When I was very young, my dog Judy was my closest friend. She remained more than dear to me until her death when I was fourteen, the best listener I have ever known, ever willing to lay on the floor in front of the stove while I told her about my life. When I was about five, however, she stopped answering me. She was still more than willing to listen, but the conversations became one-sided. I needed more than that. My grandparents were too far removed from my five-year-old world to relate to me on that level. No, I needed a friend. His name turned out to be Mike Duke.
Mike’s grandmother, Mrs. Hale, owned the house and land just east of her home and, when I was five, her daughter, her daughter’s husband and their family came to my small town to live in that house, right across the highway from me. Mike, who may have been an accident, had two older brothers who went to the high school at the other end of town. There was nobody in his family close to his age either. He and I were a mortal lock.
Called “Stinky” by his father, a mechanic with a shop behind their residence, Mike was an individual of non-conformity. Summer and winter, for instance, unless he was to be immersed in water, he wore a sock cap pulled down over his ears. To the best of my knowledge it never came off. At least I, his best friend, never saw him without it. Even in the rigorous confines and regimented surroundings of first grade, the cap stayed on. I sometimes wonder if, because he was never without that maroon and gray sock cap, our teacher, Fanny Marie Hopeshell Jervis, simply assumed it was part of his head.
When the rest of us were finally old enough for big bicycles, Mike got a little one, with small wheels. It was nimble and quick, easily out performing my Huffy Heavyweight on corners and curves, stops and starts. Oh, he couldn’t keep up on level straightaways, or match its frightening speed down Pridemore’s hill, but when it came to jumping curbs or tearing through alleys, he smoked me. Twenty years later, similar bicycles painted bright colors and fixed with “banana” seats became the rage. Stinky had the original.
My first camping trip was with Mike. Huddled in a tiny canvas pup tent in my back yard, we stayed awake all night, fearful of lions and tigers and bears, oh my, until the sun began to rise, and we could actually settle down enough to get some sleep. We swam in the river together, wading out on sandbars until the water was up to our necks, never telling the big people about it, because we knew they would make us stop. We played Tarzan in the woods during summer, swinging on grapevines from tree to tree, looking for Tantor and Cheetah, fearful of Bolgani, the gorilla. We discovered girls together and decided we didn’t like them, built a tree house that fell out of the tree, engaged in B-B gun battles, successfully hiding the welts from our folks, built snow forts together in the winter, rushed to each other houses immediately after opening our presents on Christmas morning, watched the Mouseketeers at his house because his TV could get Disney, played with the dog at my house, because I had a dog. We sat on porches, bounced on inner tubes, crashed on ice skates, rolled in the grass, walked the river, and a thousand other things, because we were best friends. Then he moved away.
When we were nine, after being together since we were five, a long, long time, Mike announced his family was moving to a place called California that was so far away, it would take almost four days to drive there. And they did. Without asking either of us if they could, they did. He and I tried to say goodbye, but didn’t know how. We had never had to say goodbye before. It was awful. We knew we would never see one another again.
A few days after my best friend left, I was riding my bike listlessly up and down the river road, something that was no fun at all without Stinky, and I looked up the road into the setting sun. There, casting an endless shadow in my direction, silhouetted against the glare, was an apparition. I actually thought it was a ghost. Mike came walking down the road. His grandmother had taken suddenly ill, and he and his mother had flown back on a big plane called a Constellation. He was back for a week. We made the most of it. And then he left again.
Eight years later, when we were seventeen, his grandmother died, and again he and his mother flew back. I couldn’t wait to see him. We had not spoken since we were nine. When he arrived on our front porch, we were both suddenly shy. We got in my grandad’s car, and drove to the lake to tool around and stop at the Tastee-Freeze. He wasn’t Mike anymore. He was a teen-ager from California and we had virtually nothing in common. Even the sock cap was gone. It was too uncomfortable for both of us and, even though he was in town for several days, we didn’t hang out. It was just too hard. But, to this day, he remains the best friend I have ever had, the first human being to ever share the intimacy of my fears and hopes. I still see him sometimes, walking out of the setting sun, a sock cap pulled down over his ears…and I am young again, back to the days when a puddle could be a mystery, when dandelions made a beautiful bouquet, and when an RC Cola on the porch swing with my best friend Stinky, was as good as anything needed to be.