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My Friend Kurt


It’s been nearly two years since I moved out, and still on occasion I make a wrong turn and drive down East Ridge. When I do, I slink low in my seat, gangster style, as I creep down the street where Emma learned to ride her bike. I have no excuse. I drift under the canopy of trees along the curb, where sometimes a Mini Cooper sits parked at an angle. There's nothing to say if someone happens to be outside. Maybe that I'm checking on the lilacs? After all, my landscaping has paid off.

The Mini Cooper belongs to a well-groomed professor who’s claimed my kitchen and I imagine cooks all sorts of exotic dinners under the copper range hood Tegan spent two years picking out. And while it’s worrisome that the sight of a car can do so much physical damage to my body--trigger my heartrate, my back to sweat, my stomach to fold into itself--it's also the reason I don’t take the wrong turn today. Because the associate professor of Arts & Cinema has class today. That and it’s Thursday. My gusto needs a boost.

My levels of gusto are of particular importance to my boss. From what I’ve gathered, gusto is some unspecified mix of passion, ambition, and ability to give much of a shit. Although I’ve survived my employer of fifteen years with minimal gusto, it’s of Conner’s opinion that it’s hampering the synergy levels of the Claims team.

I plop down at my usual stool beside Kurt. He’s somehow beat me to the bar again. He asks if I made wrong turn again—his way of giving me a hard time about my marriage. Because somewhere long ago, Kurt wrote the rules. He can rib me about Tegan, but any mention of his wife and kid and he gets his ass hair in a tangle.

Kurt’s my roommate, coworker, best friend, and pain in the ass. I go along with it because I’m not sure what I’d do without the guy. Given the choice, I sure as shit wouldn't choose him for a partner. I’ll grant that he’s handsome. Big and strong, brutish at times and still with a head full of dark curls. But the man can clog a toilet like nobody’s business. He’s messy, in life and spirit. He’s a child. And he always talks me into doing what I’d otherwise avoid. Like getting fired.

I’m still fiddling with my Fitbit after forgetting to take it off and lock it in the glove department. I’ve decided to give it to Emma, so that she can roll her eyes and tell me how Fitbits are lame. At least my daughter and I can agree on that.

We’re maybe a few drinks in when Kurt gives me that smug grin of his. “Did you happen to see the leader board today?”

The suits at Vita-Life had gotten creative, meaning they found more inexplicable ways to waste money. They’ve always had a knack for burning a buck, but as the stocks continue to tank they’ve become almost delirious in their quest to run up a tab. First it was a weekly karaoke contest, when that bombed set up a mini putt course in the cafeteria. Then came the company picnic, catered, with bands and a full-scale amusement park. They followed this up with lofty picnic lunches for inner-city kids, there was the tricycle racing until someone broke their ankle (cube dwellers not being known for their athletic prowess), then they broke ground on a gym.

Not all of this spending is sheer impulse. It has to do with health insurance kickbacks, cutting premium costs if we lay off the cheeseburgers. So we had to pledge our souls to CrossFit incentives and motivation strategies. Flu shots and seminars, online nutrition courses. Kurt and I joked that they were trying to cull the baby boomers. Until we realized they were trying to cull the baby-boomers.

So now it’s the Fitbit contest. Last seek Tina from HR, behind the backdrop of pixelated ocean, had presented us with complimentary Fitbits. She was practically orgasmic, being such a bubbly sport bouncing around in her yoga pants, her arms banded and wired with tracking devices, her viciously pink Nike's a blur as she introduced Step Into A New You! Challenge.

For all her pep, Tina's efforts were met with a collective groan from the cube dwellers. Then she unveiled the grand prize, an all-expense paid trip to the Bahamas. We were given an hour, in addition to lunch–smile! –to get our steps in. Whoever led by the end of the month, won the prize. Simple

I gave it a shot. That first day I tossed in my gym shorts and a brand-new pair of sneakers. I logged 3,700 steps, or, three times around the Vita-Life campus. But the IT department had this intern, some cross-country junkie who lapped me seven times before I got my first blister. I was sore for two days.

