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As of September 2000, his best friend's ways with women were still a wonder to Sam Grandy, not because there could be any question of Roy Courtright's physical or personal charms, but rather because Sam's own temperament was such that he could not have pretended, let alone sustained, an intimate interest in more than one woman at a time.
"It wouldn't have anything to do with whether they believed me or not. I just can't handle distractions in emotional matters. Do you tell 'em all the same things? Or if things are different in each case, how do you remember who's who or what's what?"
"I don't have any trouble distinguishing one woman from the next," Roy assured him. "Think of your male friends: Do you forget their names, where they live, what their tastes and opinions are?"
"You're not telling me there's no difference? You don't change men friends once a month. You don't take them out, flatter them on their looks and clothes -- "
"Or go to bed with them," said Roy.
"You know what I mean."
"You can't get away from the idea that it's a sport for me to pursue females. Lust, not genuine emotion. If I go to bed with her, it's a conquest by your theory, another scalp on the belt." Roy quaffed some beer from a stein, a vessel he disliked using because of the lid that had to be thumb-blocked from falling against your cheek. "I just don't think that way. I've never raped anyone, and I'm not attracted to the underaged. I assume everybody else is an adult in full possession of her faculties."
"Since when," asked Sam, "is lust not a genuine emotion?"
Roy sloshed the remaining beer in the stein, on the ceramic exterior of which appeared a pair of elks in glossy high relief. "Furthermore, I don't have carnal knowledge of every woman I eat dinner with, or want to, for that matter."
"Want to have dinner with, or want to boff?"
Such terms made Roy uncomfortable, and he himself never used them. "I'm trying to tell you there's no boffer or boffee. There's just your humble servant and another self-commanded person. Sometimes we're lovers and sometimes not."
"Lovers?" Sam gestured with his own stein, which he had long since emptied and was politely waiting to refill at Roy's convenience. "See, that's what I don't get. The sex I can understand better than what you call love. How can one-night stands, even with the same partner for a week or two, be love?"
Sam would never understand that for Roy, making love could be a three-second meeting of the eyes with a woman in the window of a passing bus. At the same time, Roy still loved all the women with whom he had ever had intimate relations, a sizable company if not as multitudinous as Sam imagined, though no account was actually kept. Roy liked to think a great many of his former partners shared the feeling, though he knew not all did. There were of course those who felt rejected, even betrayed, when it was he who brought it to an end, and not even all of those who took the initiative in terminating the affair could forgive him for sincerely agreeing with their decision.
Roy tried to recognize his own inadequacies, though more than one of the women he had frequented disparaged his sort of self-criticism as being actually an insidious form of conceit. But there were those who found it attractive in a man forthrightly to admit his flaws without using such an admission as a pretext for an array of attention-demanding excuses. Roy would readily apologize, but he rarely explained. There were those who saw that as a kind of honesty all too uncommon in the male sex. Not all women want to be lied to, as Roy would tell the ones he thought might agree, and he was right often enough.
The friends, who had had such discussions forever, were drinking the amber product of the latest microbrewery of which Sam, the beer connoisseur of the pair, was enthusiastic. They sat in oversize chairs covered in an unctuous leather that conformed to the body as if custom-molded to each behind lowered into it. The entertainment center in the room in which they drank beer from Sam's collection of hinged-top Old Country steins must have cost an outlandish sum of money, with its six-speaker surround, giant-screen television, DVD system, digital satellite receiver, every band of radio, and even all forms of outmoded sound reproduction, from a three-speed turntable for antique discs (Sam was a purist who preferred to have the originals on hand for comparison, however faded and scratched) to tape and CD players.
Roy might be the womanizer, but Sam was promiscuous with money. He had always lived beyond his means. As a boy he overspent his allowance, which happened to be larger than Roy's. When Sam grew up, he reversed the predictable change and became even more profligate. He was the kind of prey dreamed of by those who actively sought investors for business opportunities. Though a personal god had thus far sheltered him from outright swindlers, and others apparently profited from the same franchises, video rentals, pet care investments, etc. that went bad for him, Sam made little from such ventures while diminishing his inheritance, none of which he ever used to pay his debts except under threat of legal action.
