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March 15th, 2014 - Kevin Prufer

I was going to visit an old friend.  He’d grown up in a junkyard out West and when we first met, he was trying to write poetry and living in a garage in Ohio.  He slept on an old door propped up by cinderblocks.  He had a twenty-year-old minivan and he looked like John Lennon and he’d been fired from a lot of jobs. I admired him and I apologized for him, because he spoke his mind and he was a racist.  And he mostly didn’t like women because, he said, his own mother had twice tried to drown him and once set his car on fire.  Sometimes, when we were out drinking, I had to apologize for things he said, but that wasn’t hard.  No one really wanted a fight. He’s drunk, I said, he’s just talking.  And everyone would calm down and go back to their pool games and drinks.


And he was drunk, a lot.  I was, too, when we were together, and I think, most of all, I was amazed by his talent.  He wrote like an angel, one of my friends once said of him, and it was true.  He was like those people who are born able to draw perfect human bodies, who, from childhood, can sit at a piano and compose sonatas.  He understood unerringly how a beautiful sentence might sound and his poems were lush and personal and painful to read. 


So, yes, I admired him and when I moved far away, I thought about our evenings in those rural Midwestern bars, the sticky floors and bathrooms with doors that wouldn’t quite shut and the smell of beer and the noise of baseball on TV crashing into the noise of an old juke box, and no one paying attention to either of them.


And my friend drinking bourbon, drunk, composing conspiracy theories about Wordsworth, his voice loud against the noise.  Fitzgerald couldn’t write for shit.  Roth, neither, a pretentious New York Jew.  Or: Name one woman novelist who’s really important.  And by important, I mean immortal, he said.


Edith Wharton.


OK, Edith Wharton.  OK.  I’ll give you Edith Wharton.  But that’s it.


Willa Cather.


OK, sure.  That’s two.  But two’s hardly any.  Two is almost zero.


Flannery O’Connor.


And then he’d wipe his hair out of his eyes and shake his head and change the subject.  He wanted to talk about jazz saxophonists and the industrial revolution and the history of Alaska.  He read books, lots of them.  He read a book a day, he said.


But on March 15, 2014, I hadn’t seen him in a while.  I’d moved away five years before. I had a good job at a good university and a nice house in the hip part of Houston, TX, and my friends were artists and newspaper reporters and college professors and we went to wine bars with clever names and talked about Obama and whatever was showing at the art museum. 


Still, I missed the rural Midwest and part of that was my friend who lived in the garage, and on March 15, I was driving to see him again.  He had better digs now, he’d told me, and a job.  He’d moved to a city, well, not city, exactly, but near a city.


And that’s where I found his house, a two-bedroom white ranch with his dirty pickup truck in the driveway.  When I pulled my rental car up, he came out into the spring sunlight, the screen door smacking closed behind him.  He wore a white undershirt, stained, and he hugged me.  He smelled of bourbon and cigarettes and mint and he didn’t look like John Lennon anymore.  He looked smaller and unsteady, as if his boots didn’t fit.


His house smelled of five years of cigarettes.


You have to move the books away if you want to sit down, he said.  And the cat, too.  Just move the cat.  He won’t bite.


You still writing? I asked him. 


No, he said.  Well, I try.  But I’ve got a lot going on.  Lotta assholes at work.


He poured bourbon from an enormous bottle into paper cups.  One for him, one for me.

Dust motes swirled and glittered by the windows.  One of the cats was batting at an orange peel on the floor.


In the light, his face looked gray, but he smiled broadly.  I’m movin’ on up, he sang, to the tune of The Jeffersons.  And he laughed, the liquor bottle in one hand, the paper cup in the other. Like the new digs?


I laughed, too.  It was good to see him.  Now, he was talking about some great writer I’d never read, and then another I had read, but had mostly forgotten about.  It was the same kind of stuff he used to talk about, and he waved his pale arm grandly in the little living room.


Then he was silent for a moment.  We both were.


And how’re you doing, Mr. Success, he finally said.  Fancy job.  Got a good woman at home. Got a fancy book contract. Must be nice, huh?


It’s all good, I said. 


Art Blakey was playing on the turntable.  Thousands of records in wooden crates lined one wall.   I could see my rental car through the window behind him, shiny and blue.


My friend considered me.


I’ll bet it is, he said. 


Kevin Prufer’s newest books are The Fears (Copper Canyon Press, 2023) and Sleepaway: a Novel (Acre Books, 2024). Among his eight other books are Churches, which was named one of the best ten books of 2015 by The New York Times, and How He Loved Them, which was long-listed for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize and received the Julie Suk Award for the best poetry book from the American literary press.   Prufer’s work appears widely in Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize Anthology, The Paris Review, andThe New Republic, among others.  

He encourages you to learn more about Friends for Life.


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