I wish I did, but I rarely write short stories. It’s never been a form that I’ve been comfortable with, and I bet I haven’t written more than ten of them during my career; half of those, however, I’ve written during the past five or six years, and of those, “Bonner’s Best Friend” is the only one that either hasn’t been published or accepted for publication. It was solicited two, three years ago for an anthology of original fiction dealing with the fallout from the Great Recession. But I withdrew it after the editor chopped out about a quarter of the story and then insisted that I change the names of the characters, to make them, he insisted, sound more “ethnic.” He didn’t think anyone would be interested in reading a story about Irish-American characters named Bonner and Natwin. Go figure. Anyhow, I’m glad I pulled it, and while I don’t think it’s the best story in the world, I like it, and reading it again recently I realized that I was unconsciously writing a story in the mode of John O’Hara, one of my favorite American writers. Irish-American, come to think of it. Two lines of phonetic dialog in the story are total swipes from (but I’ll call them homages to) O’Hara: “My still welcome to crash?” and “For cry sake.” So I mise well (another O’Hara-ism) dedicate the story to his memory.
BONNER’S BEST FRIEND
Twice a month, late on a weekday afternoon, Natwin met Bonner at the same plush and quiet hotel bar in midtown, Bonner either on his cell phone looking exasperated when Natwin arrived or showing up late still visibly tense from some long business meeting he’d then characterize as a “total and utter” waste of his time. They’d have one beer, then move on to other bars: how about this place—check it out? Bonner switched to white wine or cocktails but always drank a glass of ice water between rounds; it kept him sober, he insisted. So far as Natwin could tell, it only sent him off to pee every ten minutes instead of twenty. Prone to hangovers, Natwin stuck with whatever beers were on tap or red Belgian ale. Bonner picked up every tab and tipped the amount of the check. I got it. Let me grab this.
They talked about TV and movies and the state of popular music (it sucked, but Dylan was still amazing, Springsteen dependable but coasting, and they both liked that Bright Eyes kid Conor Oberst). They never mentioned sports (they couldn’t give a rat’s ass) and only rarely discussed politics—too depressing and better kept at a distance. (Bonner was nominally a Republican, Natwin a Democrat, though neither had voted since ’92.) Often, Bonner amused Natwin with stories about his ardent rookie entrepreneurism (fanny-pak air-coolers, automatic wine corkscrews, ionic pet massagers), his dumb-luckiest strike (a Michael Jackson poster magazine, fortuitously published the same week Thriller was released) and the two disastrous flops (a grilled cheese restaurant franchise, the National T-shirt Museum) that wiped him out at 29 (“death of a gunslinger,” he said more than once) and landed him back in the family business. During his thirties and forties, though, Bonner had turned his parents’ little scrapbooking company into a successful hash of niche book clubs and classical music subscription services.
At Bonner’s prompting, but only then and just once in a while, Natwin reminisced about his years as an actor. Beginning straight out of college when he was 22 and continuing into his forties he’d worked in regional, repertory and summer stock theaters—Cleveland, Kansas City, Phoenix, Mobile, Richmond. Too damn much Neil Simon, of course, but some Chekhov too, some Pinter, some Albee, some good stuff, and he’d landed a choice part, second lead for all intents and purposes, in the first production anywhere of a Sam Shepard play. He’d also performed in quite a few musicals, but no movies, no—couple of appearances on Law & Order, though, one time as a creepy lawyer who took pictures of naked tattooed girls, the other as a crackhead who witnessed a crime. Both appearances happened during Jerry Ohrbach’s tenure on the series. “Great guy” said Natwin. He hadn’t acted or even auditioned in more than 15 years. What the hell. It was fun, mostly, while it lasted. But nothing lasts forever. Blahdablah.
“Jerry Ohrbach,” said Bonner. “Pretty cool.”
“Yeah,” said Natwin. “It was. We hung out a little.”
