The torches are lit and flickering, the old war chief Lake George coasters are loaded, the beer is frosty cold, and the sun’s drooped low behind the silhouetted Fricker treeline. Johnny made the post on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on Instagram, just like he does every year, and he got a ton of likes and comments from everyone he’s connected with, just like he does every year. Hardly any of them knew the man, and none of them hung around him when he was alive, but after he died, he suddenly had a tsunami of friends crashing down on the shores of his social media accounts, which have since been respectfully deleted.
Sometimes the washout following the death of a young man in his twenties is too destructive to repair, but that’s not the case with George; dude was a quiet one and he liked to keep to himself, and Johnny was his best friend, and Johnny just couldn’t stand all the randoms who claimed to be the same. If they were really his friends, they would have hung out with him when he was still alive instead of waiting until after he passed through the veil to tell the world how much he meant to them. George’s parents agreed, and that, as George liked to say, was enough.
But being gone off social media doesn’t mean one has to be forgotten, although Johnny is sure George’s name doesn’t often cross the minds of any of the many who posted gushers about how they loved George oh so much; every year on the anniversary of his death, Johnny and the two other guys who he and George used to hang out with get together to have drinks and share memories. They used to go up to Lake George every year – George’s family has a cabin up there, a cabin they decided to move into after selling their old house – and drink ‘til the fish got jealous, but now that George is gone, they just use Johnny’s back porch. He lives back in the woods just down the road from a reservoir, so it’s kind of the same thing. Not really, but kind of, and it gets the job done. The location doesn’t really matter whilst reminiscing about the good ol’ days, anyway; it’s the stories that matter.
And from the sound of the pounding bass in his driveway, the storytellers have just arrived.
Mack hoists himself up the rock wall and whistles to let Johnny know they’ve arrived. He then goes back to the edge and shouts at Sam to lock the car – there had been a break-in at some loaded dude’s house way up the hill rising past Fricker Drive about two weeks ago; Johnny’s a loaded dude, but only when alcohol is in his system, so realistically they have nothing to worry about… but still – then offers Sam a helping hand in climbing the rocks. Sam used to be the toothpick of the group and therefore the nimblest, but he put on quite a bit of weight after he came back from college and left his metabolism behind. They walk across Johnny’s prim and trimmed back lawn and climb up on the low turquoise deck, part of the house’s original 1960s construction. It’s about as gaudy as the old tiki torches Johnny nailed around its edges, and the boys used to give him plenty of shit for it – still do, in fact, though not nearly as often – but not tonight. Tonight is not about Johnny and his terrible taste in outdoor decor; tonight is about George and the legacy he left behind.
“Waddup dude,” says Mack as he takes Johnny by the hand and brings him in for a brohug.
“Macky, much love.”
Sam is next, and after much love is exchanged, they each sit down at the glass patio table and simultaneously crack their beers. Johnny raises his can up so it hovers above the center of the table. Mack and Sam then do the same, engaging in the cheers, and then Johnny starts running his mouth.
“Boys, we gather together tonight on the day of my daughter’s wedding…” Smiles spread from face to face. “…to remember a kind, brave soul. A man who wasn’t afraid to jump off bridges, so long as the water below was deep enough. A man who coined the term yellow fever after he dated his first Asian chick; the man who, before that, picked up girls by asking them one question, and one question only: What’s your nationality?”
“Here, here!” here-heres Mack and Sam.
“A one of a kind man who lived a one of a kind backwoods life in this one of a kind backwoods town. A unique man who liked to walk on frozen lakes, who fished but preferred not to catch. A special man who’d sit up in a tree stand without a bow nor arrows just to watch the animals go by. Even in gale force winds.”
A moment of somber silence is held and respected by all, even the chirping crickets, meeping treefrogs, and singing cicadas.
“Rest in peace, Georgie old boy. We miss you, man.”
“We miss ya, George. You were the man. The fucking man.”
“The Godfather will never be the same. Rest easy, Georgie.”