He had been borrowing money from Roy for two decades and never yet had offered to pay back a cent. Roy was aware of this situation only if he forced himself to think about it, and when he did, it was with a certain satisfaction. He had more money than he, never a big consumer, needed; it was something he could do for his friend.
They had been best friends since adolescence. As a child Roy was undersized, but as an adult he grew to stand five feet ten, whereas Sam had always been larger than average in all dimensions, rising when fully grown to six-four. Tall as he was, he could support extra weight, but at three hundred pounds he carried too much. Roy was the one who kept in condition. One-eighty was heavy for his height, but owing to the weight training he had practiced since boyhood, it was mostly muscle.
Sam's only consistent strenuous exercise was lifting a loaded fork from plate to mouth. In this he had been abetted by the females in his life, beginning with the mother whom he had lost at an early age and continuing through a series of housekeepers and his father's lady friends to his own wife of three years, a bank officer whose enthusiasm for cookery was so avid that after a day's work she could go to the kitchen and prepare gastronomic marvels, though it was the Grandys' frequent guest Roy Courtright who appreciated these meals with more discrimination than his best friend, for whom the concern with food was more a matter of quantity than quality.
Kristin Grandy seemed nevertheless not to care much for Roy, and, her cuisine aside, he had little in common with her. Had she not been the wife of his best friend, she was not a woman he would likely have known. Her tall, slender, blonde person was probably attractive enough, though he loyally avoided making physical assessments of a friend's spouse, but her manner made him uncomfortable, unable as he was to decide whether it was disdain or indifference. She stared at him from time to time through gray-blue eyes that seemed to become glassy for that function alone, returning to normal when they focused elsewhere, especially on her big bear of a husband, of whom she was obviously very fond, which was admittedly another point in her favor. Roy too had always been partial to old Sam, whose spirit was as generous as his appetite.
Roy and Sam had had similar boyhoods as partial orphans, with the untimely death of Sam's mother and the abrupt departure of Roy's in a love affair and subsequent remarriage, after which he and his twin sister never saw her again. Both boys lived in the same prosperous community and each disliked his father. Each was the brother the other never had, and in that role Sam was the far more enterprising. Though unlike Roy he was never an athlete, Sam could talk spectator sports for hours. He also collected neat stuff: horror-movie posters, even some predating the pictures they had seen together; antique baseball caps, many signed by their original wearers, though he suspected some were forgeries and didn't care; and souvenirs of war: a defused German grenade from World War II, shaped like a potato masher, brought back by one grandfather, and rusty North Korean memorabilia from the other.
They went to the same prep school and later entered the same humble branch of the state university because neither was a good enough student to be accepted by a more demanding institution nor wanted to be. Roy dropped out as soon as he got his inheritance, while Sam stayed on and actually got a B.S. in Business Administration, an accomplishment still capable of giving them a laugh.
It was now twenty years since their friendship had begun, and both their fathers were dead, though by quite different means, and the friends' respective inheritances were markedly dissimilar in sum. An only child, Sam certainly got more than a pittance from his stockbroker parent, combined with what his mother had left in trust; had he used it wisely he would never have wanted for another dollar. But Roy and his twin sister, heirs of a manufacturer of shipping containers with an international market, split major money, a state of affairs that had long been a preoccupation of Sam's.
Roy now finally swallowed the dregs of the beer and, to Sam's audible relief, surrendered the empty vessel. "You get started on this subject every time you have to wait for me to empty a glass. If you'd just simply go get a refill when you want one, you'd never have to kill time in that way."
"If -- " Sam said, grunting in the effort needed to lift his poundage from a soft chair while he clutched the two beer steins, his forearms doing much of this work, "if I did that..." He resumed when his legs were firmly under him, "I'd be an alcoholic."
"Don't talk that way!" Roy despised his best friend for admitting to such a weakness. "If you would exercise a little -- "
"I would be so bored I'd end up drinking more." Sam's big face showed an affectionate smirk. "I can get more of a reaction from you by mentioning beer than by sticking my nose into your love life."
