That schmaltzy poem about ‘friend for a season/friend for a reason’ has made its way into nearly everyone’s email inbox, but the truth is you are extremely fortunate if you have made even one friend for life. The high school clique that had formed in my sophomore year, due to a formidable yet ephemeral young drama teacher, hung together even after we graduated and left West Buttfok. Deb Mae remained home our first three years of college. Billy, my closest compatriot attended a small state school in southern Ohio. Selma and Eddy went to Kent State with me, although with twenty thousand students it was easy to lose hometown acquaintances, so we tended to lead separate lives at university.
Deb Mae had been Debbie until The Group went to see Bonnie and Clyde our senior year of high school. The two of us were so taken by the film, we went back the following day and sat through two consecutive showings (remember when you could spend the day in the movies for the price of one admission?). We adopted these truly lame southern accents, so in order to make her a more believable belle, I christened her Deb Mae and it stuck. The two of us had solidified a friendship the first year of high school, long before Mr. Allen came and worked his magic. She was new to the school, having gone through eight years of Catholic indoctrination. We often walked home together, living just a few blocks apart. Debbie’s mom died when she was eight, leaving her father with three children – another daughter, five and a baby boy, three. The day her mother passed away, her father returned from the hospital, took her aside and announced “your mother is dead, so you’ll have to be the mommy now”. She assumed the role seamlessly, cooking, cleaning, raising her siblings and keeping everything in line, including a sometimes unruly Dad. She did a remarkable job, seldom complaining about her lot.
I would stop in regularly on our way home. She’d make a pot of coffee for me (she only drank Tab) and we would smoke cigarettes and kibbutz as Debbie cooked supper. We realized a few months into our friendship that we had been in the same kindergarten class. It was easy to remember the only kindergartener in the entire school with pierced ears. She was of Hungarian descent on both sides, and a blonde beauty to rival any of the Gabor sisters. Wonderfully female, curvy and attractively big-busted Deb Mae possessed the sweetest, softest voice and a loving heart.
Eddy and Selma I had known since sixth grade chorus. Eddy had always had this ‘thing’ for Selma and they related to one another like a feisty, sparing couple who’d been married for at least thirty years. She was tall and lanky with long, straight hair and bangs – the perfect hippie. He played piano and loved the Motown sound long before we even knew there was a name for that kind of music. Eddy needed to hear a tune on the radio only two or three times before he started banging it out on the keys of the nearest piano. He was our accompanist whenever we wanted to sing, possessing a biting sense of humor that made us roar. A Polish American, he bore the brunt of all those horrible pollack jokes which were the mania of the time.
Billy was my nemesis turned counterpart. Sitting in the desk directly in front of me in homeroom from seventh grade on, I hated him because he was so heinously obnoxious. He was loud and silly and so horribly fey it made me uncomfortable to be in his presence. I was acutely aware of my own feminine propensities, doing everything I could to keep them at bay. Here was this flaming fairy mocking himself in a desperate attempt to gain attention anyway he could. I either ignored him or ridiculed him until Mr. Allen cast us in productions and our characters were forced to play off one another. In time we grew to become brothers. I’ve had no closer friend in this world than my best buddy Billy.
The first two summers everyone came home from college. Returning to the womb to work and save for the following year, no sooner would we be back when those group dynamics would kick in and we were tenth-graders again. Eddy would be bossing everyone around trying to get us to do whatever he selfishly wanted. Billy, ever the idea man with a relentless drive to see it through, choreographed our lives as a group, scheduling each minute and chaufering us in his family’s pale turquoise Rambler station wagon. Deb Mae was our heart and our den mother. Selma was the misfit in this group of misfits. She was there because Mr. Allen had put her there and neither Selma nor any of us ever challenged his decision. She was one of those sad souls who meanders through life with a dark cloud hovering overhead. Me, I was the mediator, the peacemaker who smoothed the ruffled feathers which regularly came from five people foolishly attempting to live life as a single entity.
We’d started our own West Buttfok Summer Theatre after graduating from high school, so at night those first two summers we rehearsed for a show like we always had. Even though we all loved theatre, it was more of an excuse to not be apart. As if this extreme togetherness wasn’t already more than unhealthy, and our summer jobs were not enough, Billy devised a scheme to make some easy money on weekends. We would open a corn stand – yes, a CORN stand.
