ALL I REMEMBER is we were having a few beers and somehow we got on the subject of emotional baggage, and that's when Fred said one reason he's so messed up is that his dad made him play Little League ball.
"I didn't WANT to play Little League," he said bitterly. "I wanted to wear black Hurst Shifter T-shirts and smoke unfiltered cigarettes. Eventually I wanted to drift into a meaningless job at an auto parts store, where the highlight of my day would be retrieving a head gasket for a '72 GTO from some dusty supply room."
"Who DIDN'T want that kind of life?" I said.
"But my dad made me play second for the Braves," Fred said. "I hit .215 that year with 27 errors and developed a facial tic."
The bar at the Jolly Tinker was crowded now, mostly with folks who worked at the nearby mall. Someone punched up "Tumbling Dice" on the jukebox. We sat and sipped our beers in silence for several minutes.
"My mother made me take tuba lessons," I said finally. "Do you know what that's like when you're 12, awkward, shy and coming of age sexually?"
Maybe it was the beer, but what started as a trickle of words suddenly became this great gushing torrent of emotion.
"Oh, God, it was a nightmare! All the other kids played cool instruments: saxophones, drums, guitars. I had to walk around with this huge, stupid coil of brass around my head, looking like a dork."
I paused for effect.
"It's a wonder I haven't taken an ax and carved up 15 people and buried their remains in shallow graves underneath the back porch. The soil is perfect there, too. Sandy loam."
Ron the bartender happened to overhear this and brought two more Budweisers. On the house, he said. He stood there uneasily for several seconds.
"Look, fellas," he said, "we . . . uh, don't want any trouble in here."
L I told Ron my feelings about axes were largely in check now.
"In that case," he said, "it's three bucks for the beers."
I didn't blame Ron. He was a businessman, and there was no question the Tinker had fallen on hard times. There were holes in the ceiling, the felt on the pool table was frayed and the linoleum in the men's room was peeling.
The joint had all the charm of a janitor's closet; we only went there for the Slim Jims. The best in town, I thought.
"I've never told this to anyone," Fred began when we were alone again. "On the day I first got my driver's license, I skidded off a rain-slicked road and hit a cow. To this day, I can't look at a package of ground chuck without sobbing."
Well. It certainly explained why Fred never served meat at his cook-outs. You'd go over to his house and he'd stand over the Weber grilling the damndest things: potato pancakes, fish sticks, fresh zucchini.
Now, of course, it made perfect sense. The man had plowed into a cow with his Camaro at an impressionable age and was paying for it dearly, emotionally and dietarily speaking.
"Red meat is very over-rated," I said.
Fred nodded and muttered something about the look in that cow's eyes, which I couldn't hear because now he was sort of sniffling.
Well sir, we talked on and on that night. Mostly Fred talked and I listened. He poured out all the pain from his past: his crush on Nina Talerico in the fourth grade (she called him "Dumbo Ears"), how his mom had accidentally thrown out his stamp collection, how his shop teacher, old man Farnsworth, had ridiculed the candleholder Fred had painstakingly crafted, pointing out (correctly) that it had been constructed out of copper, not brass as per instructions.
Me, I kept going back to what a profound effect the tuba had on my adolescence -- although I DID mention having watched three goldfish go belly up in our aquarium in the span of a week, which I thought would have a major impact on the conversation.
But all Fred said was: "Pass the peanuts, willya?"
We had a few more beers and pretty soon it was closing time and Ron was telling everyone to finish up. We walked outside and shook hands in the parking lot.
"I'd appreciate if you keep that stuff about the cow to yourself," Fred said.
I assured him his secret was safe, and also that I hadn't really gripped the business end of an ax in years.
"Have a good weekend," Fred said.
"You do the same," I said.
We should really have these talks more often, Fred and me.