"My own appetites don't give me any problems," said Roy. "When I find the right woman, I'll know. I won't go on this way for the rest of my life. Meanwhile, I can handle it."
"I'm glad to hear that," said Sam. "And you don't have to worry about me. My blood pressure is normal, and my cholesterol count last time was, if anything, on the low side. Being a bit heavy is all to the good for drinking, you know: You can soak up a lot of booze without damage."
If you consider that an accomplishment, Roy did not say. He might needle Sam, but would take pains not to wound him. This was only self-interest. Where could he ever find another such best friend? Not to mention that he was, as so often, under Sam's roof. A single man, he seldom entertained at home, unless you could classify as true guests the women he brought to his apartment when their own residences were off-limits for one reason or another (lack of privacy, owing to roommates or the presence of a husband). He endeavored to repay Kristin and Sam with gifts of white truffles, real balsamic vinegar, and chÂteau-bottled vintages, and he took them to the restaurants of auteur chefs. But he was aware that no such measures could supply the equivalent of their hospitality.
He and Sam concluded their colloquy with an exchange of shrugs. With Sam it was necessarily a gesture of substance. He had a larger bosom than that of his wife. He lumbered to the bar at the end of the room and found two more bottles of beer in the half-size fridge underneath. By the time he brought them back, Kristin's cheery "Hi-hi" sounded from the doorway.
Roy turned to wave at her, not an easy movement in the clasping chair, but, soon swathed in Sam's embrace, she did not see him. He glanced at his drugstore digital watch, which he would have been derided for wearing had Sam's back not been turned. Six-twenty, a little early for Kristin's return from work, though her bank was only five miles away. She expected to be appointed branch manager one of these months, replacing the only male employee in the building (the men in the nighttime cleaning crew worked for an outside service). Sam took satisfaction in this state of affairs. "Hell," he said on occasion, "women are always better with money than men." Roy was not sure that the theory was always valid, his mother having been a notorious squanderer, but given his friend's situation, brought no questions to bear upon its particular application in the Grandy household.
Staying turned was giving him a crick in the neck, so he looked away, apparently just as Kristin emerged from the bear hug and addressed him. His relations with her were often so mistimed, for nobody's fault.
But she was in a positive mood at the moment, speaking in exclamation as she walked into his line of sight. "What a great-looking car!"
"We just acquired it," Roy said, genuinely pleased. "It's an Alvis."
"British? Steering wheel's on the wrong side."
"You have a sharp eye," said he, then regretted making what she might well hear as a patronizing observation, because he had, after all, left the top down on this dry, clear September day. "In giving it a price, we have to calculate whether the snob appeal will outweigh a certain inconvenience." Roy was sole owner of a vintage-car business; the "we" included only his part-time assistant, a middle-aged woman who played no role in pricing the cars, having no interest in them. But he was sensitive with regard to the use of the perpendicular pronoun when speaking with female persons he did not know well. "It's mint. After more than forty years, the mileage is under eighty thousand."
"You used-car dealers all talk alike," Sam said in joking abuse, choosing the most offensive name for his friend's business. He opened the wire-and-porcelain plug on the brown beer bottle.
Roy, who loved his profession, responded to the serious implication in the gibe. "The odometer hasn't been touched. You can always tell. Well, I can't, but Diego and Paul can." For Kristin he identified the names as those of the mechanics whose garage was on the basement level of his hillside showroom. They were specialists in high-performance machinery and in exchange for free rent worked on the cars he sold.
"I've heard you mention them before," said she. "I remember. Masters of their craft. I wish I could say the same for the people who work for me. It must be a satisfying feeling."
"Brew?" Sam asked his wife, extending to her his own replenished stein. He cared nothing for cars as works of art, preferring routine Detroit iron so long as it was lengthy and wide. He was jealous now and anxious to display the expertise he had in another area. "Brown ale, from a little operation run by a guy named Bob Dolby, out back of his pub in Weirton. Only produces a few cases a day, and not every day at that. I taste a hint of hazelnut, maybe, with an overtone of sorghum."
