Dan drove by the Bull & Bunyan Brewing Company. The micro-brewery was closing and its customers were gathered on the sidewalk or making their way to vehicles. Through the big window, he could see the large mural of Paul Bunyan and Babe, the blue ox, toasting each other with gargantuan mugs of frothy beer.
Dan thought to himself, “Welcome to Hipsterville…” He had a small financial interest in the micro-brewery, more for a hobby than as an income mainstay. It was nice to see it thriving though. And, he was happy those in charge didn’t appear to need his assistance tonight.
A police car idled half a block away. Plumes of exhaust from its tail pipe hung in the air.
Dan parked his truck and walked to the entrance of the Blue Coyote Burgers. Reminiscent of the dancing Kokopelli god, a trickster coyote, in blue neon, frolicked overhead while holding a gigantic hamburger. A cluster of smokers puffed or vaped their own cloud, outside the doorway. The crowd was growing by the minute. Quarter after midnight, light snow was falling.
Dressed in sweats and an old parka, Dan stood out amidst the party goers, gathered for their first meal of the New Year and to extend the revelry as long as possible. He was obviously there only for the food.
Several people greeted him with nods or raised flasks. Dan was well known in town.
He got in the order line behind a man, also out of place. He was obviously not a local. In this weather, the stranger’s tailored jacket and loafers made as much sense as a Ferrari in a demolition derby.
The stranger looked about, seeing things fresh. His gaze lighted on Dan and his face became a big smile.
“Dan? Excuse me. Are you Dan Jensen?”
The man looked familiar but Dan couldn’t place him. “Yes, I’m Dan. And you…?”
“You don’t remember me?”
“Oh, my God! Eddie Arntsen! What’s it been? Ten, twenty years?”
“At least. I’m in town for the holidays.” Eddie extended his arms. “Lots of changes!”
“Yeah. Some locals took over a failed franchise and juiced it up. The town was dying and then some new blood came in. Did you check out the Bunyan and Bull?”
“A micro-brewery in place of the old Astro Theater? I’m glad they kept the naked goddesses flying around the ceiling.”
“Sexy constellations. Gotta respect our classical heritage, after all.”
They laughed. The line moved forward and Dan clapped Eddie on the back.
“What’re you up for? I’m buying.”
“Let’s see… what’s a California burger?”
“You know. Burger, lettuce, tomato…”
“That makes it a California?”
“It is the traditional recipe in lieu of a salad. Gotta get your veggies.”
“But no avocado?”
“You crazy left-coasters will stop at nothing. Where will it end?”
“But they have avocado toast.”
“Does anyone really eat that stuff?”
“Gotta get with the times, my friend.” They stepped up to the cashier. “Oh… I’ll ring in the new year with a double California. And a large coke.”
Dan ordered the same with a large fries. He paid and they found a table. When the food arrived, Eddie pulled his ‘sneaky drinker’ flask out and fortified their cokes with rum.
Biting into his burger, Eddie groaned with pleasure. “You’re right. Nothing like a California burger. This is great!”
Having grown up together, they caught up on the essentials in the verbal short hand common to old friends. Long ago, Eddie escaped the old home town to hit the big time in Los Angeles.
“What’s a line producer? In brief, we babysit the production, eyes on the ground, so the investors actually get a movie delivered to them. Keep all the money from flying up someone’s nose.”
Eddie waxed eloquent about his tax deductible travels to twenty-three countries sandwiched between his two divorces. A life of never-look-back adventure. And, being a recognized expert in his niche, Eddie was proud of his ‘small contribution to the nation’s cultural well-being’. He’s writing off this trip, doing some location scouting for a project up, outside of Duluth.
Dan never left town. Not even the house he grew up in. In high school, he helped in his Dad’s hardware store and took the helm when Dan Sr. wanted a permanent fishing holiday.
“We tried expanding. But when the economy shrank, we cut our losses. The home store has never done better, though. And we added self-storage units in the lot next to us.”
A moment’s lapse in the conversation betrayed Eddie’s distraction. Dan raised his coke in a toast. “Listen to us old math whizzes, talking shop. Here’s to a prosperous new year, for us both.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Eddie looked around, eyes darting.
