I walked onto the blazing deck to watch my old friend pull up in his SUV, surfboard strapped to the top, though the thing had plenty of room inside for it. But Joe would want everyone to know he still had it. A few beers heavier than the year before (hey, I’m just calling it like I see it), he waved and climbed out. Now we were three—Joe, Carl, me.
In high school, we’d been four, always four. On the football team, at parties, at the prom, and every moment in between it seemed… And we’d stayed in touch better than most families I know. Weddings, funerals, one divorce, reunions—we talked, our wives talked, our kids knew one another. We were brothers. Closer than brothers.
Carl and I patted Joe on the back and welcomed him into our rental and out of the sun.
“Still the best place in town,” he muttered, glancing around as he took a seat. Joe and I sat and chatted idly about the traffic on the causeway for a moment. Then the inevitable took hold. We were three. One chair—Artie’s chair, was empty. We’d sworn in 1975 that every summer we’d find the spot central to us all to gather for a “guys’ only weekend”. Like little kids, we’d made a pact as sacred to us as any. Except for two years, when my Hailey was born and when Joe’s mom passed, we’d kept that pact.
Who would say it? I figured Joe, and I was right. “Just not the same.” He rose, pulled four cold ones out of the fridge, and opened them. As the three of us toasted the fourth untouched bottle, a lump rose in my throat. Artie had been gone only a few months. Maybe it was too soon. Maybe the pact had died with Artie.
“Take off your hat and stay a while,” Carl joked, pointing to Joe’s Yankees hat. “I told Frank he wasn’t allowed to wear that Boston hat in this house either.”
“Yeah, well lose the Phillies hat, jerk. That was Artie’s rule, remember? Whoever wins a playoff game tonight gets to wear the hat tomorrow. Artie had it easy, living in Princeton. He just went with the winner.”
Joe spit out a sip of beer and swore. “Now don’t get me started. You know Artie came to plenty of Yankees games with me. Just last summer…”
“Ah, listen to the big time New York broker,” I joked. “Artie hated the Yankees. I took him to a Phillies game on his birthday. He knew stats better than I did.”
Carl shook his head and laughed. “He knew his Boston stats too, you guys. We talked just about every week after a game…”
We stared at each other and broke into howling laughter. “What a con artist!” I could barely get my words out I was laughing so hard. “He told me to keep it a secret from you guys that he loved the Phillies.”
Carl sputtered. “Me too! I mean, about Boston.”
“Holy cow,” Joe muttered, wiping tears from his eyes. “I gave him a Derek Jeter bat last Christmas.”
I was still chuckling when I heard the crunch of tires on the gravel driveway and peeked out just to make sure some beach bum wasn’t going to pin us in. The blood froze in my veins for a moment at the sight of Artie’s old black Volvo. I must have gone pale or made a noise, because the guys got up and looked out, too.
“What the…” Carl braced himself on my shoulder and let out a deep sigh of bittersweet relief when Art Jr. got out of the car and stretched. He saw us and waved with a shy smile. Twenty-three and the spitting image of his father at that age…
“Joe, did you invite Junior?” I asked. Joe shook his head and Carl did the same when I sent him a questioning look.
Art Jr. tapped on the door and we greeted him warmly, the three of us trying not to act confused. In fact, it was good to see him, and for a moment I know we all pretended…
“Hey Uncle Joe, Uncle Carl, Uncle Frank!” We all hugged him and asked about his family.
“Mom’s okay, I guess. We’re keeping a close eye on her. Sometimes she just seems…lost, you know?”
“That’s understandable. It’s going to take a long time, Art. For you, too,” I tried, wondering what to say to him, now a grown man with a baby of his own.
Art blew out a deep sigh and nodded. He took off his Princeton cap and ran his hand through his sandy hair the way we’d seen his father do a thousand times. “Well, I guess you want to know why I’m here?” It was a hard question to ignore, but we waved it off like it was immaterial.
Joe handed him a beer. “Sun, beer, golf, and fishing. What else?”
Art shook his head and relaxed a bit back in his chair. “He made me promise. Said that it didn’t matter what I had going on, I had to come if he couldn’t. So here I am.”
We sat silently for a few minutes that seemed to take an eternity, each of us lost in our own memories of our friend.
Joe leaned forward and tapped Art on the knee. “Hey, we need you to settle something, Junior. Who was your dad’s favorite ball team?”
“Baseball? Dad hated baseball. Used to gripe about the games you all dragged him to. He’d read the box scores just to be able to keep up.”
Carl pounded his beer on the table so hard the bottle nearly broke. “Holy shit. That’s just too much! Why’d he go to all that trouble?”
“He loved you all.” Art shrugged like he’d said something trivial, and I realized that his generation had a leg up on ours. It was easier for him to talk about love and commitment. “And I do, too,” he added. “Which is why I’ll never tell you who I’m rooting for. Who’s taking me to a game next season?”
For my friend and colleague, Arthur Epstein, gone over six months but never gone in my heart. A mensch, for sure.