Bonner always wanted to know what it was like to be on a stage in front of real people pretending along with you—what’s it like? Natwin found the question hard to answer, the experience difficult to describe—impossible, really. It was like…like… “I can’t really tell you what it was like, Brian. It was great, though.”
“I bet,” said Bonner. “You got to miss it. You miss it?”
“Sometimes. No, not really.” He’d told Bonner that, basically, one morning he’d just woken up, age 42, and said that’s it, I’m done. And, basically, that’s how it happened, minus a few details and bits of business. The bed where he’d woken up was in a Motel 6, his nose was bleeding, his head was pounding, a woman he barely knew was sobbing in the bathroom and a you-bastard letter from his wife sat crumpled on the night stand—she’d left and gone, this time for good, taking with her their 14-year-old, their Ford Taurus, their furniture and Natwin’s only health coverage. But, basically, yeah, he’d woken up one day and just said that’s it.
“You think you’ll ever do it again, any acting?”
Natwin lifted a shoulder, let it drop whenever Bonner asked him that.
Sometimes they ended the night at a diner drinking coffee and swapping sections of the newspaper, and if their window booth had a mini-jukebox, checking if there was anything on it they actually recognized, any songs at all. They almost always found “Soul Man” by Sam & Dave, but not too much else. One time Bonner was idly flipping through the selections when he looked up and across the table. “Not everything sucks.”
“There are some pretty good songs out. You know ‘That’s What You Get For Wakin’ Up in Vegas’? I think that’s what it’s called.” Natwin said no, he’d never heard it. “I don’t know who it’s by but it’s pretty good.” He snapped the metal title plates all back to one side, then pooched his lower lip. “Even though the bitch sings the whole song flat.”
Natwin laughed out loud. “You’re a piece of work, Brian,” he said, and just that quick felt happier than he’d felt in months.
Once in a while before calling it a night they stumbled into a “private club” that Bonner joined on the spot, paying for both of their memberships, and put away a martini or a gimlet (Bonner insisted) with a private lap dance. Then, somehow, they’d find their way back to the garage where Bonner left his car and he’d run Natwin uptown, Natwin always saying when they came in sight of his building,“Whyn’t you stay over? You in any condition to drive?” Bonner would just give him a look and reply, “I’m gonna park a Ferrari in your neighborhood?” And the guy got home safe every time, never an accident, not even close, or a DUI. He was charmed till he wasn’t. He had money till he didn’t.
Up until a few years ago Bonner had employed nearly a hundred people, a dozen or so at an office in the city, the rest at an ivy-covered campus-like building thirty miles away. Now only 15 remained there, with just a part-time secretary and Bonner’s assistant left in midtown. He owned a big house in a picturesque old village and a second home at the shore with combined monthly mortgage payments of 43 grand. For a long time it was no big deal, a figure like that. Now it was bleeding him, killing him. Despite an early and ungrudging shift to the Internet, the business he’d been running for decades had been rendered essentially obsolete, profitless, and gone into Chapter 11.
Bonner’s building was on the market, so were his homes, and he seemed increasingly desperate to rent out some of the office space that he leased. He was under more and more pressure and looked terrible. Baggy, rheumy eyes, caved-in cheeks spotty with efflorescent capillaries. His hands trembled. He’d developed a stoop, a paunch. Natwin would study their reflection in backbar mirrors and shake his head. They were the same age, 56, but Bonner easily could have been mistaken for a guy in his 60s. Natwin—and he wasn’t kidding himself, he wasn’t given to such things—Natwin still looked pretty good. His hair had stayed dark, was still thick, and he’d kept the same hairline he’d always had. At most he was five pounds overweight. Maybe ten, but no more. Bonner, though. Approaching ghastly.
This latest time they’d gone out, Bonner seemed disheartened and exhausted, lamenting that everything he knew and had done with his life no longer was valid. It wasn’t part of the world, the world’s process, and neither was he. He was being sued almost on a weekly basis and had run up an insane amount of debt. “What’s it matter how much?” he said after Natwin surprised himself by asking. “Six million? Seven? It’s a joke.”