Three beer cans are drained and returned to their coasters – Johnny’s red, Mack’s white, and Sam’s blue – and the fourth, the one Johnny set out for George, stands tall, chilled, and uncracked on George’s old black coaster. The gang all belch in unison, a tribute to their don, then they all shoot their cans in the direction of the recycling bin next to the screen door. None of them make the shot; only George was coordinated enough to sink a beer can into a trash bin at a distance, and Sam liked to attribute this to George’s being into some, and I quote, mystic shit. George wasn’t into any mystic shit, of course; Sam just heard it in a movie and though it sounded cool, and he thought George was pretty cool, too. They all thought George was pretty cool. Johnny stands and goes to the cooler, coming back with a reload for their coasters.
“A’ight boys,” Mack says after draining half his can. “I think it’s about story time. Who’s up first?”
Sam went first, then Mack, then Johnny, and they continued their cycle long into the night. Johnny saves the best tale for last, the unanimous favorite – the time they went dam jumping.
The local park rangers and police officers are very, very strict about what civilians can and can’t do on the Monksville Dam. One cannot fish, but one can loiter and take pictures and clog up the walkways like plaque in an artery just fine. One cannot bike, but one can roll down the concrete walkway with rollerblades all they like. One cannot swim in the mighty Monksville’s murky waters, although the boat launches have become sandless beaches for folk who don’t speak English in days of late, and one especially cannot jump off the dam, even though it’s a dope as hell twenty foot drop. The gang didn’t let that stop them from doing so in their teens though, and one time, they actually got caught.
Johnny took the fall, as Johnny would have the easiest time getting off. Local law enforcement hates anybody who’s caught jumping where they should not jump, but they usually show a soft spot for their fellow locals. Mack and Sam were both in the water when the rangers rolled up in their SUVs, so they just swam to a far shore and hiked through the woods, barefoot and dripping wet, until they hit Stonetown Road where they crossed and doubled back down Fricker to wait for Johnny to get home. George though, George did something legendary: George jumped at the moment he saw the flashing red and blues, he swam down half the length of the dam to the point where it spills over a massive staircase-lookin’ thing, and he climbed down the stairs. In the dead of night, with water falling all around in him in troves and torrents with the force of fired torpedoes, George climbed down over one hundred feet of slick, slippery cobblestone stairs until he splashed down in Monksville’s lower neighbor, the Wanaque Reservoir, a body of water in which trespassing is not only illegal, but extremely illegal. Fucking legendary.
The ranger boys let Johnny off with a warning, as he lives within walking distance of the dam and is about as local as one can get ‘round these parts, and didn’t offer him a ride home, which was fine. If they did, they’d have been able to question him about the wet footprints crossing over Stonetown Road and leading up Fricker Drive to his house, but they didn’t, so they just shook their heads as they drove their way up the hill which Fricker sits at the bottom of. Johnny got back to his house to find Mack and Sam waiting for him in the backyard, and as if by clockwork, as soon as Johnny sat his soggy ass down on the patio chair – the same one he occupies tonight – good ol’ George emerged from the woods like a sasquatch, his body covered in leaves and mosquito bites, smiling brighter than the glowing moon.
“I will never forget the smile on that boy’s face,” Johnny says, shaking his own smiling head. “There will never be another like Georgie.”
“You’re damn skippy.”
They hold another moment of silence for George, though this one is impromptu. It gets harder to do this every year, the gang would be lying to themselves if they said they felt otherwise, but it’s important that they do it. They have to keep George’s memory alive, because nobody else will. Nobody else will do it right, at least, and that’s reason enough.
For George, that’s reason enough.
After story time, the gang all do some catching up of their own. They don’t get to see each other much these days, as Sam moved to a different town and Mack crossed the Pennsylvania border in search of legaler guns, but this only lasts fifteen minutes or so. They’re all good friends and they stay as close as they can, but it’s just not the same without George. When they enter into another moment of hard, rigid silence, Mack decides to fold.
“Well boys, I think that about does it. I need to get home, the woman will be furious if I’m not back before sunrise. You ready, Sam?”
“Yeah man. You gonna do the honors, Johnny?”
“Yeah, not yet though. I want to have a minute alone with him, if that’s cool with you guys.”
It is cool with the guys, and so Johnny walks the gang through the house and down to the driveway, then stays in the driveway until the red glow of the taillights no longer haunt the trees. Then he walks back up, pours himself a tall whiskey sour – the drink of choice when George would come by on the nights his folks were having their drinks of choice – and returns to the turquoise deck.
“Well shit, George,” Johnny says, sitting down and sipping his glass. “I guess it’s just you and me now, good buddy. Just like old times.”
