A Friendship

short story #4

For the past five years, I’ve been working on a linked short story collection set in Louisville/Lafayette, Colorado. Several but not all of the characters work in a sausage factory. I’ve published three of the stories in literary magazines: you can find those here and here and here.

The story below came from a character, as always for me, and also from me wanting to experiment with form, which is often how I challenge myself. I knew I wanted to move swiftly through this man’s life using a friendship as a touchpoint. I’m happy with how it turned out, and I hope you enjoy it as well.

Joey sits with the Ricci boys on a curb. Above them, their parents smoke, the scent settling in the boys’ hair. A glint of sun bounces off a trumpet. A clown comes by tossing candy. Joey and the Ricci boys snatch tootsie rolls and fake cigars, eat some, and tuck others in their pockets. They pretend to smoke, foreshadowing their futures.

It’s the 1950 Main Street Fourth of July parade. Joey is four. The Ricci boys are five and seven. They will take Joey on hikes, teach him how to fish, tease him with garter snakes and gentle punches in their backyards while their parents are making supper. Behind them is an Italian restaurant where Joey’s family eats monthly, and on either side of it are storefronts as old as Joey’s and the Ricci boys’ grandpas, who moved to town to work in a coalmine. But it is the bright sun Joey remembers that day. The sun and the candy. He is not allowed to eat after supper, but that night, before bed, he opens his drawer and sticks his hand in the pocket of his pants, pulls out a candy cigar, unwraps it, and eats it. He stuffs the wrapper deep in the drawer.

 When Joey is six, the Ricci boys teach him how to ride a bike. By following them, Joey learns the grids of Old Town Louisville, which houses are where and who lives in them. He likes to have this knowledge, he likes how fast he can go from place to place and the whoosh in his ears. They all ride downtown to the candy store, stop their bikes, and ogle through the window. The next year, when Joey is earning money delivering newspapers, he parks his bike and uses his earnings to buy sweets. He works as a delivery boy for four years, while his preferences, like the Ricci boys’, shift from candy to cigarettes. They smoke together while strolling through the grids of houses, flicking ash on lawns.

When he’s eleven, the last coalmine shuts down. Mr. Ricci and his father lose their jobs. The next year is one of quiet panic, when his father paces, when his mother and Mrs. Ricci drive together to Denver for jobs. In the evenings, Mr. Ricci and his dad hang out at the kitchen table writing numbers on lined sheets of paper. They’re going to open an Italian American bakery, his mom tells Joey. His dad and Mr. Ricci will bake and she and Mrs. Ricci will run the counter. They’ll have a delivery option if he or the Ricci boys want to deliver.

Before the store, Main Street was a five-minute bike ride, a close destination. Now, it’s a second home. Before, he knew the candy store, the Italian restaurant. Now, he and the Ricci boys sit on the porch of their families’ shop and comment on everything: signs on businesses, styles of shoes, models of cars. Joey loves the soft light of morning and evening, the harsh light of afternoon. He’s going up to doors now when he delivers, not only tossing papers from a bike. He encounters women without pantyhose, men without shirts, raucous children, children who seem nervous even in their own homes. His clothes smell like bread and pastries. Even after washing them, the scents remain. At school, a kid makes fun of it, and he and the younger Ricci boy beat him up. Joey keeps the delivery tips under his mattress, saving, though he isn’t sure for what.

 Joey and the Ricci boys go the shop route in high school. Joey loves spending afternoons in physical movement, not at a desk. He loves learning car mechanics. He decides to save up for a car. He delivers as much as he can. Business is good. At sixteen, he buys a Buick. He drives into the mountains with both Ricci boys, then when the older one joins the army, with the younger Ricci boy, then when the younger one is drafted, with a girlfriend. He enjoys driving fast, how the air smells clearer up in the mountains. He loves to smoke while he drives along. He makes out with his girlfriend in that car, then breaks up with her the year he graduates from high school, the year the older Ricci boy dies overseas, the year he himself goes to Vietnam.

When the younger Ricci boy comes home with the news of his brother, he and Joey drink and drive together. They speed through Boulder, honking and flipping off hippies. They find waterfalls in the foothills and dare each other to jump into their icy pools. They don’t discuss the older boy, but somehow, Joey hopes this helps. When Joey’s drafted, he sells his car to someone who wasn’t. He puts the money in the bank, telling himself he will come back to it.