Natwin had recently maxed out all three of his credit cards, but didn’t mention that. Compared to six, seven million, what was eleven thousand? He never spoke to Bonner about his own finances and Bonner never inquired. During the first years of their friendship Natwin had more than half-expected that Bonner would offer him a job. It never happened. Natwin would’ve turned him down, but he also would’ve been grateful. Or maybe not. Maybe Bonner was right for not making him the offer—but had he even considered it? That’s what bothered Natwin, a little: he didn’t know. “If you sell your building,” he said now, “that’ll tide you over for a while, right?” Bonner’s smile was indulgent, Natwin could tell, the humoring of a naïf, but that was all right. Natwin wasn’t entirely sure he was being supportive anyhow, or just fucking with him. He knew he did that sometimes, but always subtly, delicately. “Maybe you’ll sell the building next week—who knows? It’s possible.”
“Anything’s possible.” Bonner sipped at his drink. “Don’t worry about it.”
Almost from the start, Natwin understood Bonner had this nourishing little fantasy going about him, that he lived a simple, uncorrupted existence with few needs, few obligations, no craziness. Natwin liked it that he did. It made him feel important somehow and he tried to be that person around him. He’d even let Bonner believe his marriage had been happy, a rare success, the actor and the R.N., and that his wife’s illness and death occurred while he was at her side the whole rocky way.
That Natwin had ever met Bonner was one of those weird things, an urban fluke, serendipity. For about a year and a half, beginning in 2003, they’d just kept seeing each other. Seeing each other around. When Natwin worked as a barista, Bonner—but at first, and for a long time, simply this tall guy in good clothes always somewhat rumpled—stopped in practically every day for a large dark roast, room for cream; whenever, or it seemed like whenever, Natwin picked up a shift at the UPS store over near the park, Bonner would enter at some point juggling packages he needed sent; when Natwin waited tables at an Italian restaurant, Bonner showed up twice for lunch with some business associates, then came in another time for dinner with his cranky wife and college-aged daughter. Finally—Natwin was behind the counter at a dying camera store and Bonner dropped in late one afternoon for a lithium battery. “Swear to God I’m not stalking you,” he said, his lips spreading in a grin. “So that leaves fate.” He invited Natwin to join him for a drink later, he’d be right up the street. “I’m buying,” he’d said.
When Bonner suggested they pack it in early tonight, Natwin was relieved; he’d been edgy since they’d hooked up, slightly annoyed and irritable. Bonner still paid all the checks and it was still the red Ferrari that he claimed at the car park. As he was being dropped off, Natwin had the feeling suddenly it might be a good long while before he saw Bonner again. He wasn’t sure why. So after he’d made him the usual offer to stay over, he said, “Let’s do this again next week if you can swing it,” and felt both virtuous and contemptible. Despite what he’d just proposed, it seemed like he might be dumping the guy. Maybe it was time. How do you accrue a debt of six million dollars? Seven. “Yeah,” said Bonner, “let’s shoot for next week.”
They said good night and body-hugged briefly in the front seat.
“Safe home,” said Natwin climbing out of the car.
“You’re my best friend, Natty,” Bonner said, as he always did then. Why had he always called him that? Natty. Nobody else did. It was like—it was almost like Bonner was making believe they were somewhere between eight and twelve years old, they lived on the same block, two, three houses apart. Hey Nat, hey Nat, hey Nat-ty! Or maybe it was just a businessman thing—that hearty backslapping businessman thing. Hey, buddy! Hey, Natty!
“I love you, man.”
“Love you, too,” said Natwin and went into his building.
Several months earlier, a surveillance camera had appeared in the lobby and Natwin heard it was installed not for security but to determine whether any of the rent-stabilized units were being occupied by someone other than the legal tenant. Ever since, he’d been rushing to the elevator with his head down like a bad shoplifter, then sweating it out till he entered his apartment without finding a sealed white envelope from the property managers. He’d been lucky so far, but that couldn’t hold, although he’d never planned on staying indefinitely.