“College kids,” Dan observed. “The college is a magnet for them, from all over. The town’s actually grown. I’m not cramping your style, am I?”
“No. Sorry. You ever see any of the old crowd?”
“They’re around. Mostly home tonight, with family and all, I expect. The serious drinkers were at Shorty’s tonight.”
“You’re kidding. Shorty’s is still open? Was that place decrepit when we were kids? Or was it just the drunks who hung out there?”
“It hasn’t changed. Only our esteemed peers are its denizens nowadays. I think some of them have grown roots. Booley inherited his Dad’s stool. Remember Booley?”
“That doofus… You remember exploring down at the train yard? What a hoot.”
“The derelict refrigerators?”
“There must have been thirty of them. We were lucky those monsters didn’t roll down on top of us.”
“Post war construction. They weighed a ton. Probably only ten of them, but…”
“Yeah. We let what’s his name out. He got locked in one of them?”
“Yeah, Jimmy! What ever happened to him?”
“You were around… He died.”
“Ohhh, right. That was terrible.”
“No surprise, when you think about it.”
“You’re right. If it wasn’t one thing…”
“He was a walking heart attack, my Dad used to say.”
“What happened to his sister?”
“My first love. She was sweet.”
“Still is. We’ve been married now, what, twenty-three years.”
“You married Janey? You gotta be kidding! You?”
Dan raised his coke. “Me and Janey.”
“You stole her away from me.”
“I think she’d say she chose me.”
“Maybe if you hadn’t left town, my friend…” Dan smiled at Eddie’s drifting attention. “Where do you live in L.A?”
Eddie focused, “Got a small place in Malibu. Nice view. Pool.”
“Must be hot and cold, running bikinis?”
“Yeah, well… I’m hardly there. You’ll have to come out and party.”
“We’ve been talking about taking a trip. Maybe visit our daughter near Chicago.”
“How many kids?”
“Two. A grandkid is due in March.”
Eddie offered to freshen Dan’s drink but Dan waved him off.
“Come on, Dan. You bought dinner.”
“Just a splash, then.” Dan watched Eddie do the honors and then raised his hand. “That’s good. No point in a dry toast.”
They raised their drinks once more, and drank.
The crowd was winding down. Eddie wiped his mouth with finality and crushed all the greasy papers into a ball. “It looks like you’ve done alright for yourself, Dan. You did the whole Norman Rockwell thing, to a tee.”
Dan chuckled at Eddie’s summing of his life. “I don’t remember it being all cute caricatures. But if I had to live inside a cartoon, Rockwell was one of the best. I’d pick that over Plato’s cave…”
“You know, staring at a wall?”
“Oh, right! I thought you were talking about a club, in Frisco, I went to once.”
“Since you’re in town, you’ll have to come to dinner. Janey would love to see you.”
“Actually, sorry, I’m outta here tomorrow. Business.”
“No problem. Where are you staying?”
“My sister’s. She gave me her couch for the week. I think she’ll be happy when I clear out.”
“Say hello. Pam right? She comes into the store once in a while.”
“I will.” Eddie fumbled with his wallet. “Here’s my card. Let me know when you come out to the coast.”
Dan looked at the card and slipped it into his shirt pocket. “I will.”
“Be sure to give me some notice, though. I never know when I’m on a plane somewhere.”
“Of course. You never get tired, living out of a suitcase?”
Eddie shrugged indifference.
They looked at each other. It was time to go. Dan followed Eddie out. It was snowing hard now. Dan’s truck was white with it.
“You walking? Can I drop you?”
“No. I’m just around the corner. Haven’t seen snow in a while. Not the real stuff.”
They shook hands. Eddie initiated a fist bump. “Happy New Year, bro.” Eddie turned and walked into the swirling night.
Dan watched his old friend for a few moments, until a blast of wind hit his face. He pulled his coat close and turned to open his truck.
Looking into the sky, Dan caught a snowflake and touched his tongue to it. He smiled. “Still tastes the same.”