I glance at the stack of messages my secretary just handed me. The name on the top one hits me like knuckles to the solar plexus.
“Are you okay?” she asks.
I stare at the name, scrawled in her barely legible scribble. Walt Bowman.
“Mr. Willett?” Her voice wavers. “Did I do something wrong?”
I shift my gaze to her. She’s a temp, but besides her poor handwriting, she has been doing a fantastic job. Sadly, this makes her one of the few bright spots of my life at the moment. I do my best to regain my composure.
“No, Darlene, you didn’t do anything wrong.” I try to smile at her to put her at ease.
“Whew, you had me scared there for a minute.” She lets out a nervous laugh. I know she needs this job as much as I need some sort of stability in my life right now. She puts her hand on my arm, a warm grandmotherly touch. “I know I shouldn’t pry, but is it something to do with the divorce? I know how hard it can be.”
I shake my head and hold up the message.
“No, this is just a name I haven’t seen in a long, long time. It’s probably just a coincidence anyway, I’m sure it’s not even the same guy I used to know.”
I close the door to my office and think about the first time I saw Walt Bowman. In his torn jeans and ragged Grateful Dead t-shirt, all eyes were on him as he came sauntering through the door of Ms. Faber’s freshman English class. As he searched for a seat, he scoured the class, taking in all the Beverly Hills 90210 clones in their Z Cavaricci jeans and Oxford shirts. And then he spied me, sitting in the corner, about as non-descript as you could get.
“What’s up, I’m Walt,” he said, sliding into the desk next to me.
“Eric,” I replied.
“You like to get high Eric?” he asked, eyebrows raised, a pimply grin spreading across his face.
“Uhh…” I glanced around the room, full of kids that I had known most of my life, but who seemed to have forgotten my name through the years. I thought of my mother and the look of quiet sadness she would get whenever she asked why I never invite any friends over after school. I turned to Walt, and tried to sound as cool as possible. “Yeah, I love to get high, who doesn’t?”
“Good,” he said.
My God, Walt fucking Bowman.
I notice my fingers tremble a little as I punch the numbers into the phone. My heart beats faster with each ring.
“Hello?” My stomach drops, the voice doesn’t sound familiar at all.
“Is this Walt Bowman? My name is Eric Willett.”
“Eric! How are you doing? You remember me, right? Hayward High, freshman year?”
“Of course I remember you. I just never expected to talk to you again. What happened to you? You just disappeared.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.” He chuckles. “My dad was pretty mad when the cops brought me home. He moved us to Albany to live with my grandparents.” He chuckles again. “Man, what were we thinking?”
Thinking? I remember us thinking Spring Break warranted something more exciting than sneaking a half of a joint in the alleyway behind my house, like we had done most days during our three month friendship.
I looked above me at the two street signs above me, in awe of the fact that I was standing on the corner of Haight and Ashbury.
“What did that guy say to do?” I asked.
“We put it under our tongues and let it dissolve.” Walt looked at me. “Ready?”
I took a deep breath and popped it into my mouth. After a minute I spit out the soggy remnants of the paper.
“Feeling anything?” Walt asked.
“I don’t think so,” I responded. “You?”
“Nope. Damn it, that fucking hippie ripped us off, man. Come on, I want to go check out City Lights Bookstore.”
By the time we had walked the three miles, my world had turned into liquid dream. I stared at the historic building in front of me as it melted and swirled in a kaleidoscope of color. It was too much.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit,” I mumbled to myself. I grabbed Walt and threw my arms around him. “I can’t handle this shit. Help me. Please, help me.”
My paranoia sent Walt into a fit of maniacal laughter.
I fell to my knees. Walt tried to pick me up.
“Cool it man, or you’re going to get us busted.”
I scanned around me. I saw the horse, but not the policeman on top of it.
“Are you okay, son?”
I screamed. “The fucking horse is talking, Walt. It’s talking.” I collapsed to the ground.
By the time I got out of rehab, Walt had vanished, never to be heard from again. Until now.
“So how have you been?” Walt asks.
I look at the pictures on my desk. I want to tell him, to unburden my soul on this stranger who once, a long time ago and for a very short period, was my friend. Well, let’s see Walt. Ever since my soon to be ex- wife found out I was fucking my now ex- secretary, my life has turned to absolute shit. I’m living at the Motel 6, my kids won’t talk to me, and just this morning I found out my former secretary/lover is suing me for sexual harassment so I’m probably going to lose my business. My life is just grand.
“I’m okay, I guess. How about you?” I say.
I try to picture him as a forty year old version of the fifteen year old kid I knew. I imagine him sporting a graying Mohawk, chain-smoking Camels and quoting Nietzsche. More than anything I want him to say “So do you like to get high?” But he doesn’t.
“I’m good,” he says. “Actually better than good, I’m great. Wife. Kids, the whole bit. I’m in the insurance game these days. Speaking of which, how are you doing with life insurance these days? I was wondering if we could sit down and discuss your portfolio sometime. You can never be too careful these days.”
I put the phone receiver down and lay my head in my hands. The tears fall from my eyes and form little pools on my desk. I faintly hear Walt’s voice.
“Hello? Hello? Eric, are you still there? Hello?”