Natwin sublet from a woman he’d met in the early 80s; they were in the same improv class and stayed in touch after he dropped out. Last summer she’d taken a fill-in job with a children’s theater company in the Midwest and didn’t plan on returning for another six to nine months. This was Natwin’s fourth illegal sublet in the neighborhood since moving out of his last girlfriend’s place in 2002, and it was by far the nicest: a decent-sized studio with Scandinavian furniture, high bookcases, reading lamps, laminate flooring and a ladder-accessed sleeping bunk. Rent was more than Natwin could afford, but he hated the thought of looking for another place. Eventually, though.
After he came in, the first thing he did was to check his work schedules which he kept on the refrigerator door with magnets. Twice in the past month he’d screwed up, misread or misremembered, and went in later than he should have. He couldn’t afford to screw up again. Most weeks he was getting 20 hours at a Barnes & Noble downtown and a couple of shifts at an Old Navy in walking distance. Two Saturdays a month he did prep work for a caterer. Considering some of the other jobs he’d had in the last few years—telemarketing, data entry, retail inventory—Natwin couldn’t complain, but still he never earned enough for any reasonable kind of life.
The last proper job he’d had, full time with paid holidays, two weeks’ vacation and a little bit of health insurance, was back in the late-90s when he’d done production for a weekly arts newspaper and a couple of fashion magazines, now all defunct. Natwin took it for granted that from now on he’d be cobbling together a livelihood, certain that whatever he’d cobbled together this year wouldn’t last through next. He’d never imagined he’d be rich, not really, but he had assumed he would always make enough to cover basics as well as provide for the normal trappings, the occasional luxury. Christ, he was still wearing a couple of field shirts from Eddie Bauer he’d bought when Clinton was president.
Barnes & Noble had him down for 10 tomorrow, 10 to 6. Which meant they’d insist he take an hour for lunch, off the clock. Which meant either he’d go for a long pointless walk or else hang around the Starbucks outpost nursing a two-and-a-quarter cup of coffee and paging through magazines. Or maybe, he thought as he reattached the fridge magnets, maybe he’d check and see if there was such a thing as The Idiot’s Guide to Speaking Chinese (yeah, right). Earlier tonight, and straight out of the blue, Bonner had said, “We both should learn Chinese, Natty. So they’ll let us clean their toilets someday. Or drive their kids to school.” Natwin had said, “You first.”
He opened his laptop on the coffee table and turned it on. A Gateway. Birthday gift from his last girlfriend. Now a relic. While it warmed up, he grabbed a beer and filled a large glazed bowl with taco chips; Natwin hated to admit it, but he ate like a freshman. Sitting down on the couch, he checked if some neighbor’s Wi-Fi was poachable tonight. It was—thank you, P87Y4, whoever you are–and he went straight to Hulu, nosed around some—Jimmy Fallon, John Stewart, The Colbert Report, then clicked on a recent episode of Castle. The guy who played Castle—it was in the shape of his eyes, something about his gestures too—reminded Natwin of his son. He wondered what the kid—kid; he’d just turned 30—was doing right this minute, then kicked off his shoes and settled back. Then his cell phone rang.
“Brian? What’s up?”
“How come your name’s not here? I’m looking at every mailbox. Where’s yours?”
“I told you I’m in a sublet. What’s going on? Everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine, Natty. My still welcome to crash?”
“Hold on.” Natwin got up, frowning, slightly rattled. He said, “Four-C,” and went and hit the buzzer.
Bonner stepped off the elevator with a clinking blue plastic sack in each fist. He raised one in salute and a handhold ripped, but the other held and none of the bottles dropped out. “Bridge was all backed up, they must be doing some work,” he said coming in and looking for a place to put everything down; the floor suited. “It was lit up like a movie set.”
“Where’d you leave your car?”
“Half a block away, not even.”
“You parked on the street. Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Somebody wants it, let em take it. It’s only gonna be repo’d anyhow.” He laughed and bumped his knuckles on Natwin’s arm. “I’m joking.”
