back to the Black Table

 My best friend in the world in high school was Tim. We grew up together in Mattoon. We were the two “gifted” kids who confused our teachers by reading Tom Wolfe, by quoting Spike Lee, by listening to Bob Dylan. Tim was the son of a local lawyer (unfortunately, Mattoon has not been able to avoid the infestation of lawyers) and had Smart Kid stamped on him pretty much from birth. His looks didn’t help him out much either; he had that weird helmet hair that was somewhat popular in the early stone age, dark black and movable only when he walked briskly, hopping in a doofy way that earned him the nickname “Tigger.” He had a huge nose, absurdly out-of-place; it wasn’t that the nose itself was large, actually, just that it was so disproportionate to the rest of his face. He looked almost exactly like the nerdy Paul from The Wonder Years, minus the glasses. He resembled him so much, in fact, that when Tim moved to Los Angeles years later, Fred Savage himself ran into him at a party and said, “You look like Paul from my show.” I was most impressed Tim didn’t put the dude through the wall.

I have to admit, I was one of the people who made fun of Tim in junior high. He begged for it; he was smarter than the rest of us, never played in any of the local baseball leagues, and had come to us from the local Catholic school. (In Mattoon, a Baptist/Southern Methodist town if there ever was one, Catholics are seen the same way Scientologists are seen everywhere else; purveyors of a weird philosophy none of us understood, all wearing otherworldly costumes and making strange hand movements. When my mother decided to convert to Catholicism a few years ago, her explanation speech to her best friend started with, “OK, now, before you ask, no, the Catholic Church is not a cult.”)

He was weird, scary … we mocked him at every opportunity. Nevertheless, being in all the “advanced” classes myself, Tim and I were forced to spend plenty of time together, and as we entered our junior year of high school, I realized that he and I had a lot more in common than being unable to hit a curve ball.

We both loved the Cardinals. We both were fascinated by a young singer/songwriter named Kurt Cobain who seemed to speak for us in a way we couldn’t understand but felt deeply. We both read like motherfuckers, anything that was put in front of us. We both spent almost every Friday night renting movies, getting caught up on all the great ones we missed when we were, say, teething. We both loved our English classes, where we could just write shit that we found funny and get a grade for it. We both were oddly entranced and repulsed by the city we found ourselves in. And we both had a crush on Melanie.

Melanie was another “gifted” student, a bookish but flirty, slightly overweight but still attractive girl who somehow entered our social circle. I rarely dated, only a couple girls from back when I was in the church youth group, but Tim (as far as I knew) had never gone out with a girl. Tim, 10 months older than me though still a junior, had his drivers license, and occasionally the three of us would cart around town before ending up at Godfather’s Pizza and complaining about Mrs. Wheeler’s term papers.

One day, in gym class (MHS had one of those dreadful gym classes where you had to wear nasty yellow uniforms with your name on the back; we looked like giant Tweety turds), I decided that I’d dated enough younger girls who weren’t very smart (three; that was a lot!) and looked at Melanie. She wasn’t all that attractive, kinda, not really, but I could make do, because she was funny and took really good notes in Trig. I thought I might just ask her out.

Tim, who had become the guy I hung out with the most, if not my best friend just yet, seemed like the type of person who could process this information well and spit out perfectly complimentary advice. While running laps, I told him I was thinking of calling Melanie that night and seeing if she wanted to go to a movie on Friday.

“You’re calling her tonight? What time?”

What time? Seemed like an odd question to ask. No matter. “Oh, probably about 5:30.”

“Oh. Good luck.”

Went home that night, ate dinner (Polish sausage and french fries, my favorite) and, nervous, dialed up Melanie. Made small talk for a while, how about that History test, yikes, then popped the question.

“Listen, Melanie, what are you doing Friday night? Thought you might want to go see a movie with me. Together. As a date.”

“Um, I can’t. I’m, uh, busy.”

“Oh. Um, OK.”

“I’m going out with another guy.”

Hmm. She’d never mentioned a boyfriend. Being young and not yet fully briefed in the rules of proper courtship, I asked her who.

“You’re not going to like it.”

“Oh, just tell me.”

“Well … it’s Tim. I’m going out with Tim on Friday.”

That sonuvabitch. He asked me what time I was calling so he could call her beforehand. Of all the back-stabbing, two-timing, asshole things. I mean, what a bast — of course, that’ll be good for Tim. He’s never dated anyone, and she’d be perfect for him, now that I think about it. Way to strap on a pair, Tim. It amazed me that I wasn’t the least bit upset; I was just happy for Tim. How did that happen, exactly?

And from then on, Tim and I were best friends. We were pretty much inseparable throughout high school. We started a school newspaper together, drove to prom together, saw the Flaming Lips open for the Stone Temple Pilots together. We found great music, introducing each other to REM and U2 and Matthew Sweet and Public Enemy and Faith No More. We quietly derided the burnouts, the jocks, the cheerleaders, with their Billy Ray Cyrus and their pointless lives and their doomed impending marriages. We founded a high school newspaper, called The Edge, which consisted mostly of rambling strings of colliding, dangling dependent clauses about our lives, about the movies we loved, about the school’s lousy lunch menu, whatever came to mind. We were two halves of the same person, finishing each other’s sentences the way that junior high girls do. To this day, whenever someone who knows one of us and then meets the other one, they inevitably remark, “Wow, you guys are exactly alike. You even have the same mannerisms.” We then explain that he stole them from me, no, he stole them from me.

Tim was the guy with whom, the summer before we left for college, packed a bag and headed to my parents’ home, 20 bucks in hand. We then drove to Craig’s Video and rented every single Woody Allen film. No one had inspired us more than Woody Allen. If we were going to head out into the real world, where there were scary people and new happenings and separation and all that piss and shit, we were going to go down fighting, and we were going to bring Woody with us. We were going to watch every single Woody Allen movie, right in a row, back-to-back. And we did. Friends came by to check in on us, and we were ready and alert the whole while, stuttering and guffawing with fake Brooklyn nebbishy accents all the way. Me, Tim, and Woody.


