Back then, Saturday nights were for sacred rituals: the four of us, the last of our kind, standing on Randy’s back porch, cold beers in hand, telling war stories that we’d all heard a hundred times before—a running competition to see who’d had it worse, measured in missed meals, getting the belt, and lame sex. We’d watch bad movies in Randy’s unfinished basement until we were good and drunk and then white-knuckle the drive home, back to Mark’s dingy apartment and Andrew’s broken marriage and my sleeping wife and son, back through the only city we’d ever known.
Once, there had been more of us. Once, we had done this every night, hiding out at each other’s apartments as soon as we were free of the second shift, only surrendering to the sameness of the next day as dawn broke, but too much had already been lost to day jobs and unexpected offspring and beckoning girlfriends. So now, we held on with both hands to the only thing reminding us of what we’d always been. It didn’t matter that Randy had been laid off again or that Mark and Andrew’s father was back in the hospital, dying of cancer this time—Saturday nights were mandatory.
Once, I’d been as devout as the rest of them, and every Saturday night I’d return to the north side I’d abandoned years before, feeling my jaw harden as subdivisions and office parks morphed into those same old scrap yards and flea markets. I kept my head on a swivel while buying beer at the liquor store around the corner from Randy’s house—just down the street from where I’d grown up—recalling that clinched feeling I used to always carry in my gut as a kid. Wedging my car into Randy’s driveway while avoiding all the ones he and his father kept around that didn’t run. Listening to the oddly comforting refrain of the neighbors arguing over who used up the last of their meth, while the junkyard dog one yard over begged for them to stop.
Lately, though, I’d started missing a few Saturdays here and there. Lately, I’d been dodging questions the rest of the week about where the hell I’d been. And lately, Saturday nights had become about hiding a shameful secret: I’d gone back to school, a move made on a whim when faced with yet another job disappearing out from under me, yet another chance to start over at the bottom of the ladder. I’d just been messing around at first, seeing how the other three-quarters lived, but then one class had led to another, and before I knew it, I had a major and a bunch of clean-scrubbed classmates who were beginning to recognize my face.
Worst of all, I’d decided to enroll full-time. To make a run at something that had always seemed off-limits. I’d been at it three years, and the time had come to jump in or get out. But that meant blowing the whole thing up into something that could no longer be hidden, and I’d been putting off breaking the news for as long as I could.
Come April, I still hadn’t said a word, had missed a few Saturdays in a row to make sure I didn’t, and when I finally dragged myself back over to Randy’s house, I felt like I’d been gone for years. The others were already on their second six-packs, and Randy was bumming cigarettes off those of us still collecting paychecks. Mark was in one of his dark moods, drowning his sorrows in Bud Light and tossing out the usual complaints about this new girl he’d been seeing like he was bare-handing bottle rockets, while Andrew detailed the latest diagnosis: Their mother had spots on her lungs. Andrew was chain-smoking Marlboro Reds like I hadn’t seen him do since our barfly days. Randy was walking around shirtless, talking up his plans to start tracking down the girls he’d missed out on back in high school and staggering around the corner of the house to piss against the foundation like he was punishing it for being so run-down.
The nearby train tracks sprang to life with a long line of freight cars, and I thought about how I’d been listening to that same train my entire life and about the look on the other guys’ faces when I told them I was getting married, becoming the first to take the plunge, all those years ago. They’d looked at me then like I’d broken some kind of vow, and I realized that whatever was about to change had been set in motion long ago.
These days, Saturday nights are for squinting at my laptop screen, trying to make out Randy and Andrew’s drunken audio. We watch bad movies through pirated software until we run out of things to say, then we log off and return to our separate lives. Sometimes, we think to email throughout the week, but mostly we leave each other be.
These days, Randy doesn’t bother looking for work, but he gets out more than do the rest of us, helping his father make the rounds to all his rental properties on the north side. Andrew frets about his hours getting cut, but at least he finally got around to pulling the plug on his marriage and rented a little place over by our old high school to be close to his kids before everything changed. And we don’t hear from Mark anymore: He married that same girl and then quit us altogether, but not before drinking himself into the hospital.
I still go to bed each Saturday night feeling guilty: I’ve lucked into a teaching job at the local university, making more money than my parents ever made together, and I spend my days squinting at my laptop screen, seeing a bunch of clean-scrubbed faces staring back at me. They do a good job acting like they want to hear what I have to say, but I feel certain, whenever I catch one of them giving me an odd look, that they can see all those old Saturday nights all over me.
Joel Coltharp lives in Springfield, MO, where he teaches creative writing and literature at Missouri State University. His fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and interviews have appeared in Carve Magazine, Notre Dame Review, Lake Effect, and elsewhere. He serves as Fiction Editor for Moon City Review.
To help end hunger and poverty throughout the globe, Joel encourages you to donate to Heifer International.