My Two Best Friends

By Ed Staskus

   When Nick Goga met Wayne Biddell, the burly man had two bum knees, although they were the least of his problems. He had been a Cleveland Police Department detective for fifteen years and a uniformed officer before that. He told Nick in all that time he only drew his service handgun three times and never once fired it. He lived with the same bullets on his belt all his life.

   He had bad knees from playing handball at the downtown YMCA.

   “I probably never should have played that game, but I loved it, although it and my job cost me my legs and my marriage,” he said.

   Nick met Wayne after his marriage fell apart and he lost his house, which was a lot like what happened to Wayne. They met on the grassy courtyard of the apartment complex on East 222nd Street in Euclid, where they both lived, when Nick saw him messing around with his golf clubs on a warm dry spring day. The ex-cop was retired and living alone.

  Nick wasn’t retired, not exactly, but he lived alone, too.

  They played golf together for the next three years. He was the best friend Nick ever had, even more than Mattie Haylor, even though Mattie ended up doing more for him later on. Wayne was affable and did many things for him that he never even asked him to do. After Nick moved to Lakewood, Wayne got him a car, convincing his lady friend to give him the old Ford she was planning on trading in when she got her new car. He later mailed him a check for five hundred dollars, to live on, knowing Nick was strapped, knowing his ex-wife had taken him to the cleaners.

   It wasn’t his fault the Ford’s transmission blew out, stranding him in Tremont, and his son-in-law wouldn’t lend him the money to get it repaired.

   “Fixing it will cost more than the car is worth,” he said. “You’re better off sending it to the scrap yard.”

   He knew Jack was right but knew he didn’t want to lend him even one dollar, at the same time. He could tell Jack didn’t trust him, even though he had always been an honest man. All his friends said so. He wasn’t sure what his daughter Agnes thought, whether she was just backing her husband up, or not.

   He junked the heap and got a hundred bucks for it.

   After that he had to walk to the Lakewood Library and McDonald’s, the grocery and the bus stop all that winter, the winter Wayne blew his head off, and all the next spring until Mattie died and left him a hundred thousand dollars, after all was said and done. The trust sold Mattie’s house and old furniture and threw everything else out. He was able to buy a new car, a two-door Suzuki that never ran out of gas.

   When his wife Eva Giedraityte walked out on him, and took all the money out of their joint accounts, swooping up the kids and talking him into taking a second mortgage out on their house so she and her new boyfriend from Rochester could open a restaurant, and Palmer Bearings went bankrupt, putting him out of the only work he had ever done since getting shipped home from the Korean War with a Purple Heart, it was then he played more golf than he ever played in his life, and waited to be thrown out of his house.

   When he finally got the boot and moved out of Indian Hills, down the hill to Euclid, he was in his late 50s.

   “I was hanging on, waiting to get to 62, so I could get my Social Security early. I needed the money bad. When I worked for Palmer Bearings, they gave me a new car every year, with an expense account no one ever questioned, and I was in line to be made a vice-president, up to the day the Shylocks closed the doors without a word of warning to me.”

   Nick had a chip on his shoulder about it. He was aggrieved and bitter. Sometimes he went for a walk to cool down.

   “There were years when I almost always had a thousand dollars, or more, in cash in my pockets every day. Those days were gone. I had made the day for the Jews who ran the business. In the end they took it all away from me, just like my wife did. Eva broke me down inside.”

   When he moved to Euclid he moved into a no-rent apartment, an apartment that Angelo, the maintenance man at the apartment complex, who he met through Stan, a Pole he often had breakfast with at the railroad car diner on Green Road, not far from the giant Fisher Body and TRW plants, got for him when he was hired to be his helper.

   “Stan and I talked all the time over cups of coffee. We got to be good friends, even though he was a thick Polack. He was a hell of a bowler. He was good enough to bowl in tournaments, and I went to a couple of them to watch him. It was hop, skip, and glide to the line. He was always pounding out strikes. It got old, though, and I stopped going, except when the beer and pretzels were free.”

   Angelo was from Texas and was a Korean War veteran, like Nick. He talked the man who was the boss, who owned the apartment complex, into hiring him. Nick didn’t like the man, didn’t like his shrewd face, but he kept his mouth shut.

   “He was Hebrew, and that’s who runs the country. They run the money, which means they run everything else, too. They own most of the gold in the world. They marry inside the family, keeping it all together for themselves.”

   He shoveled snow, did some of the gardening, and vacuumed the hallways. He cleaned apartments when they went vacant and got paid extra whenever he had to clean kitchens, scrubbing the stove and emptying out the fridge, throwing away spoiled food. He made a few bucks here and there, one way or another. He stayed quick on the uptake. He kept his head above water.

