by Dean Jollay
Sitting in a booth near the door of the Silent Woman Café, the only spot remaining when they’d arrived, Al and Robert caught blasts of chilly air as customers came and went. Snow, dragged in from shoes and boots, melted on the tile floor. Al let his navy bean soup cool while he thumbed through a coffee table book, Golf Links of Ireland, a Christmas present from wife Rose.
“We’ve been telling people we’re going to Ireland for so long it’s embarrassing,” Al said. “We talk and talk.”
“We have lives,” Robert said. “Responsibilities.” His friend Al had always been a dreamer. For years Al fantasized about restoring an old trawler and sailing it around the world. The man lived in Ohio, a hundred miles inland from Lake Erie, practically landlocked. What did he know about seamanship?
Al returned to pages filled with ocean-side golf links beside blue, white-capped waters. Mounded fairways dotted with pot bunkers zigzagged along rocky coastlines. Thickets of gorse bloomed. Skies were cloudless. No, it never rained in Ireland. Not on these links. Courses had names like Ballybunion, Lahinch, and Tralee. For years Al and Robert had planned their trip. Nothing held them back. Nothing except a vague sense that the actual journey might disappoint.
Al lifted his head and sighed. “Golf is life, Bobby.”
Al and Robert had played many rounds together. They belonged to different country clubs, but teamed up in each other’s member/guest tournaments—Robert’s the third weekend in June, Al’s always the second weekend after the Fourth of July. Double-digit handicappers, they were grouped in the last flights with the other less talented players. In almost three decades as teammates, they’d never won. Twice they’d led until their final match, only to choke playing the last few holes. Whenever they reminisced about these close calls, lamenting this or that bad shot, Robert would deliver the final words: “We folded like a cheap suit, my brother.”
Steam rose from Al’s bean soup. He handed the picture book across the table to his friend, then crumbled a handful of crackers into the bowl. “Have a look. I’ve stuck Post-it Notes on the courses we should play.” He brushed the flakes off his hands and lifted his spoon.
To Robert, it seemed there were more yellow sticky notes than pages in the book. “That’s a lot of golf. With my bad back and bursitis? We have to walk, right? No golf carts over there?”
“Your back won’t hurt when you’re dead,” Al said.
In pressed chinos, a starched, plum-colored shirt, and polished tasseled loafers, Robert reminded Al of his prissy high school geometry teacher, a man who, when not in class, could be found in the lavatory washing his hands. Robert, too, had a thing about hygiene. Like a tour pro, he toweled his golf grip before each shot and scrubbed the clubface afterward, removing every speck of dirt from the grooves.
“Look at these ruins,” Robert said. He flashed Al a photo of a castle crumbling on its promontory, stones tumbling down a cliff into the ocean below. “Remember, I need my own shower and toilet. I’m not sharing a bathroom with six other people.”
“You act like we’re going to a third-world country,” Al said.
“They don’t have the same conveniences.”
“How would you know?” Al said. “You’ve never been to Ireland. If you don’t want to go, just say so.”
“No, no, I’m in. But don’t book us into some sleazebag hotel because it’s cheap.”
“You make the arrangements then.” Al set down his spoon and folded his arms. “Knock yourself out.” He was the one who organized their adventures, and he was tired of it. Tired of begging his friend to go.
Robert extended his palms. “I’m just saying.”
“Do the work—you can call the shots,” Al said. “Otherwise…” Al glanced about the room. Every table was filled, every seat at the counter, taken. “Gertie ruined this place when she remodeled. It’s too perfect.” Gertie, the owner, had recently given the Silent Woman a facelift—fresh wallpaper, new booths, tables, chairs, hip modern lighting, and stainless steel everywhere. Robert and Al had been coming here for twenty-nine years, since January 26, 1983 (the restaurant had been called “Gertie’s” then), seven days after Robert’s youngest son had been born, the day Al hired Robert to do the legal work for Al’s purchase of the local Ford dealership.
“Yup, she messed it up,” Al said. He shoved his empty soup bowl aside, picked up his BLT on wheat, and gave it an admiring look. “Like that stupid glass pyramid in front of the Louvre. People should respect tradition—realize when to leave well enough alone.”
Robert poked at his Cobb salad. “Actually, I like it. Progress, you know?”
“Which? Gertie’s or the Louvre?”
