When they pull back into the drive at Oliver’s farmhouse, Karen stands alone on the porch. Her and Tracy’s eyes meet, a glance between very close friends, only a pane of well-traveled windshield between them. But there is more, of course: history, countless nights in which this very same group of friends hung out till the sun came up, smoking grass on fire escapes, playing tag in the streets of New York City, braving the deepest and darkest subway lines at the deepest and darkest hours. They know each other. They know each other well. They know Morris is self-absorbed and gregarious, Rodney is practical but lets loose, Baum has the mind of an engineer and the soul of a father, Connie is both persuadable and stubborn, Ever is proud and uncluttered.
Oliver is supposed to be… deep. He’s supposed to be the friend you look for at the end of the night, the friend we found on the corner of Houston and Essex, eyes closed, the toes of his shoes jutting over the curb, Oliver swaying as taxis roared past him, more than one splashing city water on his jeans and smelly shirt. That night, he and Donna had been through a bad one. I easily remember the eruption at the bar. In was dark in there and we were drunk in there and as Morris and I argued Albee, a table was turned over, the common-enough sound of a drinking accident, someone bumped into a table, someone dropped a tray. Only that’s not what happened. Immediately following the jolly sound of clumsy came a roar none of us would ever have associated with Oliver Carpenter. We were struck silent, and not a little scared, to see the table had been overturned on purpose. The sound had, indeed, come from Oliver, as he then punched Donna’s drink over and exited the bar at a mid-jaunt, his ever-present slouch giving him the look of a furious cartoon.
We all looked to Donna who said something I’ll never forget:
He’s crazy. You guys just don’t know it.
It wasn’t the first fight we’d seen between them, but it was the worst. Rodney got up to go after Oliver but Donna stopped him.
I’ll do it.
Like how you say you’ll take the trash out. Like how you say you’ll do anything you don’t really want to do, but must.
She was gone so long we had to go looking. And besides, the mood had been buried. The bartenders were glad to see us go. We searched the area, called their phones, and found Oliver standing on that street corner, swaying to a song none of us wanted to hear.
I think, in hindsight, that’s the night we realized, each of us, silently and to ourselves, that Oliver needed to get out of the city. Get away from not only Donna, but from the series of downturns his life had taken. No job. No money. No gigs. And now, even the relationship that had been so interesting to us for how odd it was, for the sheer potential of passion therein, looked to be bad for him.
Yet… he was smiling. Eyes closed. The breathing city around him, New York alive and well. Oliver Carpenter, in his own dark, still smiling.
So you think you know someone after nights like these. But in that look, held, between Tracy and Karen, through the windshield of a now well-travelled car, they both seem to be admitting they don’t.
Morris and Rodney roll out the back seat and waste no time telling Karen that a bottle was broken at Bookman’s General. A bottle was broken is how they say it and this they repeat enough times that Karen wonders if perhaps they lapped up the contents that spilled on the floor. The lovers rush past her as they thunder up the porch stairs and enter the farmhouse that is now a deeper blue because of a darker sky.
It’s not night yet. But in a way, it feels like it has been for a long time. Karen doesn’t want to go as far as to say it’s been dark since the night Oliver kicked over a table and punched a drink, but it’s kinda hard not to. Because it was nights like those that have led to a night like this.
“Messy trip?” Karen asks, wishing she hadn’t instigated small talk with one of her best friends as she walks up the farmhouse steps.
Because, more often than not, small talk is the language of fear.
“Yes. Morris is a slob.”
They stare at one another as if to say, Right? Isn’t Morris a slob? Hasn’t he always been the kind of klutz to drop a wine bottle in a general store in the middle of nowhere on a booze run? And isn’t Rodney the kind of guy to help clean it up? And isn’t it just like Baum to check the water heater and the furnace when we arrived here? And just like Connie to keep asking about the barn? Right? We know these people, right? Do we? RIGHT?
“So what is up with Olly, huh?”
Karen asks it. The way friends do. No small talk now. But nothing deeper yet than those exact spoken words.
And in their shared glance, a bridge is built, and the old Oliver, slouched and drenched in black city water, walks one way, as the man inside, clean and wide-eyed, confident and erect, walks the other.
The friends say no more. The moment isn’t right. They’d only talk of half of what they mean. And to do so would be to lie.
Tracy enters the house.
