Two Friends

I was in Slim’s Tavern the other day after work, drinking a beer and discussing the vagaries of life and the foibles of people with Slim. How we started having these conversations I don’t remember. But now, whenever Slim sees me, he’s eager to tell me the latest story about someone in the neighborhood. Being strategically placed, Slim is naturally well informed on the behavior of our neighbors. And in all fairness, I have to say the stories he relates have a curious fascination all their own, especially those that are unusually quirky or would be impossible to believe if they weren’t actually true.

On several occasions, for example, Slim has told me stories about Standing Bear, a Chippewa Chief, who lives just around the corner. Other times, he’s regaled me with tales about Emory Blackwood, a professional gambler, who presides at a poker table every night at the back of the tavern and makes his living winning money from the locals. Then there’s the stories about Jeff Merriman who regularly loses to Blackwood and then invents clever lies to deceive his wife. And there’s the sad tale of Norm Haselberg who’s been cheating on his spouse for years. Slim described her as a petite blond with twinkling eyes who passionately loves Norm and would do anything for him.

The night I was in Slim’s, I had just finished my second beer when, for some reason, we started discussing friendship. Looking at me with a serious expression, Slim asked, “Have you ever had a close friend?”

I was a little surprised, but said, “No, I can’t say I have.”

“Why not, do you suppose?” he asked.

“I guess I never met anyone I liked and trusted that much.”

“I’ve never had a close friend either,” Slim said with a sigh, “but you’ll be glad to know there’s still hope for us. Take Tony Camarillo and John Lipinski. They were in their middle sixties when they became friends. And for almost ten years now they’ve been coming here together, four nights a week.”

I had frequently seen Tony and John enter Slim’s, so I was interested in how their friendship began. Tony was short with dark eyes and a fringe of black hair. Most of the time, he sat at the bar and talked with me. John, on the other hand, was tall, had a thick head of gray hair and always headed straight for the poker table to see if he could win some money from Blackwood.

“So they didn’t become friends ‘til they were in their sixties!? Wow!” I said. “That’s really something.”

“How long do you think it takes two men at that age to become friends?” Slim asked. “Not as long as you’d think,” he added before I could answer, “especially when they both realize they’re getting up in years and it’s time they took friendship seriously.

“From the way they tell it,” Slim went on, “forming a friendship was easy for them. For one thing, both are widowers and well aware of their age. Also, both are diehard Cub fans, and listen to every game on the radio or go to Wrigley field, whenever they can, to see the team play. They even have the same favorite players: Phil Cavarretta and Andy Pafko. Best of all as far as I’m concerned, they both like spending their evenings in my place where their friendship began.”

“Yeh, but to start from scratch in their middle sixties,” I said, shaking my head. “That is something.”

“Wait, it gets even better,” Slim said, smiling. “After a year, they rented adjacent apartments in a building a block-and-a-half from…you guessed it…here!”

“They what!” I said stunned. “Hell, I don’t know anyone in the whole world I’d live next to in the same building. And no offense Slim, but not even you. What are they, crazy?”

“They said it was easier living in an apartment:  lower rent, less house cleaning and only a few hall steps to climb. What do you think of that?”

I was about to answer when Slim went toward the front door to greet…of all people…Tony and John who had just walked in.

They talked to him a few minutes, then came down to where I was sitting and we exchanged greetings. Tony sat down on the stool next to me. John headed for the poker table where an active game was in progress. He is known as a serious player.

Slim served a second round of drinks to customers close to the door then came down to Tony and me. We each ordered a beer.

“So, what’s up?” I said, turning to Tony.

“The same old stuff. An old pain here, a new pain there. You know.”

“How’s John,” I asked. “He seems quiet.”

“Oh, he’s ok. He’s got cards on the brain as usual. But, off the record, I have to tell you I’m beginning to be a little concerned about him.”

“How come? Is he losing money at cards?”

“I don’t know. He doesn’t say much about his card playing, but he sure plays a long time. It worries me.”

“Well, I can see why you’d worry. He always looks so damn serious. But it is his money.”

Then Tony leaned toward me and said just above a whisper, “Later on tonight, I want you to help me. I’m gonna pretend I’m drunk so John thinks he has to help me get home. Maybe that’ll keep him from playing all evening and losing a lot of dough.” As he leaned back, he said, “promise you won’t tell him?”

“I promise.”

And we went on to talk about other things.

Several hours later, Tony got up and pretended to stagger to the men’s room. I watched him…and I watched John also watching Tony. He looked worried. A few minutes later, John left the poker table and came over to me.

“Is Tony alright?” he asked, with concern in his voice. “Did he have too much to drink?”

“I really didn’t notice,” I said. “He seemed ok to me.”

“I’m worried about his drinking,” John said. “He seems to be putting too many beers away lately. Does it seem that way to you?”

“I really haven’t paid any attention.”

“Between you and me, I play poker to supplement my income. I’ve been making some nice money lately. But if Tony needs me, then I gotta help him.” He paused. “Promise not to tell him what I said.”

“I promise.”

When Tony staggered back to the bar, he winked at me, and swaying, left the tavern quietly when John suggested they go home. After they were gone, I motioned to Slim for another beer. When he came, I took a sip from the fresh glass and grinning said, “Slim, have I got a great story for you.”

Fred E. Schwartz formerly owned and operated Baybury Books in Ephraim. He has written four books of essays, including Seasons on the Peninsula, on Door County. Fred was the editor of the Baybury Review for six years, and also wrote numerous book reviews and columns for other publications in the area.