In Al’s opinion, Gertie’s restaurant was as important to the town of Hailey as the Louvre was to Paris. More than just a restaurant, the Silent Woman Café sat atop a hill overlooking the Ashton River, a muddy leftover from the canal era. Its waters ribboned through Hailey from north to south, dividing it roughly in half. Both Robert’s law firm and Al’s car dealership were located on Gertie’s side of the levy, the good side, the side that still bustled with commerce. Downtown Hailey, practically dead and buried, lay across the viaduct.
Robert’s finger stabbed at the cover of Golf Links of Ireland. “Don’t want to leave from New York,” he said.
Al shrugged. He was pretty sure Robert had never flown out of Kennedy, but he didn’t want to give his buddy another excuse not to go. “Then we’ll leave from Philly or Baltimore.”
“Find us a good connection,” Robert said. “No point sitting for hours, waiting for the next flight.”
“We could take the Concorde, except it’s been retired,” Al said. “Or Scotty could beam us to Ireland.” For a guy who seldom left Ohio, Robert had a lot of opinions about travel.
“Pretend I’m one of your customers,” Robert said. “What is it you always say in your commercials?”
“We treat you like family.”
Al’s TV spots were a bit of a joke around town. His brown hair had an odd, unnatural, Just for Men hue. Polo shirts with the dealership logo stretched tightly over his potbelly. His belt rode well below his waist. He punctuated his sales pitches with awkward stabbing gestures like karate chops. Robert often told Al to hire a professional spokesperson, but Al refused to spend the money.
“Suggestions, that’s all,” Robert said. “No need to get all defensive, huh? At our ages, we should make this as easy as possible.” Something was bothering Al, something beyond his normal cantankerousness.
“Anything else?” Al said. “Anything at all?”
“Let me think.” Robert had barely touched his salad. He drained his coffee, wiped his mouth, and refolded the napkin on his lap.
Flo swooped by and refilled Robert’s cup. From the back of her order pad, she read off the list of Gertie’s home-baked pies, the main reason they came here. In the new millennium, more than a decade after 9/11, making a decent piecrust was a dying art. Like typewriter repairmen and switchboard operators, milkmen and shade tree car mechanics, pie bakers—good ones who could roll out a thin, buttery crust—were an endangered lot. No banana cream today, so Robert ordered the five-berry, Gertie’s specialty. Al chose the lemon meringue.
“What’s up?” Robert asked. “Tell me.”
Al pulled and twisted the brushed chrome links of his watchband. “I’m leaving Rose. I love her, I do. But I can’t stand her going off on me any longer. Every minute spent wondering when her next tirade will be. So I’ve decided. And I’m selling the dealership too. My accountant says the time is right. The economy has recovered. Cars are hot again. Interest rates low. My dealership will fetch a good price.”
Robert folded his arms and leaned back. He’d heard this speech before, but never the determination in Al’s voice. Al had been unhappy in his marriage for years, but who was completely satisfied? Marriage was all about compromises, picking your battles. “The hell, you say. You’ll be writing a big, fat check. You know that, right?”
“Giving Rose half my money doesn’t bother me, not really. Compared with the alternative—growing old together. Living with me…well, maybe she’s earned it. I’m selling the business in May. My attorney says I should wait a few months after the sale to let the dust settle. That makes it November or December. Of course, the holidays are no good. The kids would hate me if I filed then. So we’re into next January or February at the earliest.”
“Slow down,” Robert said. “You’re depressed. It’ll pass. At sixteen I was as unhappy as you. Every week an eternity. I hated my life—parents, school, not making varsity, not getting laid. Hell, I didn’t have a girlfriend until college. Lonely…I was lonely, wishing I were eighteen, out of the house, far away at college. I survived. You will too.”
Al stared across the table. “Always have to one-up me, don’t you?” For a change, for one frigging damn second, he needed Robert to listen.
“So when was the last time you and Rose made love?”
“Harry Truman was president,” Al said.
“No, I’m serious.” Robert caught Flo’s eye and motioned for another refill. “The last time for me was…let’s see…in the summer, our trip to Yellowstone and the Tetons. First night in the lodge, I believe. Mary was gaga over the scenery, had a couple glasses of wine with dinner, which she never does.”