   The apartment complex had been built during the Second World War for government workers. It was built like a tank, sturdy as a fort. The brown brick buildings were three stories with garages in the back. Fox Avenue intersected the complex and ran all the way to Babbitt Avenue, where there was a golf course. Wayne and he shuttled to it on good days, getting in eighteen holes.

   “He wasn’t any good, and complained about the walking, but we got along. I always went looking for the balls he shanked.”

   Wayne worked part-time at night, in a booth selling betting slips at the Thistledown horse track in North Randall. He was on his own during the day, which was how he and Nick were able to go golfing together whenever Nick was free to go. They went to tournaments in Akron, to watch the professionals. Stan went with them once, but he wasn’t used to hiking more than a bowling lane and got worn out.

   After Nick lost his car Wayne always drove. He had gotten a new dark blue Mercury four-door sedan. “He loved that car and talked his lady friend into getting one, too. That was how I got her old Ford.”

   When he moved to Lakewood, on the west side, to a no-frills apartment across the street from St. Ed’s High School, Wayne visited him a few times, even though he didn’t like the small apartment or the building.

   “It’s a dump,” he said.

    Nick took him to Joe’s Diner for breakfast. “I could tell he was suffering. It wasn’t just his knees. He had prostate cancer and was hurting. It was just a matter of time. I called him on Christmas Eve and wished him happy holidays. He didn’t sound good, but he didn’t sound bad, either. At least, that’s what I thought. I was dead wrong.”

   Wayne’s son was a pre-law student at Miami University. He had tried out for the football team as a walk-on and made the cut. That fall he saw playing time as the team’s back-up quarterback when the starter was injured. “He was a hell of an athlete,” Nick said. He drove up to Euclid from Oxford to see his dad the Christmas weekend. Wayne told him all about his new Mercury.

   “Take my car and give it a little ride,” he said. “I haven’t driven it for a while. It needs to be out on the road.”

   His son got the car and drove it up and down Lakeshore Boulevard. It had snowed overnight, but not much, and what snow there was had been plowed to the side. When he got back, he found his father in bed. Wayne had put a pillow over his head and a gun in his mouth. When he pulled the trigger, it was the first and last time he ever shot a gun at a human being.

   After the funeral Nick hoofed it around Lakewood until summer, when Mattie, his golfing buddy for many years, who was in his 80s, got sick. He was taken to Fairview Hospital, and when there wasn’t anything else the doctors could do, they moved him to the Welsh Home in Rocky River.

   “Mattie was a great guy and great friend of mine, my other best friend for a long time. He was on our golf team in the Cleveland Metropolitan Golf Association. We had about ninety members and most of us were friends. We played golf until it was too cold to walk the courses. After that, any of us who could afford it went south to play. I went to sunny parts of the country to play golf many times, when I was married, in the clover, and even afterwards, until I couldn’t afford to go anymore.”

   Mattie passed away in his sleep and a month after his funeral Nick got a registered letter from a lawyer saying he had been included in the will. “He left me his house. It surprised me but didn’t surprise me. I was the only person who ever listened to what he had to say, who stuck around when he lost track of his thoughts, who waited for him to reminisce about something else he was bound to remember sooner or later, even though it was a lot of nothing. After the house was sold, I got a check for a bundle.”

   He bought his new car, paying cash for it. He paid off his credit card debt, the plastic he had been living on, and bought a new laptop computer, so he didn’t have to always go to the library to work on his get-rich schemes. He stopped sending e-mails to his son-in-law when Jack exploded about them one day, saying he was sick of the schemes. He told his father-in-law he was never going to buy in to any of them.

   “I always was a good friend with different people, including Wayne and Mattie, who were my two best friends. It’s good to be best friends with your friends. Otherwise, you end up with duck eggs. My ship is coming in one day. When it does, I’ll dump the Suzuki in the blink of an eye and get an Audi convertible.  I’ll go to Florida every winter. I’ll play golf in the sunshine again.”

   He bought new shirts and shoes and ate better. After squirreling the rest of Mattie’s money away he was in good shape. He stayed in his dog-eared apartment to keep costs down. He thought about buying birthday presents for his grandson and granddaughter, even though he hardly ever saw them, and when he did, hardly paid any attention to them.  He didn’t work at much of anything and played golf all the next summer at new nicer courses. He went to both Wayne and Mattie’s graves and paid his respects. He only went once, but it was enough.

   He made some new best friends.

Ed Staskus posts feature stories on Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”