George’s beer can, no longer coated in condensation, does not reply.
Johnny sighs. “Just like old times…”
He sips. Says some words. Sips again. Says more words. Goes to sip a third time but stops with the glass halfway to his lips so he can wipe away the tears.
“I really fucking miss you, man.”
When the whiskey glass is empty, Johnny goes in and rinses it out, leaves it in the rack to dry. He could just dry it tonight so he doesn’t have to be reminded of George again in the morning, but leaving dishes in the sink is an old habit from the days when his parents still lived here, a habit he’ll not be breaking tonight. If his parents saw him do it they’d shake their heads at him like they always did, but they’re all the way down in Boca these days. His younger brother, too. They haven’t seen Johnny for almost as long as Johnny hasn’t seen George, but that’s okay. Having them here would just remind him of old times. There’s enough of that as is.
Johnny goes back to the deck and prepares himself to pour out the beer, as he does every year. The pachysandras growing along the deck don’t love the taste of the beer, as is evidenced by the yellow patch in the leaves in the spot Johnny always pours his drinks out, but as George would say, fuck the pachysandras. The pachysandras can suck a whole frothy beer can, and not the kind you drink, either. After taking a few deep, woozy breaths, Johnny opens his eyes and grips the can… and it’s empty.
“What the…” he says under his breath. Holding the can under the dancing glow of the old tiki torches, Johnny realizes somebody opened the fucking can on him. “What the fuck?” He sniffs the hole – the scent of ale is strong. It was definitely full at one point, but now it’s not. “What the fuck?!”
Johnny crushes the can in his hand and throws it against the back of his house. It lands on the deck and doesn’t roll.
“I can’t even fucking say goodbye to my best fucking friend, what the fuck?!” he shouts angrily at the heavens. “This is fucking horseshit! This is Goddamned fucking horseshit, who the fuck did this?!”
Johnny throws a couple of the patio chairs into the back lawn and then almost flips the table, but he decides against it at the last second. He’s out of sorts, as anybody would be in this situation, but he has enough sense to know not to flip a glass-top table. Not enough sense to put thought into who may have actually opened and poured out the beer can on him, possibly leaving the empty out here as a distraction, but enough sense to not flip the table. And that’s enough.
For Johnny, for right now, that’s enough.
He collects up the coasters, the old Lake George, NY coasters with the Native American war chief heads on them that the gang would always use up at George’s old cabin, stacking the black one on top, and then heads inside. And that’s when the gears click.
The man is wearing a thick black ski mask, the kind with the gray vertical stitching. He’s got on black leather gloves, at least two hoodies, dark gray sweatpants. In his right hand is a sack, a full sack, a sack bulging with angles and curves and the outlines of Johnny’s prized possessions, although they’re only prized by him. In his other hand is a gun, and it’s not trembling. Not even a little bit.
“Who the fuck’re you…?” Johnny asks as the world churns around him like the juices in his stomach.
The man says nothing, only calmly sets the sack down. Then, he takes a tentative step towards Johnny.
“Who… who’re… woah, woah man, whuh–”
The coasters scatter this way and that as Johnny falls to the floor of his kitchen. The man stands over him, his eyes unblinking, his mouth slightly open, his nose catching the scent of the warm beer on his breath. The butt of the man’s gun – his unloaded gun, as he couldn’t buy any ammo because of his history of group home residencies – is dripping with blood. There was nobody home at the last house. He heard the car drive away before he came out of the woods, he thought everybody left. It wasn’t his fault. Oh well, everybody’s gone now. This place has cooler stuff than the last house did, anyway. It was worth the battle.
The man in the ski mask bends down and picks up the three coasters the gone guy dropped – the fourth one, George’s black coaster, rolled underneath the fridge – and throws them in his sack. With the sack hung over his shoulder like a dark Santa Claus, the man goes to leave, then stops at the back door and turns around.
“I ain’t gunna git cawt. I ain’t gowin’ bak to the groop home.”
By the time the man leaves, his gun is red and sticky up to the trigger guard. There are a few strands of hair stuck to it too, but that’s okay. He can wash it off during his bath in the pond up the road, he’ll be dry by the time gets back to his little shack in the woods. That’ll be enough.
For the burglar man in the black ski mask, that’ll be enough.