Old Acquaintance

It’s been a long, long time since we three got together to drink beer. Each of us says that he doesn’t drink much anymore, but we’d brought enough beer to keep us going for a while. We’ve done some damage. I have my doubts we’ll be taking anything home.

Ricky says that he’s still very much into ceramics. At first, he’d bought premade kilns, both gas and electric, Skutts, Paragons, and Amacos. But after his last one died, he decided to build his own gas-fired kiln. He made it out of multi-layered fire brick, several bricks thick, and it’s large enough, he says, so that we could be cremated in it.

Ricky says he quit his job at the Navy PX once he realized he could earn enough money selling his work at craft fairs.

“Now they have ‘em all year round,” he says. “It used to be that they’d only happen at Christmas, but that’s not the case anymore. Heck, if I could produce enough, I’d make way more than I did at my day job. But I don’t want to be that intense about it. I like my work to be more like play. Casual. Restful. Ceramics has always been that way for me.”

Bobby, who also used to be into ceramics, does have a 9 to 5 job working for Hawaiian Air. As a senior auditor there, he says, he’s in a groove so deep that he can practically do his job in his sleep. What he enjoys, and his wife does too, is the travel benefits.

“We’ve seen so much of the world. Me even more than Nani,” he says. “And when I retire, I’m going to see the rest of it, whether she wants to or not. She can stay home. Whatever. I don’t think I’m going to be home much at all. You gotta travel while you can still walk. I’ve seen so many people trying to tour with canes, and walkers, and wheelchairs. It’s ridiculous. Especially when you’re in an underdeveloped area. When a place has no sidewalks, how you gonna get around?”

I also was a ceramics fiend when I was young. My folks bought me a Paragon kiln for my graduation from high school. I already knew I was going to major in art when I started at the University of Hawai‘i. Taking the intro art courses, I met a lot of guys who’d dreamed about an art major for most of their teen years or from even younger days. Ricky and Bobby are two people I met in those early classes, and we were all dedicated to the idea that ceramics would be our lives. They were both into the utilitarian side with plates, and mugs, and that kind of thing, but I was more fascinated by ceramic sculpture.

And so we’d all forged ahead. Other considerations, however, other experiences happened in those college years. Bobby found a new calling in accounting, and I ended up majoring in English. From art to English doesn’t seem too far a journey, but I was always curious how someone in art could be drawn away into the College of Business. I’d never asked, him, so now I did.

“Dude,” Bobby says, “it’s the easiest jump in the world. I fell in love with a business major.”

Nani, Bobby’s wife, majored in accounting as well, but she ended up working as a buyer, first for Liberty House, and then for Macy’s when they bought Liberty House out.

“Right, right,” says Ricky. “That’s pretty obvious, Lanning. You’re a writer. How come the romantic in you didn’t see that right away.”

“Huh, yeah, I should have guessed it,” I say. “But I never figured it was that straightforward.”

“You know, Lanning, I always wondered how you ended up in English,” Bobby says.

“I had a couple of great professors.”

“Better than your art teachers?” Ricky asks.

“Well, maybe, I guess. I mean my favorite art teacher was my high school art teacher, Shige Yamada. The UH ones, well, they were good. But the English profs I had at UH, some of them truly shaped the person I am today.”

“Funny how it’s true,” says Bobby, “that good profs can make or break a course. I have to tell you that not too many of them in my classes lit my fire. If it weren’t for Nani pushing me, I don’t know if I’d have stuck with it. I canna tell you how many times I wanted to throw my business law textbook out the window. And classes like calc and stats drove me nuts.”

“How is it that we even still stick together?” Ricky asks, laughing.

There’s a beer-sipping silence all around.

Finally, I say, “You know, it’s not really like we do stick together. I mean how often do we really see each other anymore?”

Both Bobby and Ricky give me long looks. I don’t know if they agree, or if they resent somehow what I said.

“You know, you’re right,” Bobby says. “Even from the time you and me moved on to other majors, we haven’t really hung out too much. If I hadn’t run into Ricky at that pop-up craft fair at Ala Moana Center, I don’t know when the next time would’ve been.”

“Probably one of our funerals,” says Ricky, smiling. “Eh, the main thing is we decided to do it and you gave Lanning a call.”

I’m relieved they take what I said in stride, aren’t phased by the fact that we’re not close friends anymore. When I think about it, we’re more just acquaintances these days.

“Hey, you know what?” says Bobby. “I gotta hit it.” He stands up. “Lanning, good to see you, man.”

Maybe he did resent what I said. I stand and shake his hand. All of a sudden I get the feeling I might not see him again. