A good story does not sit in one place like a plate on the shelf. It breathes, moves around; it grows. It can change its mind. It can change your mind. A good story eludes facile description. It can be lovely for me while disturbing for you. It can reveal itself slowly like a seductress. It can reveal the reader (or the writer) to himself in the manner of a dream. Let me tell you a true story and then say a few words about it. My friend's story, and my own relationship to it, addresses the extreme boundaries of friendship, although perhaps it tells a different story to you. But we'll get to that.
I was sitting in a restaurant with my old friend, let's call him Louis. We'd been talking about life, women. My friend was a good writer who never got the recognition he deserved. He was a great story-teller. I always looked forward to our lunch dates. Louis was a great lover of women. More than once he'd said to me that women are deeper and more empathetic then men and he much preferred their company. He knew it needled me whenever he insisted that women were more caring and evolved beings.
We'd had a far-ranging, lively conversation. I think we were both feeling high from good talk, from connecting. It was time to get up from the table. But instead, Louis started telling me something else, hesitated a little and then plunged into it, speaking insistently but in a quieter voice -- this would a different kind of story. I leaned in close.
When he was a 13-year-old boy Louis was friendly with a kid who lived on the rough side of town, a slightly older boy with a bad complexion and a bullying manner. My friend had been a quiet timid youngster. He didn't like the other boy particularly but still he felt privileged to be in the company of this fellow who was feared by other kids. One day the boys were walking together near a small woods and the older one pointed to a house that was under construction. He led my friend inside and began to vandalize the place, cutting open bags of cement, breaking windows with bricks. He acted like this is what real guys do. "C'mon, why don't you help me," he urged Louis who began to throw things around but with less than convincing enthusiasm.
The older boy was annoyed. "What's wrong with you, anyhow?" he'd asked, because Louis just couldn't get into the spirit of their fun. The older one broke open a couple of more bags of cement, to underline his displeasure, and then he pulled down his pants and relieved himself on the floor. He took his defecations in his hand and smeared them on the new walls of the house. Then he ordered Louis to do the same. Louis was ashamed but he was cornered and did as he was told.
While they were house wrecking, Louis was thinking of his dad, who was a retired army officer, a war hero and a larger than life figure to everyone who knew him but especially to his son. "My dad was always urging me to be bold, " Louis said to me. "I want you to make something of yourself, Louis... When you speak to me, son, look me in the eye." But young Louis didn't know how to be bold.
Later that evening, when the police came to their house, Louis's father opened the front door while his son listened cowering in the living room. Some neighborhood boys had vandalized a home in the woods, smeared feces on floors and walls. While his dad chatted congenially with the cops, Louis felt his life closing down. It was hard for him to breath. Louis' father assured the police that no one here knew anything about the incident and the men left. Young Louis had been bracing for the punishment and humiliation of his life, but his father never even brought up the subject. My elderly friend speculated that his hero father could not imagine his reticent son doing such a bold and ugly thing. The boy felt confusion and sadness along with relief -- that is how my friend recalled his complicated response to this close call.
The boys didn't see each other for more than a month. Then they met again, and then a few more times. For Louis being around the swaggering bully was disgusting but also it was a temptation that my friend found irresistible. "It was like giving sway to a secret passion," Louis reflected.
One day the two boys were walking at the edge of the same woods and the older one pointed to the same house through the trees. It was still unoccupied. "Let's do it again," he said with a sneer.
Now my 70-year-old friend leaned in even closer and told me the rest in a coarse whisper. "I went into blackness," he said. "I punched him in the face. We started to wrestle. All I could think of was my father. What he would say to me about desecrating the house -- my father's rage."
The boys fell onto the ground and the older one must have hit his head. Louis was on top and the older boy's head was beside a shallow muddy stream. There was no hesitation, my friend reflected almost 60 years later. Louis twisted the boy's head into the murky water and held it under until the older boy was no longer breathing. "It was easy," he told me. "I liked the feeling of holding him down." The older Louis was smiling a little. At the memory? At my alarmed expression? At the relief he must have felt from finally telling someone the story?
Then young Louis walked home expecting the police to show up at their house. He wasn't thinking about the dead boy or the police or what might happen to him. He thought about his father who considered his son a weakling and a loser. Louis wondered if the killing might change his father's impression.
But weeks passed and the police never came to their house. Over the decades, the killing of the bully fell into Louis's memory like a recurrent dream. My friend lived a lengthy, complicated, passionate life. There was a stretch of alcoholic years that he rued as a terrible loss. He greatly relished women. He became an old man. He'd never told anyone about the murder before our lunch.
Louis and I had a long history of sharing true stories and he'd given this one to me as a rare gift -- that was my impression. Without saying the words, we both understood that I would never write about it while my friend was alive, and I didn't. It was a Huck Finn moment. I walked out of the restaurant shivering a little.
Now three years later, I am sitting in a room with my wife Bonnie and Mike Bryan, a writer friend. After telling the story of Louis, I reflect that it addresses the boundaries of friendship. I felt honored that he had shared it with me; but maybe thrilled is closer to the truth. After a pause I add that a passionate friendship can absolve even terrible sins or use them as energy for connection. I have always been a romantic about friendship.
"When you tell the story, you almost sound complicit," my wife remarked. "You don't mention the dead boy. Louis might have left the other kid stunned on the ground. He didn't need to drown him."
I was jolted by her remark, but she was right. The other boy was not alive to me. When I think of the story, mainly I feel moved that Louis shared it with me, that he trusted me with his secret. The other boy was a prop. It was long ago. I didn't feel him. It was as though the years of our friendship had led us to this astonishing story.
"But mostly I feel badly for Louis," continued my wife, who knew Louis as well, "Imagine the cost of shouldering this secret for all of his years. How did it change him? What did the guilt do to him?" Of course she was right, but the story held a particular resonance for me, and I couldn't let it go.
By now my friend Mike was chuckling.
"What?" I asked.
"A woman's sympathies are deeper than a man's," he said. "Also, broader. Women care about just about everything. They really care. They feel more deeply. We care about what we really care about and blow off everything else."
I found this generalization extremely irritating. Then I remembered it was almost exactly what my friend Louis used to tell me over lunch when we talked about women.