This short story by Doc O’Connor won our Show Off contest in August. 

Night Trees

Photo by Frederik Matheson

The day before Christmas and we were getting drunk at the 19th Hole, our local golf course bar, which was almost buried in snow. There was a roaring fire and Wally, the barman and an old kindergarten classmate, brought over four long Jameson’s on ice.

“Welcome home boys. This round is on the Inn,” said Wally.

We raised our glasses and toasted Wally, The Maplewood Golf Course and Inn, the town, the lake, snow, summer, leaving town, our school and especially our tenth grade math teacher, Miss Miotto, who had the body of a cello. All home for the holidays, our talk ranged from work to sports to wives to kids and usually ended up back in town, revolving around some trivial memory.

““You guys hear about Zubic?” asked Sid, a dentist in San Francisco.

““Yeah, he went out to the Rockies and became a ski instructor or park ranger or something.”

“”He died in March. Burned to death in a shack.”

“”No.”

“”No.”

““No. Really?”

““Guess he was doing some early spring ice fishing, the wood stove caught fire and incinerated him, the shack and three Huskies. I can’t believe you guys didn’t hear anything.”

““An accident?”

““So they say.”

““Was he wasted?”

““He was ice fishing. Probably.”

““Why didn’t any one email me?” I asked.

We stared at the fire, ordered another pitcher.

““Remember that track-meet where Zubic broke his arm?” said Brent, a hedge-fund manager in Toronto.

““Yeah.”

““Yeah. High-jump, right? He jumped the mat,” said Sid.

““I don’t remember that,” I said.

““Sure you do. You were there. I remember because we bribed you to drop the baton in the 400m relay,” said Godfry, “now a pastry instructor at LeCordonBleu Chef school in Key West.

““I remember it like it was yesterday.”

““I remember dropping the baton,” I admitted, “but it was an accident. It banged my knee and slipped out of my hand, we were disqualified. Sorry, but there was no bribe. No money changed hands.”

““Bull.”

““No way.”

““I can’t believe you don’t remember. It changed my opinion of you completely,” said Harlen, a pilot for FedEx, who moved cities so quickly we stopped asking.

““Why would you guys bribe me?  Why would my own teammates bribe me to drop our own baton?” I asked.

““No one wanted to run. It was the last event of the day. We were dead.”

““Yeah, it was a scorcher. I had a sunburn on the back of my legs.”

““It was your idea,” Sid said pointing his glass at me.

““I never thought you would do it,” said Godfry added.

““Completely ruthless,” said Harlen, “Coach Bogart was fuming. We had a good chance to pick up a medal in that race.”

““You guys are taking the piss. I don’t remember any of this. Did Coach Bogart know we got disqualified on purpose?”

I had always respected the Coach’s crotchety devotion, shaded optimism.

““I never told him.”

““I doubt it.”

““I think I would’ve remembered his reaction. If he’d known, he’d’ve killed you.”

““How much money did you all give me? I asked, still not believing.”

““Five bucks each,” Brent said.

““I threw a race for fifteen bucks?”

“”You were a kid. Fifteen bucks was a lot back then.”

““Selective memory. Dude, you did it.”

““Pure mercenary. Ice cold man.”

The fire crackled. A spark flew onto the carpet. I stood up and extinguished the glint with my father’s borrowed work boot. I felt like saying something angry but didn’t.

““I’m going to drain the weasel.”

Instead of going down the stair to the men’s dressing room, I went out the back door and looked over the course from the teeing ground ledge. Flakes flurried and spun, moon reflecting off the vast white. Ski and snowmobile and deer tracks could be followed. I undid my pants and watched the snow dribble yellow. The air was cold on my skin. A cold I had forgotten since moving to Columbia. As I was zipping up, I heard a voice:

““So this customer says to me, ‘I got a tip for you. Don’t eat yellow snow!’”

I hear Wally’s laugh morph into a cough.  I turn to see a cigarette dangling from a smile.

““Jeez ,Wally don’t scare me like that.”

““Afraid you gonna fall off the ledge and toboggan down with your willy out?”

““Some things never change.”

We shared some silence. He offered me a smoke.

““You ever miss this place?” Wally asked me.

““Sure all the time. It’s a good place. A beautiful place.”

““Then why did you leave?”

““Just to see what other places are like, I guess. Just to see.”

““If you don’t leave home, you ain’t got no home to come home to, right?”

““Something like that, Wally. Something like that.”

““Well, I better get back in there and stoke the fire. You guys want another round?”

““Sure set one up. Hey, Wally. Can I ask you something?”

““Sure, but I don’t know if I got any answers.”

““You know me pretty well. Huh? I mean we were neighbors and classmates for what twelve, fifteen years? You know me, right.”

““Yeah I know you.”

““Would you say I was ruthless?”

Wally threw his cigarette butt into the white snow. He looked at me then rubbed his hands together and blew on them to keep them warm.

““Ruthless, naw, but an opportunist? For sure.”

““What do you mean? “

““You do what you say you will and you get what you want.”

““I’ll take that as a compliment, Walt.”

““Take it any way you can get it, but my ass is freezing, back to the grindstone. Hasta luego, hermano.”

He swung the glass door open and began stamping his boots to get the snow off. I watched him go behind the bar. A carload of overly-made up high school girls came in the front door. I watched Wally crack a joke through the glass window and could hear their laughter. He started taking their orders.

I went back to the fire and my old friends, finally realizing why I never enjoyed team sports.

Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting
Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).