My friend Jeff is a human torch. Sparks are shooting out of his hand. I have retreated to the safety of Jeff’s carport in Ocala, Florida. Avery is standing beside me. “Do not ever do what Jeff is doing,” I caution my son. “Should Jeff be doing what Jeff is doing?” he asks. “No, he should not,” I tell him. “But there are many things he does that he should not be doing.” Avery nods in agreement. If Jeff wants to hold a Roman Candle firework in one hand while it shoots sparks into the night sky, all we can do is get out of the way and pray for him.
It’s the Fourth of July, and we are standing in Jeff’s carport. But we are also standing in his Man Cave. Jeff has just purchased a pool table that was installed there with a lot of help from his friends. I was kind of shocked to see how many people assembled to help him realize his dream. Naturally, I was there. Tuey and Hank were there. But there were about six of us in all so somewhere somehow he dredged up two more friends and the loan of a flatbed trailer. If I had to move a pool table, I would just be screwed because I could never come up with that many friends willing to move impossibly heavy things for me.
The addition of a pool table really makes Jeff’s Man Cave complete. More than a dart board or a wet bar. Jeff is actually good at darts. He’s also good at other manly stuff such as playing pool, eating spicy chicken wings and watching professional football games on television. So, the addition of a pool table to his Man Cave completes him in a way. Rounds him out nicely to complete a picture of him as a man dedicated to celebrating his manhood with no apologies.
Jeff also knows way too much about comic books, science fiction movies and television shows for his own good. Enjoys Disney World with the unreserved passion of a small boy on summer vacation from the second grade. Naturally, he introduces me to the strange world of fantasy football where he squabbles endlessly with other players over technicalities and will one day be subject to a bloodless coup that deposes him as our commissioner but improves him as a human being.
“Are you sure you should be hanging around with Jeff so much?” my wife asks me. “Sure. Why not?” I ask. She is wondering about how Jeff and I now go to a sports bar each Sunday to watch football games being played. We will each order one beer because we are lightweights. And we will order chicken wings whose bones mount up high on the platter in a matter of minutes. Our heads swivel around in all directions to follow all the games going on amid 15 television screens because we are trying to follow all our fantasy players from seven or so different football teams. We don’t care who wins the football games being played anymore as long as our own fantasy players do well for us.
Tuey comes out sometimes to join us for the games. Hank also puts in an appearance. Once Big Al, Jeff’s dad, joins us. Jeff grew up in Buffalo, New York where his dad still lives. Living in Florida, I can’t imagine living in such a place as New York. Fighting all that cold. Shoveling snow all the time. Scraping ice off windshields. What a crazy life! Rooting for the Bills. The hapless and horrible Buffalo Bills. They are always on television playing in snow.
Al is a wonderful guy. Funny and warm. He calls Jeff an idiot. But he does it in a very loving way. We all call Jeff an idiot sometimes, but we all mean it in the nicest way possible. He calls us morons for whatever stupid thing we’re doing at the moment. It’s tough guy love. When you know a guy well enough to tell him he is an idiot, it’s a good warm feeling of brotherly love.
Jeff, Tuey and I ride down to Orlando for a comic book convention. Is that a thing grown men do? I wonder that as we ride down. I guess it is because we are actually doing it. Jeff talks about all the comic book conventions he has been to – the large and the small. Retired professional wrestlers giving autographs at tables. Odd members of the Star Trek universe that you can just barely recognize sitting in their dotage at another table. Always people dressed as Klingons and Storm Troopers talking in Klingon and acting like Storm Troopers. It’s nice to see people dedicated like that, all in and unwilling to break character, Jeff says.
When we get there, it’s kind of anticlimactic. No one’s speaking Klingon. And there are no storm troopers. There’s a showroom with lots of comic books. Someone who used to the professional wrestler Greg “The Hammer” Valentine in a former life before time made him look like a shriveled lizard left in the sun too long is sitting at one table. He is so old now and so beaten up he is barely recognizable. The worst is waiting for us at a small show room where a fat guy is sitting in front of a small television with several chairs lined up in front. He has been watching an episode of the science fiction television show “Heroes.” He invites us to join him. But the room smells like a pile of dirty socks, and we notice his pants zipper is down. Has he been in there “Saving the Cheerleader” vigorously by himself? We politely decline his invitation.
Tuey and I chide Jeff about the lameness of the comic book convention all the way back to Ocala. How did we let him talk us into coming to this? we ask. What was the fat guy doing in there by himself in the minutes before we walked into the room? Jeff needs to step up his game and do his homework before we take any more field trips with him. Jeff absorbs all our wilting criticism until we lose the will to abuse him and have to let it go.
We spend time together doing stupid guy stuff. Jeff is our unlikely ringleader. If someone is going to suggest doing a stupid guy thing, he is just the person to suggest it. It’s nice to be a part of a merry band of idiots. There is no snow to shovel in sunny Florida. The heat makes time stand still. We stand around in Jeff’s Man Cave taking turns playing pool. “What do you think about installing an air conditioning unit in here?” we ask Jeff as our brains begin boiling in our heads.
Sweat rolls down Jeff’s face. He lines up the cue ball. A nice solid shot with the ball thunking in the pocket in a very satisfying way. He takes a swig of a beer. Lines up his next shot. All is good and perfect in his Man Cave for the moment, and his band of merry men is idling all around him in lawn chairs as he is about to knock in the 8-ball in the corner pocket for the win. He sinks the 8-ball with hard authority the way you would put down a rabid dog that just bit your mother. We aren’t sure he heard the question anymore by the time he answers it.
“It’s a thought,” he says beaming magnanimously.
I always think of him in just that moment when he calls these days from sunny Florida and I tell him about tramping around in the snow and icy slush in Manhattan where I live now. When my hands are numb from the cold even inside gloves, I think of him with sweat rolling down his forehead contemplating a window air conditioning unit for his Man Cave.
When I suddenly feel very alone on my way home from work on the subway, I think about how I once belonged to his laid-back lawn-chair band of soft tough guys who cared enough to call each other idiots and meant it with nothing but love.