Monday, October 24, 2016

Semi-Decent Proposal

One year late in the spring I am at the beach, and find myself in what can only be described as the world’s most heinous piano bar. The pianists, if I may use that term loosely, are spouting distasteful sodomy jokes (are there tasteful ones?) with disconcerting frequency. Perhaps they mixed in a few other jokes as well, but much like an imagined prison stay, it’s the sodomy you remember.

I am sitting between the girl I’ve been courting for quite some time and my ex-best friend’s wife, wracking my brain for a way to get the former to leave so the latter and I can have a couple of minutes alone.

You may be wondering, much like I was at the time: how did I wind up here?

It all began with a boy, a plan, and a healthy dose of absentmindedness.

First, the plan. We’d go for a walk on the beach, a place sewn into both our souls. I’d kneel down and propose in Spanish — she had lived in Spain for four months — reciting the words on the folded piece of paper I had kept in my wallet and rehearsed so carefully. Granted, it wasn’t any elaborate plan, but it was mine. I’d even gone old school and ask her Dad's permission. He, the jeweler, and I were the only people who knew anything at all about it.

We were on our way to the coast, thirty minutes into the five-and-a-half-hour trek when it hit me. (Apologies in advance for the language.)


A pause.

“Crap! Crap, crap, crap!”

“What’s wrong? Did you forget something?”

“Uh…. no.” An obvious lie.

“Are you sure? We can go back.”

“No. It’s fine.”

But it wasn’t fine. My non-elaborate plan had but one tiny flaw: I must not forget the ring!

We couldn’t go back for it. Even if we did backtrack, adding an hour to our trip, when I came out of the house, she’d be expecting me to be carrying something. Try as I might, I couldn’t think of anything to pretend I had forgotten that might seem worth going back for.

And so, we continued southward, past the familiar rolling hills north of Birmingham, my mind a million — er, thirty — miles away.

I could propose without a ring. She would be confused, at best; disappointed, at worst. Else I would have to wait until we returned and come up with some other probably even less elaborate plan. My heart sank into the pit of my stomach.

I texted my ex-best friend’s wife: “You will not believe what I did!”

And now four people knew.

(It seems worth noting here the reason he is my ex-best friend is simply because we drifted apart once he got married and then went off on some radical religious tangent. Nothing too sinister.)

They happened to be coming to the beach that same weekend. She was full of questions: Was there anyone who had a key to the house? Yes. The girl who would be coming by to feed Tony DiNozzo, my third-born Betta.

OK, so I guess it was just the one question. They would conspire. She would retrieve the ring from my underwear drawer — the place all men keep their valuables. I assume — and bring it South.

They would arrive Saturday afternoon. We would be departing for home Sunday morning. It would be tight, but it could be done. I was almost confident.

I had one last directive:

“Make sure you don’t get the wrong ring.”

“There’s more than one ring???”

“I was engaged before.”

Obviously, bringing the wrong ring could turn what I was naively optimistic was going to be a decent engagement story into one that would be… well, probably not even an engagement story at all.

Saturday evening, the prospective Fiancee Bone and I grabbed some seafood at Kenny D’s, then drove across the bridge to Okaloosa Island and the aforementioned Sodomy Saloon, the rendezvous point suggested by my now ring-bearing friend. It had taken some convincing on my part. It being our last night on the beach, the Prospective One wasn’t overly keen on spending part of it with my ex-best friend’s wife. But I persuaded her. Or more accurately, annoyed her about it until she relented. This is how I operate.

We got to the door. I nearly turned back. Cold feet? No. Ten dollar cover charge. Which, if you’ve never dated anyone, meant twenty dollar cover charge. I figured it up, it came to about a dollar forty-three cents per sodomy joke. I don’t know what the going rate is, but that seemed a tad high.

We must have sat there at least forty-five minutes. She who bore my ring and I casting glances at one another, trying to figure out how to make the exchange. (Which, as it turns out, you cannot do through glances alone.) She who may hopefully someday bear my child growing more agitated with each excruciating moment. Finally, an idea. My first.

“Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Prospective fiancee always had to go.

“No.” Of course.

At that point, I swear I began to see smoke. I’m not sure if it was from the bar or literal steam rising from her increasingly infuriated (and oh so adorable) head, but considering it was a non-smoking bar…

Then Ring Bearer excused herself to go to the restroom. I sat there for a good thirty seconds, clueless.

Oh! It hit me. "Um, I guess I’ll go, too.”

There was a lobby outside the restrooms. Ring Bearer wasn’t there when I went in. Thankfully, she was waiting when I had finished making my deposit. We made the swap. I pondered how many transactions just like this must have taken place in this very spot. Probably not many.

By now, it had gotten to be the sleepy side of 10 p.m. With a bit of a drive still ahead, I thought it would be too late to suggest a walk on the beach once we got back to the room. She would be suspicious. So instead, I suggested we go for a walk on the pier not far from the bar. Just the two of us. (I'm pretty sure that part was integral.) She agreed.

Partway down the pier, between people fishing and... other people fishing, I stopped and leaned against the rail. We chatted for a bit, looking out over the ocean and back towards the hotels and lights along the shoreline. It truly was gorgeous, out here, away from all the sodomy.