“Can’t remember,” Al said wearily. “Anyway, sex isn’t in the equation. Not for me. I wake up three or four times a night to piss. Don’t even get a good night’s sleep.”
“Ravages of coffee, vodka, and time.” Robert nodded his head wisely, thinking he’d just delivered the definitive pronouncement on Al’s urological misfortune.
“I feel like an old jalopy,” Al said. “All my parts falling off. My doctors run down the road after me picking them up. The reattachment—that’s the problem.”
Flo came by with their pie and dropped their bills on the table. Al liked that Gertie’s establishment was cash-only. Cash was king. Five people stood by the register waiting for her to ring them up. With admiration, Al watched the proprietress. She was efficient, adding their checks on her calculator, pointing at the totals she wrote on each chit, making change with solemn efficiency, as if each transaction was special. Gertie couldn’t speak. Cancer had claimed her vocal chords twenty years ago. She’d refused to learn to talk through a hole in her throat. After recovering, she’d renamed her restaurant the Silent Woman Café. Al supposed the rechristening was a fuck you to the disease. The restaurant’s sign featured the frontal silhouette of a woman with a body and a head, but no neck, a crude image Gertie herself had painted.
Al’s fork caressed the flaky crust. “I’ve been doing some math, figuring out how much longer I have on the planet. My mother died at seventy-four, my father at seventy-eight, but both were smokers. It averages out to seventy-six. I added five years because I’ve never smoked. So with luck, I’m good for eighty-one, give or take.”
“You have to be realistic.”
The winter sun had shifted so it was now in Robert’s face. He covered his eyes and slid down the bench seat, taking refuge in the shaded corner.
“Fifteen more years…max,” Al repeated, “that’s what I’ve got left. I deserve to enjoy that time. Right? A year from now when I file, I’ll be down to fourteen years. Fourteen, Bobby.”
Robert lifted his cup. “Deserve? Depends who you ask. Some might say marriage vows are more important than your happiness. Not me, of course.”
“Working sixty hours a week, trying to keep peace on the home front…it’s worn me out.”
“Even an extended warranty expires,” Robert said. “Caveat emptor.”
“Hate that lawyer mumbo jumbo,” Al said. “…So what about Ireland next year in late spring? Does it work for you?”
“We’ve got our Alaska cruise next August,” Robert said. “Our niece gets married in September. Mary’s birthday is in November. This is our year to spend Christmas with Rachel and Bill and the kids out in LA. Yeah, May works for me. Let’s do it.” He handed the book back.
Al clutched the tome to his chest. “The euro and pound are in the toilet. With any luck, by the time we head over there, our trip will be a bargain.”
“You’ll need one.”
“I counted them up. There are forty golf courses we have to play.” He wrote the number on the placemat and circled it.
“Jesus, that’s a helluva trip,” Robert said. “I’m not sure I can be away that long.”
“Time is short, Bobby. I’ve been trying to tell you. Keep it up and we’ll never get there.”
* * *
“I’ve never smoked,” Al said. “That’s the thing.” He and Robert sat at the counter of the Silent Woman Café having breakfast. Eight months had passed. It was October. Fall was Al’s favorite time of year. A warmer than normal autumn had kept the leaves on the trees from turning early. Now they were in high color—deep reds, yellows, and oranges. Summer and early fall had been dry. The river ran low between its banks, exposing rocks, tree limbs, discarded tires, and mud-crusted debris.
Al would miss autumn afternoons on the golf course with Robert, a season when you could invoke the “leaf rule” if you lost a golf ball on the fairway. Put a new ball into play without penalty, to hell with the United States Golf Association and their stuffy regulations. He liked holding his face to the sun, feeling its warmth on his skin, even as a cool breeze rustled the trees. He coughed and glanced left and right, wondering if this would be their last meal together.
“Secondhand smoke,” Robert said. “What difference does it make anyway?” Robert studied his friend. Except for the dark circles around his eyes, his shortness of breath, the occasional cough, and the ashen pallor of his skin, Al seemed none the worse for his late-stage lung cancer.
“No difference,” Al said. “But it really pisses me off.”
Robert shook his head. “Sorry about our trip to Ireland.”
“I’m still planning to go. My surgery is Thursday. Radiation after that. Chemo for six weeks. A few weeks to get my strength back. I’m thinking mid-June—a month or two after we’d planned to go. Before the tourists show up in force.”
