BY MARK THOMAS
Copyright is held by the author.
NED NICKERSON was inordinately depressed.
He was 23 years old, had a promising career in the insurance industry, pleasant memories of high school athletic triumphs, and the love of a famous amateur detective. Yet here he was, propping up the bar at Trio’s Chance and feeling sorry for himself.
He had told his long-time girlfriend, Nancy Drew, that he couldn’t join her for the community theatre’s production of Our Town because he had a meeting with an important client. It was true in a way, but the client was Andy Fessbender, the bartender at Trio’s. Ned had sold him a whole life policy six months ago, and since then they had struck up an odd sort of friendship.
“Sometimes it’s just not meant to be,” Andy said, gently. He placed another Daiquiri on the bar.
“Hey,” Ned said, “take it easy, I’ve got to make it home tonight.”
“You need to take your medicine.” The bartender laughed. “Anyway, as I’ve told you, you can crash at my place anytime to sober up.” Andy lived in the motel attached to the bar.
Ned shrugged and shifted his buttocks on the padded stool. “I don’t get it,” he said, sighing. It was always the same subject, the one mystery that the group had never managed to solve: the case of their strange, futile, romantic attachments. “I don’t understand why any of us keep up the pretence. I mean, each of us must be getting something out of it, but I’ll be damned if I know what it is.”
Andy leaned across the bar and may actually have taken the leap of faith and offered his honest opinion, but he was fatally distracted. A tall, dark-haired woman dropped herself onto an adjacent stool and pivoted her upper body between them. Trio’s was the only bar in River Heights that didn’t insist women and escorts occupy a separate room from the single men.
“Hello, George,” Andy said to the young woman. Then he moved stiffly towards the end of the bar and waited for the decades to change into something more amenable.
Ned turned his head and stared into the darkness of George’s eyes. She was the only woman he had ever slept with, and she was also — inconveniently — Nancy Drew’s best friend. George had slogged through adolescence using her “tomboy” persona as a shield. But as an adult, she was the only one of their circle of friends who seemed to possess any inner peace.
“How did you know I would be here?”
George threw back her head and laughed. “This is where the sad little boys hang out. Where else would you be?” She grabbed Ned’s hand and tugged him away from the bar to a booth with padded, high-backed benches where they could experience the illusion of privacy.
They had several more drinks and shared a sandwich. It took a lot of booze to fracture Ned’s sense of propriety, but he eventually stopped parroting the witty things that were said in his office and blurted out the only question that mattered.
“Why, George, Why?”
Usually George teased him when he reached this state, but tonight his agony was palpable, and it no longer seemed clever to string him along. “Did you ever wonder,” she said, “why we all became friends? You, Nancy, me, Bess, Dave and Burt — what made us seek each other out and pair up in such superficial ways? What made us comfortable with each other.” The word comfortable was given an emphasis that made Ned feel distinctly uncomfortable.
“Well, . . . similar interests . . .”
“That’s nonsense. Bess hates sports, I hate sports that keep score, you hate sports that don’t keep score, Dave really does like to ride his motorcycle while you only pretend . . . .” She paused. “None of us like the same things.” Her upper body swung forward and Ned imagined he could feel her breath on his lips. “Haven’t you ever noticed that whenever we get together we instantly start looking for excuses to separate?”
Ned furrowed his brows. There was a certain frenzied division of labour to all of the mysteries they had solved — individuals running off to check on an alibi or search a separate building.
There were more drinks.
Finally, Ned slumped backwards and waved a hand in the air. It was obvious that he had worked up the courage to ask a momentous question. “George,” he slurred, “is Nancy . . . is she . . . does she prefer . . .” The decade didn’t furnish words that could express his anguish.
“No.” George grabbed his hands and pulled him into an upright sitting position. “Ned, not every problem is rooted in sexuality.” She glanced towards Andy at the bar, who was talking football with three men who had nervously wandered in. “Not all of them, anyway.”
“What is it then?” Ned pleaded.
“Well, I shink . . .” George paused and deliberately re-formed the letters with her lips. “I think you just need to look at Nancy’s father.”
Ned was puzzled.
“He never remarried. Think about it! Nancy grew up believing that loneliness was normal. Look into all our lives, look into your own and catalogue the triviality. Our families shared fruit gelatin recipes for God’s sake . . .” She stopped, momentarily losing the thread of her argument.
For an instant, Ned glimpsed the affluent suburban emptiness that George was trying to describe, but surely, there was a specific cause for that unhappiness, something that was buried beneath the lawns or hidden in boxes within trunks within attics. Something that could be uncovered with naïve effort and spunk, and dragged into the open. Their genteel suffering couldn’t be utterly self-generated.
“Sho much social interaction,” George slurred, “without any intimacy.” She pulled her hands back, slowly dragging a nail across Ned’s knuckles. “And there’s no secret staircase or password or clue or gem that can make it better. There’s . . .”
George closed her eyes. “There’s just us.”