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In memory of our youth

By Bret Matthew

Section: Arts

April 23, 2010

GRAPHIC BY Ariel Wittenberg/The Hoot

It was a lonely day at Wendy’s. Not just a slow day, although the place was almost empty. There was a different atmosphere about it. People sat at their booths and tables alone, silently munching on their food with their heads down. Even the cashiers looked glum as they fiddled with their hats and aprons, waiting for customers who never came.

The lunch run had been Joe’s idea. It had been a while since I had last seen him, and I was a bit surprised when his name and number showed up on my caller ID. We had only hung out a handful of times in the past two years. But, he was bored, hungry and short on cash. Having little better to do, I couldn’t see much of a reason to say no.

He laid waste to his bacon double cheeseburger, small gobs of cheese and sauce and God-knew-what-else falling onto his tray. Sitting across the table, I picked at my greasy fries, wondering if I should eat them or stick them in his gas tank for the ride home. I realized that I couldn’t even remember the last time I had eaten fast food. I poured some ketchup in a vain attempt to reacquaint myself. It did little good.

“How’ve you been?” I asked.

“Alright,” he said between mouthfuls. “You?”

“I’m doin’ good.”

“How’s school?”

“It’s good. What’ve you been up to?”

“Same. You know, school and stuff.”

“Where’ve you been going?” I hadn’t known he was still in school, let alone which one he attended. Joe, for one reason or another, seemed to switch between community college and no college every semester. He told me he was taking video editing classes, although he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he finished.

He wanted to know more about what I did at school—as far as he was concerned, it was just some big fancy university where I spent most of my time studying. I told him a bit about the school newspaper I wrote for, and how I wanted to become a journalist. He seemed mildly interested, although he didn’t follow the news much and hadn’t read anything I had written.

Around us, new customers trickled in, trading places with the old. Our food slowly diminished. I found myself counting fries. It’s easy to keep track of every bit when you spend most of your time staring at your tray and fiddling with scraps.

“We need to hang out more, dude,” he said at last. “Like we used to, you know?”

I nodded, even though I knew—and I’m sure he did too—that it probably wasn’t going to happen. It was something we said as a kind of formality. Too much time had passed for us to go back to the way things were when we were younger.

It was a simpler time back then. Back when the neighborhood kids would follow us on our adventures into the woods behind our houses. Back when the only thing that mattered was getting through the seemingly endless stretch of trees without getting lost or collecting too many ticks. Back when our parents were kept in the dark about our forays into forbidden areas. Back when “No Trespassing” signs somehow always managed to blend into the background just beyond our line of sight as we dared landowners to kick us off their property. Back when we could do it all and still have enough time for a few wiffle ball games before being dragged, tired and mosquito-bitten, in for dinner.

We took it for granted. I remember sitting on Joe’s back porch one night, overlooking the few pinpricks of light that dotted our small town. He and I were a bit older then, and excited about the coming prospect of driver’s licenses and cars and the new freedoms they would bring. “Someday,” Joe had said, staring at the lights, “we’re going to be able to just drive away.”

That was all we wanted to do. And we eventually did, albeit in separate directions.

We grew up. We acquired new interests and became involved in different activities. We met new people and found new groups of friends; met girls, and even dated a couple of them. The neighborhood kids who had once followed us everywhere vanished. The constant harmony of ringing doorbells on warm spring days faded into silence and was replaced by the squeal of loose drive belts. And one day, as if to top it all off, I came home from school to find logging trucks methodically tearing down trees—our trees—to make room for a new housing development.

We became two former best friends, reduced to toasting the memory of our youth with large Cokes.

Lunch didn’t last long. Maybe an hour later I was hopping out of Joe’s car and heading home, the smell of fast food grease still clinging to my sweatshirt. As I was about to walk inside I heard shouting from the house behind mine—one of the houses that had been put up in place of the now-destroyed woods.

Four young kids were chasing each other around their backyard. Screaming and laughing incoherently, they hid behind the few trees that still stood and jumped out at each other as part of some sort of absurd game.

It wasn’t our turn to play in this playground, not anymore. I fished my keys out of my pocket and decided that it was a pretty good day for a drive after all.

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