Hooker and Bear, best friends for 60 years, take a road trip on which each reveals a secret that changes the last acts of their lives.
I often think about Red Hooker. A man is not your closest friend for half a century without becoming a kind of spiritual appendage, a silent accomplice to everything you feel and do. We’d gone through significant deaths together (our parents) and five marriages and divorces (his advantage, 3-2). Even though we’d never lived in the same city until recently, we’d kept in constant contact on the phone and in letters from the day I got discharged from the Army shortly before him in 1959. We’d both served as Russian linguists in the Army Security Agency at the height of the Cold War.
Hooker and I regarded one another as brothers and were far closer than he was to his biological sibling. It went without saying that one of us was going to bury the other unless somehow we went out together in a blaze of glory, and when on my 70th birthday Red suggested a road trip across the country, I wondered if this was what he had in mind.
I hadn’t celebrated a birthday in years but this one, falling on a Saturday in August, at least embraced company. Hooker and I had been sharing Saturday breakfasts at Nobby’s Bar & Grill ever since he joined me in Portland, Oregon, in 2001, saying he needed to be closer to a modern VA hospital than living in the Idaho outback afforded. Compared to our new facility, the Spokane VA hospital, which was the closest one to him, was a relic. Besides, he admitted, it would be nice living out our old age together as neighbors.
We hadn’t missed a weekly breakfast since his arrival, more often than not at Nobby’s because the back bar used to be one of my drinking holes and the owner was a friend. I wasn’t about to cancel an established ritual just because it was my birthday. Hooker wouldn’t remember it anyway.
A tad before seven, I picked up Hooker at the boarding house where he rented a room. Nobby’s was on the downtown side of the river in my neighborhood in northwest Portland, which I’d seen change in the name of progress from thrift stores and small taverns to boutiques and expensive restaurants. This wasn’t progress as far as I was concerned, and Nobby’s was one of the few places in the neighborhood that resembled what it had been a quarter-century ago. Another was the square brick building in which I rented two bedrooms (one converted to an office), where only the rent had changed.
After breakfast I was surprised when Hooker passed me an envelope that obviously contained a card. Despite being close, we had a mutual disregard for the formal exchange of gifts. I don’t recall either of us ever giving the other a birthday present, and our Christmas exchanges during half-a-century of friendship could be counted on one hand. Instead of exchanging gifts, we bought one another drinks. At least during our drinking days.