Friday, April 15, 2016

Absent Friends

You once had a friend, Michael Hurley, who, from a story he let slip one night after you and he closed a night of roistering at a San Francisco neighborhood bar named Spivey's, had a good reason to be more than a little taken to nights of closing bars.

Seems Michael was piloting a jet plane over what he thought was a portion of the Korean Peninsula, only to have his radio come alive on an unexpected frequency, with a voice speaking English, but with a decided Chinese tang to it. 

With understated irony, the voice, calling him by his name, rank, and serial number, welcomed him to the People's Republic of China, where he was at the moment an unauthorized visitor. The voice suggested he redirect his flight path to a set of coordinates which it supplied to him, a path that would lead him beyond what the voice described as his area of trespass. 

The voice sent regards to a number of Hurley's living relatives, wished him a safe flight, and a safe return home.Such details, in a sense quite ordinary under the circumstances, cause you to regard how effective Stephen King has been in his use of seemingly ordinary details and events to produce atmospheres of spell-binding terror.

At the time you'd heard the story from Hurley, he'd left the service, more or less given up on flying, had for a time become a technical writer in the aerospace industry in Southern California, then moved under mysterious circumstances from Los Angeles, where you first met him, to San Francisco, where your friendship grew and you visited, alone and with your wife, on numerous occasions.

Hurley lived out the remainder of his life in San Francisco, working at a variety of odd jobs, including apartment and cat sitting, working in the men's clothing department of The City of Paris department store, and, on occasion, writing books under various pseudonyms for a series of which you were the primary editor. 

He was a walking rattle of pills, an eager fan of aged bourbon. It was he who introduced you to a drink that became for a time your favorite, its Italian name translating to white nun, served at a lounge where the juke box played only operatic arias--Italian opera, of course.

Al Landi, the owner and frequent bartender, told you the contents of the white nun, a double shot of espresso, a generous shot of Corbel California brandy, a generous dollop of creme de cacao, and, as Al Landi put it, "as much of whatever else I could fit into the glass after adding some steamed milk."

Two of these and you'd need to prowl the streets of Columbus and Broadway for a time in order to clear your head.  Hurley seemed able to sip these concoctions from after dinner until closing time, complaining the next day of "the values," or perhaps worse, "the horrors." 

Yours was not so much a close friendship as a comfortable one, Hurley confiding to you his regrets about giving up the piano, and urging you to talk about the reasons why you did not take risks with your early novels.  You think about him because of his habit, after several rounds of drink, of making his signature toast, "To absent friends."

You've a few absent friends in your life, beginning with your wife, extending to a few midlevel friends, including two you had in common with Hurley, one you been classmates with at UCLA, another, also a San Franciscan, you'd met one boozy New Years eve in Virginia City, and found connection beyond boozy evenings.

Beginning with a notional cat named Sam, who belonged to a neighbor, and who liked to hang out with you while you were writing a stream of pulp novels, you've acquired a significant number of animal friends, who came into your life and departed with remarkably similar effects on you as the human friends. 

They all help to forge you into an amalgam of stoic, cynic, sentimentalist, and existentialist, sometimes making observations to a particular absent friend, either animal or human, as though he or she were within earshot. Of course they cannot hear you, but there is a moment of comfort in the thought that they can, and another moment of comfort in the thought that the connection to them remains.

At any given moment, you are every bit as apt to walk with the swagger of an individual who has had such remarkable friends, now absent but nevertheless sturdy props and reminders to walk tall into the tsunami force of Reality. Of equal truth, you are apt to walk with the careful tread of someone who has lost some great heirloom, retracing anxious steps to see if you can locate it.

Sometimes, when you are out having afterwork drinks with whom you can keep your stories and impressions open and free-wheeling, one of them, perhaps a late arrival to the group, when served his or her drink, will extend the glass to clink in the age old ritual, saying something, "Cheers," maybe, or "Skoal," or "Prosit." And you will hear Hurley, reaching through the vagues and the horrors to say, "Absent friends."

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