Bobby is my best friend. Been my truest and most loyal pal since fourth grade. He’s been in on and by my side through more scraps then I can even remember. As I was always the perpetrator, he did more than his share of defending me. But in the end, Bobby was always standing by my side in the wreckage.
Just the way it was, and is, these past 40 years.
Me and Bobby, we’re about to turn 50 and now it’s my turn to stand watch over him. You see, my Bobby has taken a turn for the worse, finally falling prey to a childhood illness that should have taken him down years ago. He’s a fighter, my Bobby, and he’s held on with a tight grip up until this past week. His sister, Anne, called me around 3 a.m. and asked me to come down and sit with him. “I’m afraid, Tommy, that this may be his last hours. I knew you’d want to be here.”
Our city hospital is a quiet one, reminiscent of the day when the streets surrounding it had signs warning us that we were in a “quiet zone.” Not much happens here in our town. So, Bobby and me, well, we have the tiny ward to ourselves. Anne left us to be that way, and for that I am grateful. Funny how people always seem to feel awkward around the dying. I don’t feel that way around Bobby. We’d had a whopping good ride together, my friend and I. And I’m finding myself ready to remind him. Bobby would like that.
Reaching over to touch his hand, almost startled to feel its warmth against my fingers, I marvel at Bobby’s peaceful face. It’s almost too peaceful, as though he’d gone on ahead without telling us. But, I’m sure that he’s still waiting, so I’ll begin our story.
“I’m not really sure, Bobby, how our story actually began. Fourth grade, Sanders Elementary, I know. But it’s gotten a bit fuzzy regarding the first scrap you and I had gotten tangled up in. I do, however, know of about 10 others that came later that top my list of the most memorable! How about you?”
Bobby doesn’t move. I was hoping for a smirk, his lopsided grin at least. It’s ok. I’ve never had a problem with dominating a conversation.
“Not that you wouldn’t remember, but let me chart them out for you. A trip down memory lane, sort of. Okay?”
I move my chair closer, although there are no other people in the room. Somehow I need our story to stay between us.
“Mrs McKenzie’s tomato garden. Uh, huh! Got to be Number 10. I’m not sure which part I enjoy remembering most, her coming at us with a broom or your turning to her and saying, “Just stopped by to be neighborly, mam.” She was as red as her beets! She never did tell our mothers about that though. Always remembered that about her.”
I adjust Bobby’s sheet where I’d leaned on it. Then muss it up again. It looks less “deathly” with wrinkles.
“I know that you’ll agree with me that Jerry Mason’s bicycle rings in at Number Nine. Ouch!” I wince. “That scrap left me with two bruised knees. I was never quite sure how you made it out without a scratch. But I was forever grateful for your being there just in the nick of time.” Smiling, I add, “Jerry wasn’t, though. Say, tell me, what DID you say to him that kept him away from me all these years?”
Bobby continues to keep his secret. So I carry on.
“I’m struggling with Number Eight, switching between two scraps that happened in 7th grade. But, I feel that Nancy O’Leary’s locker is edging toward the top.”
I let out a laugh and spin my head toward the door to see if anyone’s heard. No one comes to investigate. And Bobby doesn’t budge. So, I continue.
“Oh, yes. And the best part was the look on her face when you bow and say ‘Pardon us, dear, for any inconvenience!”
I snort and laugh again. Somehow I manage to keep it down. But all of these memories are tickling the funny bone, for sure.
“I’m still not convinced, though, that you didn’t pay her for damages. She never seemed to be angry about it after I saw you walking with her the next morning.”
I eye Bobby, hoping for a clue to the mystery. He gives nothing away.
“And so that brings us to Number Seven. I’m sure you’ll recall our science class scrap that same year. Oh, yes. Mr. Carney’s lab with all of those tempting tubes and Bunsen burners! Ha!”
Too loud! I move in closer to the bed and whisper, “Do you remember the principal’s response to our explanation? Do you? Oh, gosh! Now, that WAS a memorable day!”
I lean in just a bit closer to Bobby’s ear. “Say,” I start off quietly, “why do you think he never called our parents? Huh?”
All of our scraps never seemed to land us in hot water for long. They were actually my scraps, as I was the creator of the devious deeds. But Bobby always trooped to the principal’s office, or followed me to the next caper, without looking back. Somehow, he always managed to smooth things over for me. Somehow.
“Number Six has GOT to be my sister’s hair dryer. There are times when I regret doing that to her. Yes, there sure are. But more often than that I enjoy the picture of her face as she came storming out of her bedroom! Wow!” I shake my head. “What a blast that caper was, huh, Bobby? I remember you being on the hallway floor, rolling around on the rug, laughing so loud you were crying!”
I turn to peek at his face just in case there’s a smile. Nothing yet.
“But I’m still amazed that she never, ever held a grudge over that. She hinted one time, years later, that I was a very lucky boy that day because I had you for a friend. What do you think she meant by that? Huh, Bobby?”
I sit back and cross my legs to think this one over. Sarah was 3 years older than Bobby and me. She didn’t tolerate us well. But that day, after Bobby chatted with her a while, she seemed to, I don’t know, understand us a bit more. Perplexing. Bobby, that is.
