay mad at. I knew that from way back, too. We were on our third round, breaking into the last six-pack of this batch. I was just about to get around to asking Roger exactly how he had been connected to us so long ago. All right, I asked so I could show Sharon how he'd been mooning around Donna even back then, and probably was now. But that didn't seem so important anymore anyhow, she was doing fine on her own. I put my hand on Sharon's knee, like she'd done, and said, “Say, RogÃ¢â‚¬Â_” when Donna walked in. Usually, when I'm visiting, Donna kisses her husband, then me. She always asks me how my day was, too. That's the thing about Donna, she really cares about how I'm doing. She asks me all the time. It's the kind of thing a guy like me can fall in love with. She was wearing the sweater I'd given her for her birthday, and I was about to make a comment about it, but I read her face. She was pissed. I felt like a kid caught, and my belly scrunched up. She was glorious in her fury, like a Greek goddess, and I knew we were in for it, even if Sharon and Roger were her friends. “I could hear you guys all the way outside. And who the hell are these strangers in my house?” Matt was too stunned to speak, so I stepped up to the plate. I'm a man of action, after all, even in the face of danger. “It's Roger and Sharon,” I said. “You remember Roger, don't you? He used to hang out with us in college. Remember how he used to always be trying to horn in on us? I think he had a crush on you.” I put my hand up. “No offense, Roger, that was a long time ago, and you have Sharon now. I mean, I'm sorry for some of the things I've said tonight. It didn't mean anything, right?” I turned back to Donna, and I knew the ice was cracking beneath me, but I had to keep skating anyhow. “Actually, I'm not quite sure where Sharon fits in, but they're your friends after all.” I could feel all their eyes on me and I realized that not once had they said their names, or had they? Anyhow, a man has to have a project, and this was mine, and sometime before the night was through, I was sure we'd get to the bottom of all this. I just had no idea how.