“Yeah, but there’s a parking deck pretty close.”
“It’ll be fine, Natty.” He took in the sleep loft, the bookcases, the kitchenette. “Nice. I remember now you told me—some actress, right? Very nice. And not a fucking plant to worry about. Beautiful!” He glanced over at the computer. “Castle? I like the girl that plays the cop. Reminds me of Mary Ellen Consiglio.”
“Who?” In one of the sacks Natwin noticed Ketel One, Rose’s Lime Juice.
“College sweetheart. You sure it’s okay if I crash here tonight?”
“You kidding? It’s terrific.” In the other sack, a Flemish red, a lambec, a blonde ale. It was so typical of Bonner the Exorbitant. Two bottles of Grolsch with the fancy white lids and wire fasteners.
Bonner had been watching him take inventory. “I didn’t feel like being stuck in traffic for an hour. You know.”
Natwin said that he absolutely knew, absolutely did, he could understand that, and it was so great Bonner finally was getting to see where he lived. The moment he said it, though, he was afraid Bonner might take it as a dig, considering Natwin had never been to Bonner’s house. Either one of his houses. Or been invited. But Bonner seemed not to have heard him: he’d started watching Castle. “What is this, Natty? DVD?”
“Just some website.” He picked up and carried the bottles to the kitchenette. “Gimlet, I presume?” He took out a shaker (not his, it came with the place) and reached for glasses.
“Yeah. Thanks. This a pay site?”
“You kidding?” That, somehow, sounded wrong, an admission, a confession, a failure. “No. It’s free.”
Bonner seemed genuinely startled. Free? Wow. In the past he’d joked about how scolding his young assistant could become at his “digital idiocy.” Bonner refused, for instance, to own a smartphone, or to send texts—he’d read them, he just wouldn’t send them. But he wasn’t a complete idiot, he’d say in his own defense, he used computers all the time, checked his email 50 times a day, he just wouldn’t live on the stupid things. That, he refused to do. “What, I’d just type in ‘Castle’?”
“All there is to it.” Natwin handed Bonner his drink. He went back and opened and poured a Grolsch for himself. “There are a bunch of sites like that.” He mentioned several. For God’s sake, here was Natwin with his ancient Gateway, his Windows XP, sounding like some wonk. Well, compared to Bonner maybe. But just to Bonner. “Glad you came back, Brian” he said.
Bonner sat down on the couch. He pulled off a shoe and lobbed it over with Natwin’s pair at the foot of the bunk ladder, then pulled off and lobbed the second one.
“I’m worried about your car.”
“You’re the guy always saying about my neighborhood.”
“I was only teasing you, man. You got a Charles Schwab on the corner, for cry sake.”
“Yeah, but if you want to put it in that garage, I’ll go with you.”
Bonner waved that off and went on watching Castle. “It’s uncanny, I’m telling you. Mary Ellen was never that thin, maybe, but otherwise it’s uncanny.” He grunted in a thoughtful way. “My great love. The love of my life.”
“Yeah?” Natwin was looking out the window, but couldn’t find the Ferrari. Great love, he thought. Had he ever had one of those? No. Didn’t even have to think about it. Well, he guessed you wouldn’t. Then he was wondering why Bonner had never mentioned any Mary Ellen Consiglio to him before now. Stupid, but his feelings were hurt.
“I hook up with her every couple of years. Still a pretty woman. My wife’d kill me if she knew,” he said tilting his head and narrowing his eyes. “Not that anything happens. It probably could. I don’t know, maybe not, but it doesn’t. Except she makes me feel good. Young. No, that’s not it. Cool. She makes me feel cool again. Like I’m the same guy who could go out tomorrow and import ten thousand sonic toothbrushes and five thousand patio misters.”
“Fuck you—it is if you sell all that shit in two weeks and then live in Cancun smoking dope for the next three months. Yes, Natty, it’s very cool.” He swallowed what remained in his glass, his eyes back fixed on the TV show. “This is killing me.” He laughed. “How do you turn it off?”