Kristin put up her hands to fend off the stein, though he had not moved physically toward her. "Are those china plugs necessary?" she asked, staring at the bottle. "Would metal really change the taste?"
"Absolutely!" Sam affirmed. "Not to mention the ecological factor. Metal caps are thrown away. I bet you wouldn't even mind cans." All this was good-humored. Kristin did not care much for any kind of beer, except for the Berliner Weisse that Sam brought home once, but that was a sourish product customarily sweetened in the glass with raspberry syrup, and not finally real beer.
Kristin pointed at Roy. "Refill our guest."
"I already did so while you two were talking cars."
Roy lifted his stein and, with an idea of maintaining his new rapport with Kristin, smacked his lips and said, "I'm picking up the hint of hazelnut."
But she turned coolly away.
"Oh, screw you," said Sam. "You and your Alvis. Are you making up that name? Remember, I've known you when. I can still recall some of those fake models you invented when we were young punks: the Crapmobile, the Pussycafé."
Kristin returned with a smile.
"I was young," Roy told her with upturned palms. To Sam he said, "They used to race Alvises in England in the twenties. This one's a three-liter drophead coupé, made in the Coventry works in fifty-four. Only two owners. We've got the provenance."
"Both little old ladies," Sam said. "Drove it only to church teas, hot scones in baskets on the back seat, clotted double-Devonshire cream, gooseberry jam." He kissed the air.
"I'm going to the kitchen," said Kristin.
It was after she left the room that Roy decided her clothes were the product of more than good taste. She wore them well, in bearing and stride. Today the colors were a perfectly coordinated lime green and olive. But he could not believe her apparently better opinion of him was permanent. It was probably not natural for a wife really to like a husband's best friend, or vice versa. There was a normal rivalry that had no homosexual reference. However, speaking for the man, or at least himself, the reverse resentment, if it existed at all, was much weaker. He had no problem with Kristin.
The meal she made, in little more than an hour, was superb as usual: salmon fillets on a bed of potatoes sliced paper-thin, under julienned fennel, carrots, and kalamata olives, inside little hobo bags of parchment paper, tied with scallion strands. Of the selections of wines Roy had brought, the Sonoma-Cutrer Russian River Ranches Chardonnay was righteous, though Sam stubbornly, maybe even perversely, stuck to the same boutique ale despite its treacly-sweetness, not at all suited to the fish at hand. Today he seemed to be the one defiant of Roy.
The cognac he produced later on, however, had been an earlier gift of his best friend, and it was Kristin who declined that, as well as any help with the cleanup. She became even somewhat irritated when Roy's offer seemed too insistent, so he lost the advantage gained by the Alvis, the subject of which had occupied some of the dinner conversation, along with other of his exotic wares such as the Aston Martin DB-1 that won at Le Mans in 1959 and a customized 1940 Packard that had supposedly been owned by the bygone movie star Errol Flynn, a claim made by the previous owner, which Roy frankly doubted because it could not be confirmed by any paper trail.
"We certainly wouldn't pay what he was asking."
Kristin sympathetically nodded her sleek blonde head, money being her profession.
But Sam, no doubt grateful for a possible diversion from motor vehicles, asked, "Wasn't Flynn supposed to be quite the lech? Raping young girls, and so on? Still, Casablanca is a great picture."
"Errol Flynn wasn't in it," said Kristin.
Sam groaned. "Now, why did I say that? I know he wasn't. I owned the cassette for years, and it was one of the first films I got on DVD."
Roy came to his friend's aid, if lamely. Maybe that was what annoyed Kristin. "Flynn was a lecher, though, I believe, and involved in a lot of scandals in his time. My father mentioned him."
"That's right," Sam chimed in. "That's where I first heard his name." Sam spent a lot of time at Roy's house when they were teenagers, and Roy's father was always partial to him. "Hey, you want to look at They Died With Their Boots On later? I've always had a crush on Olivia de Havilland."
"I know," said Roy, and as to the movie, "Sure."
"Not me," said Kristin. "I'm sleepy." Though you could not have told it from her alert eyes.