A record is playing. The turntable is in the far corner of the living room, under the window that overlooks the fields that are now almost entirely shadowed so that whatever grows there looks brain-gray.
Beyond the glass, Tracy sees that Oliver sits on a deck chair. From behind, she sees his hair is clean cut close to his head and ears. She hears the others upstairs, creaks and jokes, thuds and howls, putting their things away. She crosses the living room, steps through the kitchen, and exits the French doors.
She takes the seat next to his. The Smiths come through the window. They sound great. And they match the sky, right now: beautiful, but with shadows.
“You loving it out here?” Tracy asks. Like she’s asking a stranger. Then, it strikes her, a question that should’ve struck her weeks ago: how well do they know Oliver to begin with? And not just in the do-you-ever-really-know-someone way, either. Oliver has long been the quiet one, the troubled one, the one who seemed stuck on something as the rest of us laughed.
“Yes,” Oliver says.
He looks and sounds like a CEO. That’s what it is. His pale blue button-up, rolled to his elbows. His fresh, clean skin. The fresh, clean look in his eyes, too, as he seemingly surveys his fields. Tracy looks to those fields.
Is The Farmer here now?
“I’ll show you guys the barn later,” Oliver says. “It’s cool.”
“This whole place is cool,” Tracy says.
“I know you think it’s weird,” he says. Without shame. Without any sense of being self-conscious at all. Like she’s the one who was caught in a lie. Which, wasn’t she?
“I mean,” she starts, “sure. Okay. I do. But not, you know, weird weird. You know. I’m used to seeing you, all of you, in a city. This is a little different.”
She laughs because she’s nervous.
Oliver still stares, a partial smile on his face. Is he at peace? Is this what peace looks like? If so, how unhappy is Tracy that peace scares her so?
“It is,” Oliver says. She expects him to say, But you get used to it. Or, But it’s been working for me. Instead: “But it’s all about perception, right?”
This is good. Oliver is starting to talk. Maybe this means he will also reveal.
“What do you mean?” Tracy asks. She feels a little better already. Talking with a friend. Finally.
“Well,” Oliver says. He leans forward in his seat so his elbows are resting on his knees. He points to the fields. “Take for example the horizon back there. It’s dark right now, yeah? And depending on how you, Tracy, are feeling inside, that horizon could either 1) agree with you, 2) empower you, or 3) make you feel worse.”
Tracy stares into the horizon. Okay. It’s dark. But she can see now the fields seem to stretch all the way to it. How much of this is Oliver’s? How many people tend this place? Is it just grass out there? Wheat? Corn? She stares into the blackness and wonders if it makes her feel empowered. Or dark.
“We should play a game,” Oliver says.
That’s what we do. We play games. It’s a hallmark of great friends. You play. Whether it’s board games or charades, euchre or poker. Ours almost always center around the theater. Some form of acting. My favorite (and I know it’s Tracy’s favorite, too) is CUE. It’s something like improv, only the people doing the improvising are on the sidelines, calling out lines to those on “stage,” as if those lines had been forgotten. Baum is the king of CUE. I’m not bad, myself. But I’m not there. As Oliver gets up and meets Baum on the deck who, at that moment steps from the kitchen, as Tracy looks once more to the horizon and my best friends in the world all gather again downstairs, readying themselves for a game, I’m at the hotel lobby bar, asking for my first Jack and Coke of the night. The bartender is my age and I start asking him about Michigan. Because I’m thinking of Oliver and thinking of Tracy and wondering if I’m missing the most important night of our lives out there. It’s always like that, isn’t it? The times you can’t be there are the ones they make plaques for, the ones that get hung on the wall. Add in the fact that none of them have texted me in a while, despite me having texted all of them at least once, and I’m feeling left out. I’m sipping a drink, imagining Morris and Rodney cracking the others up. Baum laughing till he’s red. Connie dancing to no music anybody else can hear. Karen and Tracy neck deep in discussion. I’m imagining my friends, thinking of them fondly, as they gather in the living room of Oliver’s farmhouse to play CUE. As Morris says hey I’m hungry and Oliver says good, that’s good, but let’s play first, Oliver, taking the lead, so weird to imagine, even now, Oliver saying, I want you guys to be hungry, I made a great dinner, I can’t wait to serve it to you, but first let’s play, let’s play CUE.