While Natwin came over and closed the Hulu window, returned the screen to his desktop, Bonner stood up, lurching slightly, catching himself. “But you’re still a cool guy. You know it?”
“Thanks,” said Natwin. “So are you.” He took a sip of beer, his first, and leaned his head against the wall. “So where’s she live, this Mary Ellen?” This Mary Ellen: he just had to say it that way.
“Right outside Boston. I’ll see her if I’m traveling.” Bonner carried his glass into the bathroom, set it down on the toilet tank and peed with the door open. Flushed. “Not that I do too much of that anymore.” He came out and drank a glass of water in the kitchenette, reached to open the refrigerator—but stopped. For just a moment. Natwin saw him glance at his work schedules. Then Bonner opened the door and grabbed a handful of ice cubes from the freezer. Turning back to the counter, he fixed himself another gimlet. Natwin felt enraged, infuriated—then, instantly, sapped. But why? It wasn’t as if Bonner didn’t know about his shit jobs, he did; always had. “Got any cigarettes lying around?”
“I’ve never seen your smoke.”
“Just a thought.” Bonner shrugged. “Two cool guys hanging out—why not?” He came back and settled on the couch. “Got any?”
“We’re not supposed to smoke in here.”
Bonner sat up. “In your own home? Since when?”
“Laurie asked me not to.”
“What’d you do, raise your right hand?”
Natwin didn’t feel that required a reply. He sat at the other end of the couch.
“I solemnly swear I won’t smoke any cigarettes in your apartment while I’m subletting?” Bonner seemed all of a sudden righteously pissed off and aggrieved.
“She asked me if I smoked, I said no, she said great—and, like, if you have people over would you please ask them not to. That’s all. Jesus, Brian. It’s her place.”
“What, because it gets in the walls?”
“I guess. I don’t know. What the hell, you don’t even smoke.”
“Fucking world.” Bonner let his head fall back.
“Anyhow, I don’t have any cigarettes. Sorry.”
“No, you’re not. If you were sorry—if you were honestly, seriously, fucking sorry, you’d go down and get me a pack. Liquor store’s open. Marlboro Lights. I’d like a pack of Marlboro Lights, please.”
“Guess I’ll have to.” Then he said, “The bridge was fine, there was no goddamn construction.”
“No, no goddamn construction.”
What else could Natwin say about that; to that? Nothing. Not a goddamn thing. So he sat in silence while Bonner, who seemed now on the verge of tears, kept lifting his glass to his lips and swallowing, lifting and swallowing, all very mechanical. When he finished that drink, Natwin reached and took the glass from his hand, went and made him another—what the hell, the guy wasn’t driving. He handed it to Bonner, then stepped into his shoes and grabbed a jacket.
“Where you going?”
“Where do you think I’m going, you prick?”
Bonner grinned. “Yeah?” He leaned to his left, reached back with his right hand for his wallet.
“I got it,” said Natwin.
“No way.” He extracted a twenty. “Those things cost like seven bucks a pack now. Here.” He fluttered the bill, kept it up. “Here. Come on, Natty, let me get this.”
Natwin shook his head. Then he thought about it and took the twenty. “Marlboro?”
“Lights. Let’s not go crazy.”
As he was riding the elevator, Natwin experienced a moment of sorrow that felt as bleak as it felt—what? Giddy. As bleak and as troubling as it felt giddy, not altogether serious. He would, he knew, and no matter what happened, remain Bonner’s best friend for the rest of his, or Bonner’s, life. Oh yes. Definitely. He could take that role, he could play it. He could play the hell out of it, with every so often, of course, the usual, and excusable, inferior performance. And then as he crossed the lobby and glanced over a shoulder at the surveillance camera, Natwin wondered if he would ever have someone he truly considered his best friend, as he knew Bonner considered him, but then supposed that after a certain age a thing like that really didn’t matter.