After two tours, he returns. The younger Ricci boy is also back. They hang out again, at Hank’s, a new pub off Main Street. They play pool and drink some, Joey less than the younger Ricci. The younger Ricci tells war stories. Joey avoids talking about it. If you want to forget something, he thinks, you need to not discuss it. Joey has more of a temper since he returned, and although he regrets this, he simply catalogues it as something that has changed about him, something he has to deal with it. He and the young Ricci discuss their parents’ shop, and if they want to take over. Ricci is excited to do so, but Joey isn’t so sure. He’s never wanted to be an owner, to take full responsibility for a business.

They assist at the bakery. Ricci learns the baking, books, and management, while Joey returns to deliveries. He uses his savings to buy another Buick that he drives from Louisville to Boulder, to Lafayette, as far as Longmont and Firestone and Erie. Joey meets a young woman, Nancy, while delivering to her parents’ house, asks her out, and eventually marries her. When the Ricci parents and Joey’s parents step down from the business, Joey tells the younger Ricci he wants out. With his portion he puts a down payment on a ranch house for him and Nancy in an adjacent town, Lafayette.

Joey’s father tells him that he knows a man named Vinnie, also Italian, who is opening a sausage factory on the outskirts of Louisville. Joey nabs a job. Vinnie gives him regular hours, a decent salary, benefits, and repetitive work. Joey is happy with all of it. Nancy continues delivering for Ricci’s bakery into the early eighties, until it folds during the recession.

 For Joey, the years when he and Nancy’s son and daughter are growing up pass the quickest. There is always something to be done with or for them. Clothes-buying trips, baseball games, bike rides. Their high school, Lafayette, plays against Louisville, where Ricci’s sons attend. At games, Joey and Ricci stand next to each other, smoking and small-talking. Ricci dislikes working for someone else, but he does what he needs to do. Joey tells Ricci they should grab a beer, and they do, once or twice a year. Joey’s and Nancy’s son and daughter both go to Colorado State; they are the first in their family to attend college. Joey is proud of his kids, and glad that before his parents die, they are able to attend his kids’ graduation. After college, his kids move to Wyoming. Colorado, they say, is becoming too populated.

 The year their daughter, their younger child, graduates from college, Joey and Nancy find out that Nancy has ovarian cancer. They become familiar with hospitals and waiting rooms, with patient hospital staff and doctors who try to treat them as individuals but often come across as insincere because they’ve said the same thing to too many people too many times. By now, smoking is forbidden in most public spaces, so Joey goes to designated smoking areas or outside while Nancy waits for treatments or checkups. Her cancer is in remission three times, then comes back three times, over a span of fifteen years. Joey stops going out with work friends. He and Nancy’s lives become insular.

Joey wants to be the kind of person who becomes more gracious in suffering, not more bitter. But as the years go by, as the cancer returns, he can’t help it. It’s worse than Vietnam, he thinks once, when he had a date when this daily expectancy of death would be over. He gets in fights with his boss Vinnie sometimes because the workers’ wages have been flat. Vinnie says he has to cover rising healthcare costs. Joey likes Vinnie, who opens up the books and shows him. Joey hates himself when he becomes mad enough to yell. When Vinnie’s son, Luke, starts working there, and pretends he’s hot shit because his dad owns the place, Joey turns his anger on him. If Luke doesn’t know the floor procedures, Joey yells them at him.

Vinnie dies right before the Great Recession. Luke takes over. After going over the books, Luke says he is doing away with health insurance. Four of the ten workers quit. Joey goes up to the office and yells at Luke. “Taking me off when we need it most,” he says. “You’re heartless.” Luke promises to retain Joey’s thirty bucks an hour, and says he should be able to buy health insurance with that.

Joey has to pay a third of his wages for a health plan that will cover Nancy’s care. He wants a position with benefits. He finds the Ricci’s home phone number in an old Rolodex. The younger Ricci, who still lives in the house, invites him over. When Joey stands on the porch, before he rings the bell, he imagines the hot summer nights when both families sat out there discussing the bakery. Ricci says to come on in. They stand in the entryway, then the living room. Ricci’s own children are grown, he’s divorced, and he’s been dating someone for five years. As a manager at a restaurant, unlike the wait and kitchen staff, Ricci receives healthcare. Ricci says if he hears of a position with benefits, he’ll let Joey know. They have little else to discuss except the past—the coalmines, the parades, the Italian community that has shrunk but is still there.         