“What does Rose think?” Robert said. He didn’t know much about the disease, but he knew enough not to step on Al’s self-delusion.
“It was her idea in the first place. ‘If you’re well enough,’ she said, ‘why mope around the house?’ And my employees sure as hell don’t want me hanging around the dealership.”
Rose. For all the years they’d been friends, Robert had seldom been inside Al’s home. By an unspoken compact, they’d agreed Robert should be spared Rose’s wrath. He knew all too well she was a total pain in the ass, a relentlessly angry woman. But when Al had gotten sick, she’d risen to the occasion—searching the Web for the best specialists in the country, scheduling doctor visits, taking him to New York and Rochester for second and third opinions. She’d started a website called Never Ever Smoked where patients like Al could exchange information. And it was Rose who had found Al’s doctors at MD Anderson. Al and Rose were flying to Houston on Wednesday for his surgery and follow-up treatment. She’d rented a condominium close to the hospital where they’d stay until he completed his therapy.
“We’re still going to Ireland together, right?” Robert said.
“If you really want to go,” Al said. “I’ve never been certain you do.”
In her pink and gray uniform, pepper-gray hair in a net, Gertie held up a glass coffeepot and pointed.
Al nodded and mouthed, Just a half cup. Gertie had guts. Looking at her, he wondered if he’d get by half as well as she on whatever the doctors let him keep of his lungs and other body parts.
Gertie poured the coffee with a steady grip. She smiled and patted his hand. Her fingers were rough but gentle. He tried to read her lips. “You’ll be okay,” he thought she said. His bad news had apparently made the rounds. He was a regular here, known in town on account of the dealership and his commercials. By e-mail, text, or tweet, his troubles had made it to a woman who couldn’t speak.
Al laid his hand on hers and mouthed, “Thank you.”
Robert considered how Al’s fifteen-year projection of his mortality had been blown all to hell. Last winter, a decade and a half had seemed like a conservative guess. So much had changed since then. First, Al had decided he couldn’t part with the dealership—his life’s work for God’s sake, his identity. The money he’d get selling out wasn’t that important, he’d told Robert. Not compared with the satisfaction of going to work every day. Then came Al’s cancer diagnosis—stage four. His planned divorce had disappeared in the hurly-burly of doctor appointments and tests. Truthfully, how much time could Al have left? A year at most? And at least half of that year spent in Houston. Robert wished Al had chosen treatment locally. The doctors here were as good as anywhere else.
He despaired of losing Al. Men of a certain age had trouble making new friends. With Al gone, Robert would be alone, and he didn’t do alone very well. Of course there was Mary, but she had her own life—lunches, shopping, volunteer work, the grandchildren. When Mary left town to visit the kids, Robert wandered the house talking to himself. Often he woke up at four in the morning and never got back to sleep. And what if something happened to Mary? He’d read that men who lived by themselves were eleven times more likely to die prematurely. Dying scared the shit out of him.
“If I can get away, I’ll come to visit you,” Robert said.
“It’s only a three-hour flight. Half the distance to Ireland. After my first round of radiation and chemo might be best. Rose can pick you up at the airport.” His friend’s timidity made Al angry. Robert was becoming an old fart. And he’d been getting worse. Now he was afraid to drive at night, though his eyesight was plenty good enough.
The thought of fifty minutes in a car alone with Rose made Robert cringe. “I can take a cab.”
“Suit yourself. We have a spare bedroom at the condo.”
“Will I have my own bathroom?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!”
“I was making a joke.”
Gertie brought a white cardboard box, tied with a string, and set it on the counter next to Al. She gave him a thumbs-up.
“What’s this?” Al asked.
“A strawberry rhubarb pie for the road. For Houston,” Robert said. “They don’t have pies like Gertie’s down in Texas.”
Arm in arm, they walked to the door. Outside, gray clouds had made their way up the river valley. The chilly air smelled of football, apple cider, and homemade donuts. State was having an undefeated football season. The Hailey Comets had beaten their high school football rivals in the 110th playing of the big game. All was well in the world, or would have been, were it not for Al’s cancer.
“Let’s walk around the block,” Al said when they were almost to their cars. While Robert waited, Al left the pie on the front seat of his Explorer and removed Golf Links of Ireland. “Keep this until I come back.” Al handed the book to Robert. “Make a few calls, get us some tee times. Book the hotels. No reason I should have to do all the work.”