Dessert had been sliced peaches in a stemmed glass filled with sparkling Vouvray, accompanied by langues-de-chat that she had baked over the weekend, but when thawed were as if new from the oven. It was after this course was finished that the brief argument about the washing-up ensued. Of course, not much was needed for the job but the dishwasher, a lately updated model no doubt selected by Sam, given its multitudinous touchpad offerings, more elaborate than the dashboard on any of Roy's vintage cars.
When he discerned that Kristin would be genuinely offended if he insisted further, Roy smiled to bring her back and said, "I just wanted to run that fantastic dishwasher."
Sam asked loudly, "Hey, remember that old joke about a guy who got his dick caught in the dishwasher? How'd that go, exactly?"
Roy was embarrassed in front of Kristin. He answered truthfully, "I don't remember it."
Sam stood ponderously against the counter, a hand on it for security, though he could hardly be drunk on a few beers. "It hinged on the sex of the dishwasher, I think. The dishwasher was human, you see, in a rest-au-rant."
The hesitation between syllables caused Roy to look more carefully at the man he had known for so long. Sam was drunk, probably had poured down a bit before Roy arrived, or more than that. It took quite a lot of extra alcohol with a body of his size.
Roy was least fond of any situation in which he himself was sober and his companion was inebriated to any degree. This was worst when the latter was a woman, for it meant she was preoccupied by some personal problem that had no reference to oneself, but for which one would be blamed if present when the emotion reached critical mass. Any kind of sexual relations in this context would be disastrous, but neither was it a simple matter to escape with grace.
No such special problem came into play with Sam, but Roy was reluctant to leave his friend alone to drink through the old movie. He wondered whether Kristin was really sleepy or just politely determined to avoid a film in which she had no interest. In the almost three years of their marriage, Roy had never seen them quarrel. Sam was too good-natured for that, and Kristin seemed too smart. Or such was Roy's interpretation. He had never thus far come close to marriage, not having yet found that woman for whom he could forsake all others. He suspected that for a man of his temperament, being formally attached to one woman was to lose the possibility of being a friend to any, and in most cases he began and ended a romantic connection on an amicable basis and remained on good terms with former intimates for years.
The exceptions, and of course there had been some, were unrepresentative: Usually these were errant wives, risking more than those who did not have to deal with injured or possibly vengeful husbands. It was true that Jane Waggoner threw a glass of Gewürztraminer in his face when he wondered whether they should begin to ease off, and this was in public, though fortunately in an inn fifty miles away in an untrendy corner of the county, ignored by the kind of people who would recognize them. As ill luck would have it, Jane had just that morning asked her spouse for a divorce, else she might not have been so bitter, and Roy's gently but justly disclaiming personal responsibility had not helped.
Showing how drunk he all at once was, Sam suddenly relieved Roy of the current dilemma, asking, "Gimme a rain check on the movie, willya? Don't feel up to it, if you don't mind."
As if it had been Roy's idea! He nevertheless went along with the game, as he usually did. "We'll do it another night." He was eager to get away. He praised Kristin's meal again and said that week after next it was his turn, the Auberge if that would be okay, Gérard promised a saddle of venison, and she responded graciously. He never called her "Kris," as did Sam and, apparently, her other friends, nor had he ever exchanged even air-kisses with his best friend's wife. For her part, she had never offered him a handshake.
"Talk to you, kid," he said to Sam.
"Hey," said Sam, winking blearily. "There you go."
There was a touch of coolness in the evening breeze and the sports jacket Roy wore would be a bit light in the open car, but raising the Alvis's canvas top was too much work, especially in the darkened driveway. Sam if sober would have switched on the outside lights and even might have come along to help with the top.
Roy worried that the Alvis would not start immediately, as he had not driven it much, but the engine came throatily to life with one touch of what one who sold vintage British cars should be careful to call the self-starter (as in fact the canvas top was the "hood," and the hood, the "bonnet") and echoed loudly throughout the neighborhood of broad lawns and designer landscaping.
At home there were five calls on his answering machine, one from a usually overwrought woman named Francine Holbrook, the other four, one per hour, were from his sister. He elected to call his twin first, who was always exasperated with him -- but he had known her since birth.