Billy’s Lebanese grandfather had done this for years. He lived on the last rural route in West Buttfok where a handful of old family farms still existed, although none were in operation. Some of the families kept large vegetable gardens, selling tomatoes, peppers and the like on the roadside when there was an abundance they couldn’t consume themselves. Being business savvy, his grandfather had hooked up with a farmer about thirty miles away who grew sweet corn and he bought it weekly to sell with his homegrown vegetables. He told customers he grew it all out back in his fields.
Billy figured we could do even better, being college students working to pay our way. Selma’s folks lived on that same road but at the opposite end from Grandpa. Our only problem was her back yard was small, which was evident from the road. The story we would tell was we grew the corn, but “on our farm in Aurora”, (exactly where the corn did come from – so we wouldn’t really be lying). Selma’s parents thought our scheme was brilliant and loved helping our enterprise.
The first weekend we had one hundred dozen ears delivered. At the crack of dawn Saturday morning the farmer’s truck dropped off these oversized burlap bags filled with more corn than any of us could ever have imagined. Concerned we surely had been cheated, Eddy charmed the girls into helping him count each bag full. There was a substantial overage. We paid 35 cents per dozen for which Grandfather-up-the-road charged a dollar. Being new, we opted for 75 cents a dozen. We sold out early that first day, more than doubling our money, disappointed there was nothing left to sell on Sunday. The next week we increased the order to two hundred dozen. Greedy Eddy longed for more, so he talked Billy into visiting a wholesale produce market in Cleveland at five a.m. and buying tomatoes and cucumbers. Again, there wasn’t a veggie left by Sunday afternoon.
Billy and I realized that with blonde, buxom Deb Mae and long-haired, hippie chick Selma kept front and center, cars were stopping, looking and buying. Eddy worried that the girls might give incorrect change, cutting into the profits, while Billy and I feared that his obnoxious personality might frighten customers away. In the end, we all hovered around the corn stand the better part of the weekend. Between our theatre background, group dynamic and the delicious Silver Queen corn, we were moving lots of produce and having a great time together doing it. We planned on running through the last weekend in August. We’d built up quite a following our first month and regular customers were bringing us new ones.
Early in August Billy got a phone call from the Corn Man. They had over picked their fields and would not be able to supply us for the coming weekend. Billy and Eddy were devastated. The girls and I said no big deal, we’ll just sell the vegetables from the market. Billy worried that no one would stop without the corn piled high on the side of the road and promised he’d figure something out. Friday night, when typically we all took in a movie, he announced the solution. He contacted a neighboring farmer near our supplier who could give us as much corn as we needed, but….we would have to pick it ourselves. “How hard could picking corn be?” I can still hear the pollack saying.
The plan was for the three guys to drive separate cars in a caravan before dawn, pick enough corn to fill the first car and return to Selma’s so the girls could open. We would drive the other cars back when they were sufficiently corn-laden. Deb Mae and Selma would go to the wholesale market to buy the produce. The most remarkable news was the corn would cost only 15 cents a dozen since we were doing the real work. We could all hear the cash register which was lodged somewhere in Eddy’s chest going”ka-ching”.
My bedroom was pitch black when Billy and Eddy frightened me awake with their cackling taunts to “git up boy, we gottsa’ pick us some corn!”. As we reached the farm, the sun was finally visible and the owner gave his five-minute lesson in corn picking. The three of us had dressed for perhaps a backyard barbecue, but certainly not to manuever our way through the tall August growth. There was barely enough room to work your way down the endlessly long rows. We were shooing off pesky bugs who were busy biting as the early sun was toasting us. The long green leaves on the stalks had razor-sharp edges which microscopically sliced our arms and legs and there was no avoiding them as we reached into the plants to pull off each ear. We were giddy and sweaty and scratched and achy but we were picking with a frenzy, filling up burlap bagfuls of corn, desperate to take advantage of the 15 cent price point. Eddy drove the first car back, eager to check on the girls to see how they fared at the market. He was uneasy leaving this task to anyone other than himself.