I shake my head and carry on with our story.
“We’re half-way to the Numero Uno hit, Bobby. Number Five actually ties with Number Four, despite the fact that they occurred years apart. Five is Christmas our senior year at Barnes High. Yep, you’ll remember that one.”
I’m growing a tad bit solemn, I find, and am not quite sure I should press on. But it WAS a sort of bonding experience for Bobby and me in the end.
“It makes me both laugh and cry when I think about it, Bobby. Our trick on your dad. He was such a sport, Big Bob, was. After the initial shock, he belly-laughed with the rest of us. Yep, a huge, loud laugh, the kind that only Big Bob could put out.”
I turn toward my friend. “It was funny, my idea that is. Wasn’t it, Bobby? I mean, your dad DID laugh.”
Big Bob passed away last year, on Christmas Eve. It was a peaceful death, old age, no tricks. Bobby doesn’t move in his bed. I assume it was okay to talk about our Christmas Caper.
“The same stunt, however, turned out to be not so hilarious to my cousin, Jeff, three years later. He actually bellowed, ‘Grow up, will ya?’ across the dinner table, remember? Kind of embarrassing, it was.” I shrug my shoulders at the memory. “Yet, I’m still including it as Number Four.”
Of course, Bobby and I were college students by then. But we never did grow up.
“Jeff calmed down, though, and it seemed that you and he actually hit if off that holiday. What DID you guys talk about all that time in the den?”
No secrets unfolding here either.
I take a little break to ponder that. Jeff and Bobby sitting in grandma’s and granddad’s barcaloungers chatting and chuckling like old friends. As I recall this puzzling cordiality after we’d just given Jeff the shock of his life, I shake my head once again. Bobby. Bobby.
“Okay, we’re rounding the bend toward Number Three.”
I take a look at the wall clock. It’s 7 a.m. and the room has the glow of the morning sunrise. Winter days are short in our New England state. Sunrise and sunset being close cousins.
I chuckle. “Number Three almost landed me in the slammer. Well, not really. It would have though had you let me carry it out as planned. Mrs. Smithers doesn’t have any sense of humor to speak of and she would NOT have taken the prank as a joke.”
I lean my head back and close my eyes, recalling Bobby’s intense stare as he talked me into revising my caper to keep it within the boundaries of a 21-year-old’s sense of responsibility.
“In any case, I still smile when I recall her slamming the Five and Dime’s door in our faces as I….”
I begin to laugh out loud and nearly choke trying to stifle the sound. I can’t control it and, soon, the nurse is standing in the doorway, index finger to her lips, but with a small smile lingering there, too.
I raise my hand in an “okay” signal and try to settle down. The Mrs. Smithers’ caper would have to remain an unspoken memory. But I say, “Bobby, why do you think she never reported us? No, we didn’t really break any laws. But she was notorious for getting the cops involved in anything that happened in her store. Huh, Bobby? Why not that time?”
Silence remained my answer.
I do have to weigh Numbers One and Two for some time before I’m able to set them apart. As Bobby and I neared our mid-twenties, our caper days became memories and our memories began to play tricks on us. Everything in the past was funnier and the present seemed to be the best time to recreate them. Of course, no one truly appreciates the pranks once played out by teenagers when the pranksters are guys “who should know better.” So the tricks got trickier as we got around 25.
“Bobby, I dare say that Number Two is the time we rang Dr. Jacobs about that mysterious rash. Hmm. I do have to say that you proved yourself to be a fine supporting actor on that day.”
I smile at him to show my pride. No response.
“Of course, my mom was NOT so impressed with our male leading roles and I nearly found myself looking for an apartment! Ha! Imagine how she felt when Jacobs showed up at her door all concerned for her health? No, Bobby, you don’t want to go back and imagine that.” I cringe. “It was a crazy idea and I know you tried to stop me. But in the end, we once again walked away with a gentle slap on the wrists and a huge piece of my mom’s apple pie.”
Again, I found myself wondering about all the chatter between our victim and my partner in crime. What DID they talk about in the kitchen that day?
I settle back in my chair and rest my right ankle over my left knee, shuffling my weight to get comfortable. I was ready to spill the beans on Number One. This one needed no prep. Bobby pulled the most dastardly deed on me one Labor Day at the town picnic. Right there in front of my future wife, the mayor, and the Barnes High School marching band.
“Oh, Bobby. You sure put one over on me that day, my friend. My face must have turned every shade of red, with a bit of furious purple mixed in for effect. Ah, and I thought all along that you were an innocent bystander in all of our pranks.”
Bobby seemed to stir. I dropped my leg to lean forward and get a better look. Nothing seemed different. Must have been my imagination.
I rest my hand on his.
“Yes, Bobby. And after all those years that you protected me from myself. In the park that day, you handed me a heaping helping of Tommy’s Tricks to last me a lifetime.”
I rub my chin and give him a smile and gentle squeeze of the hand.
“But, even then, my friend, I just laughed and we all walked away friendly-like. You had that effect on everyone. Didn’t you, Bobby?”
And with that, Bobby’s hand moved, ever so slightly, acknowledging, “yes, I did.” It may have been just wishful thinking, but I think not.