When I caught her looking away, I pulled the ring box out of my pocket. When she turned back I smiled and, gazing into those eyes so full of love — although maybe not quite as full as they had been a couple of hours ago — said, “Has anyone told you lately they want to spend the rest of their life with you?”

I then proceeded to kneel, and right there next to a sign that read “No fishing or diving,” I jumped right in.


She said yes. Eventually. Turns out at first it was so dark she couldn't see the ring. But I did get the Spanish right. Later she asked what I would've done if I'd dropped the ring into the ocean, you know, since it was right there and all. I had honestly never considered that, not surprisingly. We would be married about 80 miles down the coast a little over a year later. I volunteered her to be in charge of the rings.

"Someday somebody's gonna ask you / A question that you should say yes to / Once in your life / Maybe tonight I've got a question for you..."

Friday, October 14, 2016


It was nineteen eighty-six or -seven.  I had gone with Fave Aunt to watch my cousin's rec league basketball game.  He was 8 or 9.  I didn't know any of the other kids on the court, but one stood out. I gathered from the parents cheering around me that his name was Rusty.

Rusty's head was cocked to the side a bit, his shoulder slightly raised.  Sort of like if you were trying to hold a phone between your ear and shoulder to free up both hands, then backed it off about halfway.  It was obviously some sort of physical abnormality, one I had never seen.  But that was only part of what made him stand out.

While his condition made it almost impossible for him to shoot accurately, Rusty was a rebounding whiz!  It was pretty clear, at least to me, that he was trying twice as hard as anyone else. 

The game ended.  I don't recall who won or lost.  Yes, we had winners and losers in those days.  We kept score.  And miracle of miracles, it didn't kill me.  (Just do me a favor and don't yell "Loser!" in my vicinity, I still get a little sensitive.)  But there are three distinct memories I have of that day:  My late uncle coaching my cousin's team; thinking to myself that my cousin was definitely never going to attend Duke on a basketball scholarship; and Rusty.

Years scattered.  I didn't think about those things for a long while.  Rusty went to that place where certain memories are kept.  Ones you can't necessarily recall on command, but they're solidly there.  It simply takes some trigger -- a dream, a particular song, some conversation -- to bring them to mind, clear as the day you lived them.

Then some years ago, my sister was telling me a story.  She mentioned a Rusty.  The name was just uncommon enough that I thought it might be the same guy.  It was.

Rusty was the same age as my sister's husband.  They were friends.  He was a groomsman in their wedding.  But somehow he wound up talking more often to my sister.

You see, Rusty was one of those poor, misfortunate souls that we here in the state of Alabama refer to as "Auburn fans."  (We have other, more colorful names, but I'll save those for another day.)

My sister, of course, was raised as was I -- to love Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide.  She strayed away from the fold once, in her rebellious high school days.  Made Mom buy her a Michigan sweatshirt for Christmas the year Charles Woodson won the Heisman.  But she returned.  There was much rejoicing.  (See: "The Bible," Luke 15, Parable of the Ninety and Nine.)

Despite their opposite allegiances, Rusty would call my sister from time to time to talk football.  Because that is what we do in the South.  Before the games, at halftime of the games,  after the games, after the season, we talk about college football year-round. 

Rusty still lived with his parents.  My sister once told me his condition made him not want to go out much.  He didn't like crowds and preferred to only be around his closest few friends.  I liked to imagine that these conversations with my sister brought bits of brightness to his days.  Pure speculation on my part, the brain eager to fill in what it does not know.

As is so often the case, the news came out of the blue.  My sister calling to let me know Rusty had died.  He was thirty-six.

First, shock.  Then questions.  Eventually more speculation.

My sister said Rusty suffered from Crohn's disease.  He had been sick but had put off going to the doctor.  By the time they got him to the hospital it had been too late.  Was he afraid to go?  Maybe he was just sick of always going?  Did he not have insurance?  Maybe he had it but the deductible was so outrageous that he couldn't afford to go?  All valid questions in modern-day America, sadly.

The next day, someone shared a post from Rusty's sister on Facebook.  Heart-ripping.

There were only the two of them, him and her.  I know how that is, to have that one person who grew up exactly like you did.  In the same house, with the same parents.  The same blessings and disadvantages.  The same unspoken secrets.

I clicked over to Rusty's Facebook page.  Scrolling through the RIP's and "I'm gonna miss you's" I saw a message from my sister.  Tears began.

Further down, the posts became scarce.  Then, a handful of birthday wishes from earlier in the year.  I noticed the date.  Rusty and I shared the same birthday.  It seemed more than a coincidence somehow.  I knew I had to write something.

Sometimes, when you don't see someone often or haven't seen them for a long while, the image you have of them sort of becomes frozen in time.  I do it with famous people a lot.  When I hear a song from the 80's I still picture the singer or band looking as they did then.  I cringed a couple of weeks ago when I saw the promo for the new Matt LeBlanc show and all his gray hair.  In my mind, he's still sitting in Central Perk and it's twenty years ago.

I did the same thing with Rusty.  I thought of one long ago Saturday in nineteen eighty-something.  Of the rebounding whiz with his head cocked to the side, trying twice as hard as everyone else.  I reckon some have to try twice as hard their whole lives...

My sister said not many people showed up at the funeral.

And I remembered how Rusty never liked crowds.

"Remember him when he was still a proud man.  A vandal's smile, a baseball in his right hand.  Nothing but the blue sky in his eyes..."