My Good Friend, Steve

Paul and RamblerMom makes Steve a birthday cake! Paul walking in after a trip in the Rambler. 1972 My Good Friend, SteveIn junior high I thought that I was near the bottom of the popularity list but then in 9th grade a guy named Steve came into my life. I’m not even sure how we met. I just remember one frustrating Saturday when he called and asked me to come out to his house so we could go bike riding together. Steve was always insistent. And he was adept in using manipulation tactics.“Come on over,” he ordered, “Unless you don’t want to hang out with me…” Feeling guilty for wishing I was spending my Saturday morning watching cartoons instead being friendly, I assured him I was on my way.In typical Steve fashion, the directions to his house were lacking. First I went to the starting point, a grocery store. Then I followed the street past the library and out of town. At the library I double checked the not so reliable tires of my Schwinn. So far so good, I thought as I rode past the last gas station with a free air pump. At least I was going downhill. Soon I was lost and pumping up a steep and unfamiliar road. The directions Steve gave me made no sense and I supposed I had them wrong. Seeing no alternative I turned around and pedaled the long road back home. I called Steve.“Where are you?” He wanted to know. “Aren’t you coming out?” I had him review the directions. Still not understanding I asked if he could just ride his bike to meet me at the library. “I don’t have a bike.” Steve said, rather sadly.“Oh.” I said wondering how he intended to go bike riding with me.And so began our friendship. Steve was more uncomfortable than me in social situations. And he always had a hang dog look about him. It would get worse if he didn’t get his way. And he wanted to be my best friend. I didn’t have the heart to disagree. So I didn’t tell him different.A couple Saturdays later he was at our house and my Mom in her typical gracious hostess fashion asked him if he was hungry. Steve who was laughing just before she came in the kitchen put on his most pitiful face and mumbled, “I’m okay. I had a small sandwich earlier.” He showed about an inch between his thumb and finger, “Just to tie me over ‘til later.” So Mom fed him. But I kept thinking, if she feeds him, he’ll never go home.He did leave, but he’d come back. And he would always get in on whatever things were going on. Soon he was an extra stop on our way to church. Sitting next to me one Sunday morning my Dad was going down the aisle with a few of the men to do the communion. Steve whispered a little too loudly, “Is your Dad a brother?” Although Steve seemed very impressed I was unfamiliar with that terminology so I just said no.And when my brothers and sister were on the honor roll I made copies of their grade cards and sent in an application for free St. Louis Cardinal Baseball tickets. It was a promotion they had back then to reward kids and get more people in the ball park. I think I got six tickets. When game time rolled around my Dad said he would take whoever wanted to go. And we picked up Steve on the way.The Cardinals didn’t do so well and were losing in the bottom of the 9th. They sent in their power hitters and as they went down one by one Steve turned to me and said rather disgustedly, “You’d think they’d win this one for all us kids that bothered to come out and watch.”Steve always had an opinion. Based on what, I didn’t know. We were working at a restaurant/bakery and he got into an argument with some of the older guys about how good a football player he was. He bet them a good sum of money his team could beat theirs. He announced to me that we were to play a game of touch football the following Saturday. And I was supposed to get all the best players I knew.Trouble was I didn’t know any good players. I played sports for fun and was never much of a big competitor. I talked my little brother into coming and a couple of Steve’s friends showed up. One was a little guy with glasses and the other a heavy set guy that wheezed whenever he had to run. We gathered together on the high school football field and looked at these bigger, older, much better at football-guys. They were laughing at us. But Steve was sure we’d beat them. I knew we were in trouble when, because I was the best we had, they made me quarterback.The game was a rout and Steve was severely disappointed in our abilities. The other team seemed to enjoy themselves and as we limped off the field they announced they would be having pizza on Steve. He sulked all the way home. “We could have done better.” He informed me. I didn’t see how.If I wasn’t careful Steve would be with me wherever I went. A crisp fall Friday night he ended up coming with me to our high school’s football game. Early in the second half I was happily sitting alone in the stands because Steve had left to go to the bathroom. All of a sudden several tough guys were standing around me with Steve peeking at me from behind them looking uncomfortable.“What?” I asked him.“They wanted me to give them some money.” Steve said, embarrassed. “I told them I didn’t have any but I knew you had some you could give them.”“I’m not giving them any money!” I said. The tough guys scowled at me, looked at the people around us watching them and left. “What did you do that for?” I asked Steve as he sat down next to me.“I was afraid they’d beat me up.” He laughed nervously.