Mainly, I remember that it was really fucking cold. We were driving around aimlessly in my old shit-brown Ford Escort, after seeing Oliver Stone’s JFK. It stunned me how much the film had affected me. Despite the film’s flaws (hey, who let Sissy Spacek in this movie?), it was made with such passion, such fire, such purpose, I was beyond riveted (I wore my “JFK: Release the Files! Someone had to know!” T-shirt for about a year afterward). I was transformed. I forgot who I was, where I was, what I was doing there. With about 10 minutes left in the film, right before the jury announces it has found Clay Shaw innocent of conspiracy murder charges, the film in the crappy Mattoon Time Theater snapped and the film stopped. The transition from movie land to gum-stained, beaten-up movie theater seat was jolting, neck-breaking. It to this day remains my most vivid memory in a theater. I had been taken to another planet and hadn’t realized it until I was violently brought back. Somehow, the world seemed a lot bigger, even if I didn’t move from my seat.

Tim and I stumbled out of the theater, slipped on the ice outside and tried to collect ourselves. We drove around for hours — in Mattoon, there is nothing to do but drive — then stopped near a cornfield and got out. Tim sat on the hood, and I paced to keep warm, failing.

“I think I want to make movies, Will. I think that’s what I want to do with my life.”

“Yeah, good luck. You’ll be lucky if you don’t end up working as a clerk in your dad’s office. You’re never leaving this town.”

“Sure I am. Why not? Who’s to stop me?”

“Listen, I’m sure we’re not the first kids to sit out here by the lake freezing our asses off, talking about making it big in Hollywood. But look at the odds. Anybody from Mattoon ever make anything big out of their lives?”

“Well let’s be the first.”

And it was decided. We shook on it and everything. We were going to be the examples for all the other kids sitting on their Ford Escorts, frozen to the hood ornament, wondering what the point of it all was. We would show them together. I wasn’t sure how we were going to do it (I figured Tim would make movies, and I would review them for a paper in St. Louis, or Chicago, or somewhere), but we would, dammit. We imagined buying the rapidly eroding Mattoon Time Theater and turning it into an art cinema, a little dash of culture in our desolate place. “Will and Tim’s Art Theater,” it would be imaginatively called. We would be the shining examples of what kids in Mattoon were capable of, if they could just get out. We would give the kids some heroes.

It has been nearly 11 years since that movie came out. The Mattoon Time Theater is now vacated. It was a bar for a while, a video store after that, but then it went under. Mom says they’re talking about tearing it down.


Tim got the letter in February, about three months before graduation. He had been granted acceptance to the University of Southern California, in the filmic writing program, one of the more difficult programs to get into. I know. I made it in too.

I didn’t tell Tim about it until years later, when it was safe. Tim had mentioned that he wanted to write screenplays and knew that USC had been where George Lucas had gone. We had always loved Woody’s Love and Death more than Star Wars, but it was certainly a start. As always, following Tim’s lead, I thought I might just apply too. Didn’t think either one of us would get in, but imagine the two of us taking over Los Angeles together. Not a bad thought.

My letter of acceptance actually arrived a day earlier, but I wasn’t about to mention anything. There was no way in hell I was going to USC, not with a father who was an electrician, not a lawyer, not with an impending crackdown by the electric company on my dad’s union, locking him and his brothers out of work for what turned out to be four months. That cut off the family income right quick. I’d be lucky if I could afford to go to the University of Illinois.

Tim called me immediately. “I got in! I made it!” Hey, congrats, man.

Graduation was incredible. Tim was valedictorian and gave a moving and realistic speech about how high school accomplishments meant nothing if we didn’t build upon it, drawing on Woody’s recent troubles with scandal to illustrate how quickly it can all come crashing down. I sat in the front row, with my mom weeping in the back and my dad struggling to find the right angle for a picture. Afterwards, I hugged Tim and told him it was a great speech. We went one of those dopey hey-kids-please-don’t-drink parties following the festivities, and we played darts and pool and danced and took plenty of photos.

I had been accepted by the University of Illinois, majoring in journalism, just like Roger Ebert, another small-town boy gone good. The summer passed in a breeze, three final months of hanging on, readying for a jump I’d waited 18 years to make.

Tim left in late August. It was an early morning departure, 10 a.m. flight out of St. Louis, so I drove over to his house at 6:30 to see him off. It was surreal … I couldn’t believe this was finally happening. We made small talk for a while, about the Cardinals, about the dorm he was staying in, about the upcoming Nirvana album. And then it was time to go. I hugged him and wished him luck. See you over Christmas, man.

“We’ll own that theater, man. Count on it. Don’t forget.”

I haven’t.


Next Saturday, for the first time, Tim is coming to New York. He’s never been here before. We are going to see a Cardinals game, a couple Broadway shows, hit a couple bars. And then, Monday night, we’re heading to the Carlyle Café. There, every Monday night, Woody Allen and his jazz band plays. I’ve had the opportunity to go see them before, but I never went. I was waiting for Tim. It’ll be Tim, Woody, and I, the way it was in the beginning. It’s the only way it could go down.

We all have our old, old friends, the ones who know where the bodies are buried, the ones who knew us when we had bad dandruff, braces, and unfortunate urges to grow adolescent mustaches. The world has kept spinning, and our lives move on, but the true friends, they’re the ones who have known us all along. Even if we haven’t seen them in a year-and-a-half.

I just can’t wait until Tim gets here. Even if the bastard keeps stealing all my mannerisms.



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