The Meeting of the Friends
of the Forlorn Society

by Gerry Mandel


“I used to sit out on my back porch in summer, when I was little...”

“You was never little, Jimbo,” a voice offered from the darkness. The men laughed, a mix of short snorts, long guffaws, shrill giggles.

Jim ignored them. “I’d listen to the night sounds, the katydids, the owls. Far off in the distance I could hear the old steam locomotive huffing and puffing its way up the incline, pulling that long load of bituminous. Then the engineer would let loose a mighty blast on...”

“C’mon, Jim,” said Wallace. “You’re not gonna tell train stories all night, are ya?”

“...or get into imitatin’ those whistles?” said Arnie.

“Woo-woo-woo,” wailed someone else and they laughed.

Jim told the same stories over and over, stopped for laughter at the same spots. Often he’d imitate an owl — a thin, croaky “hoo-hoo” — or a coyote howling and everyone would join in, sounding like a pack of cartoon dogs. But train whistles were his favorite. He loved these times, though he knew tonight would be difficult.

“Hey, Jim. Let us hear that Southern Railway 1005,” offered Little Mac, running his fingers through his six remaining strands of hair.

“Don’t give him no ideas,” said Skeeter, who tried to spit between his teeth and ended up with it running down his chin.

Jim lit up a half-smoked cigar, the wooden match revealing his plump face and plaid eye-patch over his left eye. Truth be told, there never was a pirate as fat as Jim. Which is why he sat on a tree stump instead of a folding chair.

This was the weekly meeting of the Friends of the Forlorn Society, a group of well-meaning men who originally banded together to help widows and widowers from falling into the doldrums. But all the old folks in town had died, most of them forlorn and in the doldrums. Now the Friends had nothing better to do than sit around, tell lies and sip bourbon until the midnight train had passed.

Jim looked at the men with his good eye. Would they still be friends after he was gone? Did they care he was going to live with his brother in Phoenix, more than 1500 miles west? Tomorrow at 7:00 a.m., James McCullum Priddith would board the Union Pacific and leave this wooded, grass-covered paradise he had called home for all of his sixty-two years.

A train rumbled in the distance and faded behind the hills. Two men, reminded by the cigar of the pleasures of tobacco, lit up, while the others sipped from old coffee cups that hadn’t seen coffee in years. The only sounds now were night creatures and a crackling fire that kept the chill at bay.

Finally Arnie spoke, softly. “You sure you wanna leave all this?”

“No, I’m not sure,” said Jim, “’cept my brother needs me.”

“Won’t be the same without you.” Crawdaddy rubbed his long fingers over his Adams apple.

“Now let’s not get all maudlin on me, you hear? I like you fellas, you know that, and I’m gonna miss you... well, all of you ’cept Skeeter over there.” Everyone laughed. “Fact is, the midnight train’s done come and gone, and I better be turnin’ in. Got an early start tomorrow.”

Jim reached deep into his jeans pocket and pulled out a silver cell phone. He flipped it open, hit speed dial #1, “You can come pick me up now.” He replaced the phone. “It ain’t the end of the world, fellas. You all know that, right?” He looked around at the men, stopped on a short, skinny man hunched out at the edge.

“JoJo, you been mighty quiet all night. What you done?”

The man called JoJo averted Jim’s eye. “Nothin’.”

“Bull,” spit out Jim. “You done sold it all. Am I right?”

The men all turned to look at JoJo, who kept his gaze on the ground. “Yeah. I sold it. Had to. Darlene wants a condo where it’s warm.”

“And where’d that be?” sneered Little Mac. “My-ahhh-meee?”

Laughter.

“St. Bart’s maybe,” said JoJo quietly. “Or St. Martin. One of them saints. I forget which.”

“To each his own,” said Jim. “The rest of you fellas, mind what I told you. Hold it till I tell you to sell.” He looked past the men as headlights swept across them. “Time to go.”

A black limo pulled up alongside the group. A chauffeur — cap and all — got out and opened the passenger door. “Evening, Mr. Priddith.”

“Be right there, Lucius.” Jim hoisted his large frame from the stump, stepped up to each man and shook their hands, remembering each face, each hand. Then he stepped into the center. “Gentlemen, the benediction.”

The men remained standing, their heads bowed. Even JoJo.

“Blessed grand uncle known as Sam, we thank thee for thy bounty and continued rise in value. We beseech thee for continued splits and dividends and vow to always shop at your Mart. We end with those holiest of words: ‘Low prices, every day.’ Amen.”

The men responded in unison, “Amen.”

“Now, gentlemen, one last time. The lonesome call of the 1916 Baldwin.” He cupped his chubby hands around his mouth and let out a long, low whistle that climbed in pitch and intensity until the men cheered and applauded.

“Thank you, gentlemen.” Jim reluctantly climbed into the limo, aided by the chauffeur, and the long black machine eased into the darkness.

Arnie pulled out his cell phone. “We’re ready.”

Moments later, a extra-long stretch Mercedes limo purred from the night and stopped. The men finished what was left in their coffee cups, put them in their pockets. Crawdaddy picked up the bucket of water and doused the fire. The sound of crickets and katydids was joined by the sound of train whistles and laughter from the limo as it rolled towards the distant hills.


Copyright © 2008 by Gerry Mandel

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