“Do me a favor. Next time just tell them, no!” I advised.When my Dad found out that Steve couldn’t get his driver’s license because his parents were unwilling to let him drive their only car, he took it upon himself to give him lessons. So the next Saturday morning I was sitting in the back of our Rambler station wagon while my Dad coaxed Steve who had no experience with driving whatsoever.Wistfully, I stared out the window as my Dad had Steve put the car in drive while he held his foot on the brake. Steve giggled with hysterical nervousness the whole time. “Now…” my Dad said, take your foot off the brake and real carefully, give it some gas.”Steve’s laughter raised in volume and pitch as he floored the accelerator. “WHOA!” my Dad yelled. “Not so fast!” So Steve slammed on the brakes, tossing me back and forth in the back seat. This went on for about 30 minutes until my Dad had had enough. I was hoping he’d give up but he told Steve we’d try it again next week. And we did.When Steve ended up with his learner’s permit my Dad let him drive our car on roads. His laughing got quieter and his ability slowly improved but riding along was always an adventure. Sometimes he would forget to slow down before turning off a main road. It was hard to tell which was louder; the squeal of the tires; or my Mother.One Sunday evening after a youth group meeting I was to give a rather nice looking young lady a ride home in the Rambler. I didn’t think too much of it, because I often gave different kids a ride home. But Steve was pacing around with nervous excitement. Before I had time to even think of the seating arrangements Steve demanded to know, “Are you going to share her?”“What?” I asked not knowing what he meant.“Are you going to share her? You know, she sits by you and I sit on the other side.” The Rambler had bench seats and Steve was ready to have the nice looking young lady sitting between us. “If I had a girl,” he assured me, “I’d share her with you.”The problem was I didn’t have her. She wasn’t my girlfriend and since Steve brought it up I wondered where she would sit in the car. As it turns out I didn’t need to worry. She sat in the back with my brother and sister. And Steve thought I had sabotaged his romantic ride home.A few weeks later Steve was excited to show me something. “Here,” he said with enthusiasm, “You want to borrow it?” It was a record album. The title claimed “Songs of the Class of 1972” on the flashy cover. I turned it over and read through the songs. Most of them were old songs and not very popular. It looked to me like somebody repackaged songs nobody wanted trying to make a sale.“Naw,” I handed him back the album. “That’s okay.” I said. Steve’s face fell and began to flush a bright red. “Maybe one of these days…” I tried to unhurt his feelings.“You don’t like these songs?” He asked. “They’re for our class. See?” He pointed at the album cover.“Yeah. Well. They’re, uh, good songs.” I stuttered. “I’ll borrow its sometime. It’s pretty cool. I guess.” Steve went up to the cute girl I had given a ride home to and showed her the album. She told him he did a good job finding it. That seemed to brighten him up.And then there was a new girl coming to church and it wasn’t long before she and Steve were an item. I was happy for him. Now that he had a girlfriend, and his driver’s license I saw him less. But he still managed to show up at my house once in a while. And he told me everything, whether I wanted to hear, or not. “We were sitting on the couch and guess what I did.” He wanted me to ask.“Uh…” I started to get up.“She got quiet and looked deep into my eyes and I looked deep into her eyes and then you know what?”“Uh…” I started to walk away.“Wait!” Steve said. “Watch.”“Uh…” I sighed.“I grabbed her face between my hands. “Steve reported. “Like this.” When I backed away from his reaching hands he grabbed his own face. I wondered if he squeezed her cheeks. She had big cheeks.“I pulled her face towards mine.” He went on. I backed up again because he got closer. And I wondered if it hurts your neck to have somebody pull on your face.“Then I kissed her.” I shuddered. “Long and hard.” I backed up further and hit the wall. “Right on her lips!”“Well,” I said, edging along the wall. “How about that.”And then one night he was sitting next to me at the youth group meeting. We were about to graduate high school and the leaders were talking about our future. They went around the circle asking each of us what we wanted to do after graduation. What did we want to be? I would be next to last I noticed. I had time to think. And time to get nervous. I almost stayed home, too, I thought. Rats!When my turn came I gave a generic, go to college answer. They waited so I threw in that I would probably work towards a degree in aeronautical engineering. Everybody including Steve smiled and nodded their heads at me. I really wasn’t sure what a person did with a degree in aeronautical engineering but it seemed to impress grown-ups.Steve surprised me when he answered. He announced he would be going into the Navy. That was the first I’d heard of it. As I was driving him home and we were alone in the dark car he started talking. “You know what I’d really like to be Paul?”“What?” I asked him, not really listening.“I’d just like to be normal.” He said. It was quiet after that and we just said a single syllable ‘bye’ as he got out of the car.I thought about Steve as I drove home alone. All the years we’d known each other I never knew what he really wanted. I thought of my own ambitions and dreams. I wanted to be more than normal. I never thought I wasn’t normal.Steve did join the Navy and a couple years later he came to visit me. We sat on my couch and we talked about things. We laughed as we visited old memories. Soon he had to go. He reached out to shake my hand and I thought he seemed to have more confidence. I watched him walk down the steps from my apartment and get into his car. He waved at me and drove off. Goodbye, I thought, my good friend, Steve.