"Goddammit!" she cried. "Why can't I get you when I need you? The IRS is after Ross. He might go to jail."
Robin's husband was almost twenty years her senior and, perhaps for that reason, in a hurry to sire another string of kids to replace the three from his first marriage who had been commandeered by his ex-wife. Therefore Robin was usually pregnant and more self-concerned than ever.
"Come on," said Roy. "You're overreacting." Overacting was more like it. Born second, Robin got all the emotion left over after Roy had been furnished with the reasonable amount, or so he saw it. She spent much of her childhood in a tantrum. When their mother decamped, Robin made the most of being the only female under the family roof. "This is America. You can't be sent to jail without a trial. He's probably just being audited at this point."
"Easy for you to say. You don't have two children with another on the way, and I'm alone tonight. Ross is being bicoastal." Alone to Robin meant with at least one au pair, if not a team.
"I've been working my head off," Roy said, answering the, to him, deafening though silent accusation. "I'll drop in tomorrow evening."
"Late enough to miss the kids."
"I was trying not to stick you with dinner. How about I come earlier and bring Chinese?"
"You do what you want, Roy. You always do."
This of course was a blatant misrepresentation, and she knew it. He had never done what he wanted, but rather what he had to do according to standards that few others noticed, let alone respected. For example, he was careful never to mention Sam's name to Robin, who had had an affair with his best friend years earlier, before either was married. It had ended so unpleasantly, at least for Robin, that she could never bring herself to disclose what went wrong. Sam himself had not brought up the matter, no doubt finding it too delicate by reason of the complex loyalties involved.
Roy's final duty on this Sunday evening was to return the call from Francine Holbrook. Because Robin was only his sister, at her most waspish she was easier to deal with than Francine, a divorcée with whom he had been having an attachment that for several weeks had been either phasing out or being reawakened. Francine could not make up her mind on this matter and Roy was shrewd enough not to fix a position of his own, having learned by painful experience that in such a situation he could not but lose unless he remained undefinable.
It was also true that Francine was extremely ardent in bed, or in any other venue in which they found themselves momentarily alone.
"I don't care where you've been or who you've been doing," said she in a voice made throatier by the phone than it was face to face. "I want you to come over."
"Roy, if you had anything better to do right now, you would not be returning my call." Having said which, she began to talk dirty. As usual, he was both appalled and aroused.
He began to rebutton his shirt.
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Berger
Posted April 8, 2009
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"Best Friends" by Thomas Berger is about two grown men, Roy and Sam, who have been friends since childhood. As adults, it seems like they fight to keep a connection despite no longer having anything in common. Roy is very handsome, a playboy, came into an inheritance, and owns a used luxury car dealership purely out of his sheer joy for high-end cars. Sam is overweight, married, not working, spend-happy, and always looking for a handout from Roy. Unfortunately, Berger never gives us much reason to care about the men's friendship and this is where the author somewhat fails. We're just supposed to assume that the two are still good friends because they were once good friends as children, but we're never really shown anything that would cement this friendship in our minds.
The first three-quarters of the novel are meant to be the "set-up." We're supposed to get to know the characters and understand how their personalities mesh together. Again, Berger failed to deliver. Sam and Kristin remained two-dimensional while Roy became slightly more two-dimensional. I was still waiting for three-dimensional portraits of all three characters.
The "shocker" and conflict of the novel comes when -- about three-fourths through -- Roy sleeps with Sam's wife, Kristin, and he feels love for the very first time. No longer are women just playthings to him; now his heart is involved and he doesn't know how to react. Finally, albeit too late in the game, we start to delve deeper into the characters' personalities, only to be disappointed again by Kristin and Sam. Their actions and reactions to this development don't mesh with their "established" two-dimensional personalities and don't elevate them to three-dimensional status just because we've learned something new about each.
I think the novel and storyline has potential, but the characters really need more fleshing out. As for Berger's writing, it's average, dwelling too much on unimportant details (the various car models that Roy sells) and skips the all-important dialogue which shows us more about each character and creates some tension.