Robert chewed his lip and nodded. “I’m on it.” He put the book in his Lincoln Navigator. Then he remembered. Al’s birthday was two weeks away, October 31, Halloween. “What do you want for your birthday?”
They started down the sidewalk, cracked and heaved by freeze and thaw and the roots of tall oaks lining the street. “I grew up three blocks from here,” Al said. Turning the corner, they passed modest brick homes, built to last by sons and daughters of immigrants who, like Al’s father, had worked in the foundry. Lots were small, grass well-tended, shrubbery trimmed and mulched. Jack-o’-lanterns sat on porches and stoops. Cardboard skeletons and witches hung on front doors.
“So?” Robert repeated. “Your birthday.”
“A new putter to take on our trip?” Al said. “Or a set of those noise-reducing headphones for on the plane?”
They were halfway around the block when Al stopped and grabbed Robert’s shoulders. He turned his friend toward him, but Robert dropped his chin and looked away. Robert’s arms hung limply at his sides. The words Al wanted to speak wouldn’t come. Instead he said, “In January, we’ll have known each other for thirty years. Almost half our lifetimes. Imagine.”
Robert couldn’t meet Al’s gaze. Didn’t know where to put his hands. When he looked up, Al’s eyes were moist.
Al thumbed his tears and hugged Robert. Their gray-stubbled cheeks brushed. Al pounded Robert’s back with his fist.
“I’m looking forward to our golf trip,” Al said as they separated. “Promise me you’ll make the arrangements.”
“I said I’d handle it.”
“You know how you are. Don’t procrastinate.”
They finished their walk and lingered in the parking lot. Al couldn’t summon the will to pull the Explorer’s door handle. He looked up at Gertie’s sign. The silent woman’s feet were spread apart, fists set firmly on her hips. He’d never noticed those fists before.
Arms folded, Robert leaned back against the Navigator’s front fender. “Actually, you don’t look sick. Lost some weight maybe, but that’s long overdue. Sure you’re not making up this cancer thing? For the attention?”
Al’s head snapped back. He wasn’t in the mood for Robert’s humor. “Asshole.”
Robert smiled. “You’ve gone to a hell of a lot of trouble, I’ll give you that. I almost fell for it.”
Al shook his head. “When you show up in Houston, if you do, you’d damn well better have our Ireland itinerary all typed up and ready to go.”
“Admit it.” Robert’s voice quavered. “You’re really going to that fancy golf academy down in Houston. The new one that got written up in this month’s Golf Digest. It’s not your lungs. Your golf swing is getting fixed. If you’d just listened to my advice, you could’ve saved all that money.”
Al pointed at the white pastry box on his passenger seat. “And while you’re at it, make yourself useful. Bring me another one of these.”
Robert stood and took an imaginary golf swing. Then another. “You stand too far away from the ball. Simple as that. Any pro will tell you I’m right. No need for a trip to Houston.”
“So you say,” Al said. He slipped into the SUV and started the engine. He paused before he shoved the gearshift into drive. His foot seemed stuck on the brake pedal. Enough. He had to leave, stop by the dealership to check on things one last time. Glancing sideways, he caught Robert taking a mighty swing. As if attempting to drive a ball in Al’s direction, Robert nearly fell down. Al was amazed. Bobby never let it loose like that. Not on a real golf course. “Tempo,” Robert had told Al time and again. “Stay within yourself.” What had gotten into him? Shaking his head, Al took a deep breath. His lungs fought for air.
Nearby, Robert righted himself, jogged to the door of the Silent Woman, and disappeared inside. Al nudged his SUV out onto the street, but coughed so hard he nearly lost his grip on the steering wheel. A black, oncoming Mercedes sounded its horn and skidded to a stop a few feet from the Explorer. Belatedly, Al hit the brakes and threw the Explorer into reverse, backing the car to the safety of Gert’s parking lot entrance. As he passed by, Mercedes man shook his head and fist. Sweat trickled from Al’s armpit. Dropping his forehead onto the steering wheel, he waited until his spasm let up. Thank God Bobby didn’t see this, Al told himself. If he had, Al would never have heard the end of it. Not in Houston, not in Ireland, not ever.