I spotted Ken Nichols about the same time he spotted me. He was sitting at the end of the hotel bar, and when I started toward him, he grinned and raised what looked like a martini glass.
I took the stool beside him. He held out his hand, and I shook it.
“Glad you could make it, Brady,” Ken said. “Jesus, it’s good to see you. What’s it been?”
“Ten years,” I said. “At least.”
He was wearing a pearl-colored button-down shirt under a pale blue linen jacket, with faded blue jeans and battered boat shoes. He had a good tan, as if he played golf year-round. His black hair was now speckled with gray and cut shorter than I remembered.
Ken had big ears and a meandering nose and a mouth that was a little too wide for his face. He grinned easily, he loved animals, and when he spoke, I could still detect the Blue Ridge Mountains of his childhood in his voice. Ken Nichols was an easy guy to like.
He was a veterinarian, and back when we were neighbors in Wellesley, Ken was the one who gave my dogs their rabies and distemper shots, and I was the lawyer who handled the legal work for his business. We used to play in the same foursome on Sunday mornings, and we invited each other’s families over for backyard cookouts on summer weekends.
Then Ken got divorced, dissolved his veterinary practice, and moved to Baltimore, and shortly after that, I got divorced, too.
We’d been out of touch ever since, but Ken and I used to be pretty good friends, and when he called me earlier in the week, saying he was coming up to Massachusetts to attend this veterinarian convention in the big hotel in Natick and would love to meet me for a drink if I could sneak away, just for old times’ sake, I agreed instantly. Friends, old or new, were always worth sneaking away for.
“You’re looking good,” I said to him.
“I work out,” he said. “You get to a certain age, you’ve got to take care of the machine, you know what I mean?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I do know. Change the oil, replace the filters, rotate the tires. I keep thinking I should do something about my brake pads, but…”
He smiled. “Same old Brady.” He showed me his empty martini glass. “So what’ll you have? The usual? Jack, rocks?”
I smiled and nodded. “You remembered.”
“Some things never change.”
The bartender, a Hispanic guy in his twenties with a pencil-thin mustache, must have been listening, because he came over and said, “Gentlemen?”
“Another for me,” Ken said, “and a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks for my friend.”
After the bartender turned away, Ken said, “So how’s your golf game these days?”
“I quit golf a few years ago,” I said. “It came down to golf or fishing, and I picked fishing.”
“Tough choice, if you love both.”
“I figured out I didn’t love them both the same,” I said, “so it was easy. Quitting golf was a helluva lot easier than quitting cigarettes. You’re still playing, I bet.”
He nodded. “I joined a country club just outside of Baltimore, and—” He stopped when a cell phone began buzzing and dancing around on the bartop beside his elbow. Ken picked it up and looked at it, flipped it open, and said, “Clem? That you, man?” He listened for a minute, frowned down at his wristwatch, then lifted his head and gazed around the room. “Yeah, okay,” he said. “I see you. Wait there.”
He snapped the phone shut, stuck it in his jacket pocket, and looked at me. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve got to do something. It’ll take just a minute.”
I waved my hand. “Don’t worry about it.”
The area where I was sitting consisted of a short bartop with a dozen stools plus five or six small tables, all crowded into one corner of an open area off the hotel lobby. Beside the bar was a small raised platform with a piano and a drum set. I guessed a jazz quartet might be performing later on this Friday evening. People—mostly veterinarians, I assumed—were milling around and lounging on sofas and soft chairs, some of them with laptops propped open on coffee tables, some of them looking up at a wide-screen TV mounted on the wall that was showing a Red Sox game.
As I watched, Ken weaved through the crowd to the other side of the room and went up to a man who was leaning against the wall with his arms folded over his chest. This man had a neatly trimmed dark beard streaked with gray and a high shiny forehead. He was wearing a dark suit with a maroon necktie. He looked to be in his late forties, early fifies, about the same age as Ken. He kept his arms folded as Ken approached him.
Ken said something to the man and held out his hand. The man grinned quickly, and they shook. Ken said something, and the other guy frowned and gave his head a quick shake. Ken shrugged and said something else, and the man looked up and turned his head toward the bar. His eyes found me across the room, and he lifted his chin and smiled at me as if he knew me.
I nodded to him. Maybe I was supposed to recognize him, but I didn’t.