The last few months of Nancy’s life, Joey smokes more. By the time she dies, one midnight in spring in hospice, he’s smoking two packs a day. At the funeral, his kids try to convince him to move to Wyoming. He says he wants to live in his own house. Joey goes out even less now. He becomes the kind of person who always has the TV guide on the side table next to the recliner.

Five years after Nancy’s death, Joey settles their medical debts through a reverse mortgage. By that time, Ricci has become the owner of a breakfast place in a strip mall. Every week, when Joey delivers factory sausage to Ricci’s restaurant, they say hello. An older lady, nicknamed “Honey,” has started to work at the factory, and because her apartment is two blocks from Joey’s house, he drives her to work. Every other Friday, when they’re paid, he drives them both to the bank. He puts his own cash under his mattress as he used to as a delivery boy. He’s living paycheck to paycheck.

Sometimes Joey lets Honey in his house for a smoke or a shot or to watch a game. One afternoon, while they’re sitting at his kitchen table, she tells him she is Ricci’s ex-girlfriend who he kicked out because of her drinking. Joey is surprised, then offended, then sad that Ricci hasn’t mentioned that his ex is working at the factory. Another afternoon, she tells him that one of Ricci’s sons lost his job and might not be able to pay rent. He goes to his room and gets cash from under his mattress and gives it to her. She acts surprised, but he thinks she hoped he’d do that. Every few weeks she complains, and every few weeks, he gives her money. She uses some of it for booze, he’s sure, but he doesn’t care.

That fall, for weeks Joey feels a mild ringing in his ears. By winter, he’s throwing up. He knows it’s lung cancer. He knows he won’t go to a doctor. He’s ready to die when his body wants to end. He doesn’t want to linger like his wife. When his kids visit at Christmas and ask after his weight loss, he tells them he had pneumonia. That winter, his face pales and his coughing fits increase. He vomits once in the van when he’s on deliveries. After that, he tells the restaurants that he’s training another worker to take over deliveries for him, that he’s thinking of retiring. Ricci says good for him, maybe they can get a beer sometime soon, and in the middle of the day, because he wants to retire, too. Joey asks Luke to let him work only two days a week, and he lets him. On his days off, Joey smokes nonstop on his couch, fading in and out of consciousness with the TV on. He can’t remember when he stopped going out all together with the younger Ricci—maybe when he was caring for Nancy? He knows it’s his own fault he doesn’t have friends at the end of his life.

 One day he wakes up and can’t move. When he can’t feel his body or speak, he realizes he’s died while asleep. When he doesn’t pick up Honey for work, she walks over and lets herself in by the latched back gate, then the always-unlocked back door. She drops to her knees beside him, then calls 911, then Luke. She hangs up, sniffles, and tells him Luke has cancelled work for the day. Joey feels angry. To honor him they would work. Can’t Luke even get that right? But immediately after, he doesn’t care. He loves that he doesn’t have to reply. He doesn’t even have to look at her. When she goes into his bedroom and comes out with cash, he feels anger again, and again, it quickly fades. If she would’ve asked, he would have given it to her. His body cools. The stomach is the last warm spot, then the only sentient thing is his brain—or is it his soul? he wonders. His brain can’t be functioning now.

There are over a hundred people at his funeral. Extended family, the Ricci family and other family friends. Almost everyone from the factory. No outsider would know that he went days without seeing anyone. The younger Ricci is crying. Joey feels tenderness toward him, and a sadness they won’t talk again. Then he remembers they barely talked when Joey delivered to his restaurant. Even if Joey had lived longer, he wouldn’t have had much to say to him.

On an overcast day, his son and daughter walk side by side, holding Joey’s urn, on the bike path that wasn’t there when he was a child, when he and the Ricci boys poked around this forest on foot until they found water. They stop where the creek opens into a beaver-dammed pool. When they spread his ashes into the creek, his consciousness will go too. After that, if he exists in any form, it won’t be in this world. His daughter unscrews the lid and asks his son if he is ready. When his son nods, she begins to pour. Joey steels himself. He has said his goodbyes to the world, he knows, a long time ago. So long he can’t even remember when.