I can’t imagine why Kurt is interested in the leader board, and not only that, I’m a bit disappointed that Julia isn’t tending bar tonight. Instead we have backwards hat guy. Mr. gum chewing. I can never remember his name.

Kurt burps so loud I feel it in my seat. Asks me again if I’ve seen the leader board at work. I shake my head. “No. Why? Am I winning?”

Kurt shoots me a rueful smile. I suck down a gulp of my five-grain-Belgian-crisp-wheat-honey-wobble microbrew. It’s too sweet. Like Kurt’s smile. He’s being weird, tapping on the bar. “No, I am.”

“Okay,” I say, waving him closer. “Details.”

All right, so Kurt is more than a coworker. He's like a life partner. We met when I was a freshman in high school, some thirty-four years ago. I no longer remember the specifics of how or when and neither does he. Our lives like a vine that hitched a ride on a tree and curled itself into the limbs. We only know the ride, not the mechanics of our friendship. Which is probably why after all these years the guy can still surprise me. Not always a good thing.

He leans close, bringing with him a manly reek of sweat, beer, and chicken wings. “I’ve been putting my Fitbit in the dryer. Cool cycle. I wrap it up in a wash cloth.”

His poker face is solid. I lean back. Only Kurt would do something so sinister, so darkly genius. I set down my brew. “You’re serious?”

Kurt and I have this unspoken rule about work. That is, we never talk about work. Ever. To be more specific, sure, we talk about the people who work there—usually women—and we talk about what a total bag of dicks run the Claims department, but that is not talking about work in our opinion. What we refuse to talk about over beers, is policy. Baby-boomers, premium hikes, lapse rates and a whole host of other mind-numbing intricacies of Long Term Care industry.

These non-work conversations take place at the Woodchuck, a small but legendary bar where we’ve have been sucking them down for almost thirty years. Where we have a mutual crush on the hot bartender. Kurt pushes away the basket of widow-maker wings.

“Yeah, I’m serious. And that’s not even the worst of it. I’m in a tie.” He wipes at the dribbles of ranch dressing in his beard. “A tie! Do you know the odds of two people finishing with the exact same amounts of steps?”

“Or drying patterns.”

Another round arrives. I glance to my right towards the sucking sounds where a guy looks like he’s playing the bagpipes before releasing a full load of vape over his head. I can’t decide if he’s an ex-smoker or someone who’s just decided to pick up the vaping habit. It must be smoking, no one would willfully decide to look that foolish.

Kurt sloshes down the rest of his Jagged Jack O’ lantern stout, shaking his giant head, his eyes flashing with pride. “I’m tied with that cross-country twerp.”

The couple in the booth perks up. By then I’m already laughing, between the bagpipers over there and Kurt’s mess. He’s a good chunk over 240 these days, and while he’s an excellent softball player, he can clear the ball over the fence whenever he wants, he’s no match for some rail thin marathon runner. I smack the bar, thinking of that runner kid’s face when he sees who's matched his steps. I start to steal a widow maker but it smells like paint thinner. I toss it back.

“So what happens now?”

Kurt digs in, ripping meat off the bone. I’ve noticed he never orders wings when Julia is working. He chews, sips, wipes. “A walk off. Me and Ichabod. All day tomorrow. Until four o’clock.”

“Wait, you have to show up tomorrow, and race this kid?”

“Not race, just get more steps. It’s different. Whoever has the most steps by four o clock, wins.”

“Where’s your gizmo?”

Kurt's sly look says more than words. He dabs his face with a dirty napkin, streaking orange sauce across his forehead like war paint. I shake my head. “It’s in the dryer? Right now?”

Chewing, sipping, wiping. Grinning. “What the hell, right?”

“Jesus, so you’re still trying to win this thing?”

He leans in, breaths like a pumpkin filled with lamp oil. “Look, bring your FitBit tomorrow. That way I can keep mine tumbling. End of the day we make the switch.” He stuffs the rest of the wing, tosses the bones.

“You're crazy.”

He holds up two pudgy fingers. Wing sauce in his fingernails. “It’s two tickets, you know.”