The man turned back to Ken, reached out, put his hand on Ken’s arm, pushed his face close to Ken’s, and began talking.
After a minute or two, Ken nodded and stepped away from the bearded guy, who smiled, made a pistol out of his hand, and pointed his index finger at Ken’s face. Ken nodded, and the other guy turned and walked out of the room.
Ken stood there for a minute watching the man go. Then he started back to where I was sitting.
When I swiveled around to face the bar, I saw that my drink was sitting there on a coaster for me. Ken’s new martini had appeared as well.
Ken eased himself onto the stool beside me. He picked up his martini, downed half of it, and said, “Ahh. I needed that.”
I turned to him. “Everything okay?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
“That guy you were just talking with…”
He waved the back of his hand at me. “No big deal.”
“Sorry,” I said. “None of my business.”
He grinned. “You don’t want another case, do you?”
“Massachusetts or Mary land?”
He laughed. “You name it, pal. I got cases here, there, and the Arctic fucking Circle.”
“I never passed the Arctic Circle bar,” I said. “Otherwise…”
“Yeah,” he said. “Too bad.”
“I assume you’ve got somebody handling your business,” I said. “Someone you can trust.”
“Oh, sure.” He nodded. “Some things, it takes more than a lawyer to fix, though.”
I looked at him. “Are you in some kind of trouble, Ken?”
“Who? That guy?” He smiled. “Nah. Not really. He’s an old friend.” He flapped his hand. “It’s just life, you know?”
“Because if you are…”
He smiled. “I know. Thanks. Good to know. But really, that’s not why I wanted to get together. This was just about, you know, hey, it’s been, what, ten years—eleven, actually—I got divorced eleven years ago. We were pretty good friends, you and me. Things were simpler back then. We had some good times, though, didn’t we?”
“Yes, good times,” I said. “Different times.”
“They sure were,” he said. “Hell, we were both married, for one thing. You haven’t remarried, have you?”
“Me?” I shook my head. “No. I’ve had a couple of pretty serious relationships, but I always managed to screw them up, and they never got quite that far. I still have an open mind on the subject. You?”
He grinned. “I’m having way too much fun.” He drained his martini glass. “Another?”
“You go ahead,” I said. “I’m good.”
Ken downed two more martinis while I nursed my single shot of Jack Daniel’s, and we talked about the good old days when we both were younger, living in the suburbs, raising our kids, mowing our lawns, and playing golf on the weekends. When Ken talked, his eyes bored into mine as if he needed desperately to be understood. He peppered me with a lot of questions—what were my sons up to, how was my law practice going, what was Gloria, my ex-wife, doing, where was I living—and when I tried to answer them, his eyes would shift and he’d be looking past my shoulder, scanning the roomful of people as if he were expecting somebody, not really listening to me.
Ken’s cell phone, lying on the bartop in front of him, buzzed two or three other times while we were sitting there, and each time he picked it up, frowned at the screen, gave me a quick, apologetic smile, and did not answer it.
We’d been there for a little more than an hour when he looked at his watch, drained his glass, took out his wallet, and put some bills on the bar. “Well,” he said, “I gotta go.”
I reached for my wallet, but he put his hand on my arm. “I got it,” he said. “Worth it, seeing you again, getting caught up a little.”
“Worth it for me, too,” I said, “but we barely scratched the surface.”
“Well, we’ll do it again, and next time you can buy the drinks.”
“Good,” I said. “Means there will be a next time.”
“Wish we could make an evening out of it,” he said, “but I’m on a damn committee, and we’ve got a meeting in ten minutes. Thanks a million for trekking over here. Let’s not let another ten years go by, okay?” He held out his hand.
I shook it. “I agree,” I said. “We should keep in touch.”
“So if I had a legal problem sometime…?”
I nodded. “Sure. Of course.”
“That’s great.” He slapped my shoulder. “Say hi to Gloria for me next time you see her,” he said.
“And you give my best to Sharon.”
“I will,” he said.
“Ken, really,” I said, “if you just want to talk, you know, legal problems or whatever, don’t hesitate to give me a call. Anytime.”
He nodded. “I might do that.”
“I mean it,” I said.
“I do, too,” he said. “I’ll call you.”
OUTWITTING TROLLS Copyright © 2010 by Vicki Stiefel Tapply