We spent another several hours picking, but by noon the overhead August sun was unbearable and we still had to fill the cars with so many bags full of corn we barely had room to drive. Unloading the corn back at Selma’s, we guesstimated we’d picked way over two hundred dozen – much more than we paid for or had ever sold in one weekend. The girls bought two crates of beautiful Chiquita brand cantaloupes at an incredible price along with the customary tomatoes and cukes.
As I came out front to sit with the girls, I saw an obviously heated and animated lady hanging out of her car window, gesticulating with a cantaloupe under Deb Mae’s nose. Our Deb was so gentle she would never defend herself so as I ran to her rescue the woman leaned out further. “Is there a problem, Ma’am?” I asked approaching. She slowly began “I was just asking your college friend here how you grew these beautiful cantaloupes with a built-in Chiquita label? Special seeds, maybe?”. This was a huge oops. Well-intentioned Deb Mae had been telling people the cantaloupes were grown on “our farm in Aurora”, without checking for the colorful label stuck to each melon. Thankfully there were no other customers around as I attempted to make Deb Mae look innocent, however this lady felt she’d been duped. We gave her all her money back, plus a half-dozen ears of corn with our apologies. Luckily my corn-picking battered body served as proof to her that we did grow the corn and she apologized to us profusely once Billy and Eddy joined in Deb’s defense, similarly bruised and bleeding. “You kids are really hardworking. Your parents should be so proud of you!” and off she drove.
We chastised the girls for not peeling the labels off the cantaloupes and we waited in fear that someone else might show up and cause a similar scene. No one else did complain, but at some point that afternoon, we agreed this weekend should be the swan song for our corn stand. We’d made an incredible amount of money, deciding it best to quit while we were far ahead.
Billy left for acting school in London midway through his junior year of college. Deb Mae moved to Houston with an aunt and uncle who were ex military to find a husband. Her mission was accomplished quickly but she was divorced after only three or four years. I never even met the guy. There she remained and ended up with a Texas drawl which sounded remarkably like her bad Bonnie Parker imitation. I moved to NYC and Eddie landed a public relations job in San Francisco after we left Kent State. Selma began teaching and moved to Florida a few years later, eventually marrying and having a son. We’d managed to get out of West Buttfok as we had always dreamed, just all to separate parts of the world. The years began to pass quickly. Around Christmastime we would make our way back to the scene of the crime, but never all of us at the same time. We didn’t see Billy for years while he was in Europe, but he corresponded regularly. Before the end of the 70s he came back to the states and moved to L.A. It looked as though time and distance were wreaking havoc on The Group.
It probably shouldn’t have seemed anything but obvious that inevitably all three of us guys came out around the same time and later settled into long-term relationships. I never met Eddy’s partner, but Billy and I shared several wonderful visits both on the West and East Coasts with significant others in tow and alone. The piece de resistance was 1988 and our West Buttfok twenty year class reunion which I’d vowed since graduation day I would never attend. The group came together, deciding we would meet in spite of the high school we all loved to hate. It was a three-day weekend I treasure to this day. We celebrated our five years of breathing as one – laughing, crying, holding on to our youth for dear life. Each of us left our spouses in their respective homes so as not to bore them and to give us the freedom to be our silly tenth grade selves. We were all thirty-eight, grown up and responsible, each of us stunning in our own way, yet malleable enough to sneak back in time to our golden callow days. It was seventy-two hours of unabashed bliss in which we relived our life moment by moment, memory to memory.
It was there, on the last evening before boarding planes in all directions back to real lives that Billy told me his partner of nearly ten years was HIV positive. Billy wasn’t being tested yet, because he was healthy and needed to begin his role as caregiver. His companion was gone in a little over a year. Deb Mae was visiting Eddy in San Francisco and the two went to the memorial service. Eddy announced shortly after that, he too was positive. It was something I had almost grown accustomed to hearing about in our community in those days, but when it came so dangerously close the hurt was all the deeper. A few years later Eddy was hospitalized for the last time with pneumonia. I called and spoke with his sister who stood vigil over him and she held the phone as I told him to keep fighting, knowing from the feeble, broken voice he had long-lost the battle. He was buried in a small cemetery in West Buttfok. All these things came so swiftly together I cannot say exactly when Billy told us he also had fallen prey to the insidious plague. THIS was more than I could bear.
Luckily he was able to get the cocktail and though he battled a laundry list of incredibly gruesome diseases, he lived and worked and traveled and we corresponded and spoke regularly for several wonderful years. He spent a few days in Boston while in a period of exceptionally good health and we had a fabulous visit, even though it was obvious there was a third party coming between us that we neither wished to name or face. My best bud Billy died in 1998, six days short of his forty-eighth birthday. He requested that I speak at his memorial service in L.A. but I knew he was always the stronger of the two of us and that I could never weather the pain of such an ordeal. I wrote a piece entitled A BEST FRIEND and his sister delivered it for me at his celebration. His passing was one of those slap-across-the-face realities that causes you to sit up and marvel at the gift we so take for granted.
So it was Deb Mae and me. Selma had drifted from us soon after the reunion, cutting off all communication. Deb learned she was divorced and battling an auto immune disease which made it difficult to teach and raise a son on her own. Deb Mae and I made it a point to chat together monthly. She held a top position for a huge corporate travel company – imagine – the girl Eddy doubted could make proper change for 75 cents worth of corn. She never remarried but had a long-term relationship with a guy who could not commit for over a dozen years. She and I now met in West Buttfok every other year during Christmas. And as wonderful as it was to be together, as much as we laughed, reminiscing about The Group, our bad jokes, pranks and fights, I sensed we both were thinking the same thing: who would it be? Who would bury whom? She had written on the back of her senior picture “If you die before me, I’ll kill you”. She often said it to me in jest, until the deaths began and it ceased to be funny.
One of those years we didn’t get together for Christmas, we also hadn’t touched base until a few months afterwards. When I finally called, she was short with me, asking why I was calling. I was totally taken off-guard. “What the hell’s the matter with you?” I asked my friend of a million years. She assumed someone from her family had called to tell me the news she couldn’t bring herself to share with me. The virus she thought she’d been battling all winter was actually stage four lung cancer. It looked bad. No, it was grim. She had an appointment with a new oncologist who was doing a drug study. She would try anything, she told me sobbing. I began literally shaking in fear of her words, making those horrible grimaces you can when invisible on the other end of the phone, finally breaking down to cry along with her. THIS JUST WAS NOT FAIR, GOD DAMN IT.
In six months the tumors had shrunk remarkably and she was feeling good. She could laugh again and make plans. We met in West Buttfok and spent a weekend visiting and she got to meet David. We had begun planning our committment ceremony for the next spring, and she was excited to finally get to see Provincetown and to celebrate with us. Other than a wig, she seemed to be her old self. Everyone was hopeful.
Then there were these spots on a brain scan and a whole new treatment regime began. It nose-dived from there, but she still talked about what she was going to wear and what we would do in Cape Cod after the ceremony. In a few short months she ended up in the hospital. Once again I found myself making another deathbed call, talking with yet another sister. The cancer had spread rapidly throughout the brain. She was losing motor functions and the ability to speak, but she could still hear. Her sister held the receiver for her. What could I say to the girl I met in kindergarten, the woman I adored like a favorite sister? All I managed to get out was “I love you, Deb”, over and over. Palpable emotions and this awful moment in time had caused me to lose the ability to speak myself. She babbled some unintelligible sounds into the receiver. Her sister assured me her face had registered she knew it was me and that she understood. She died the following afternoon, April 2, 2003, a month before our committment ceremony.
So it was me. At fifty-three I was the last one. What were the statistical chances of my surviving them all I wondered? Who cares. What a sense of loneliness I was feeling! I longed to know if there was some purpose in being the last one. Was I saved because there was something left undone for me to do, or was this all some grand cosmic joke? Though I had decades ago shed the mantle of The Group to take on my own persona, there was still a comfort in remembering the safety we had shared in our cocoon. It shielded us as outcasts in a place where none of us felt we’d ever belonged. And when I needed some protection to not be so alone, I found I’d been left instead the lone custodian of memories for people and stories and laughter that had now fallen silent.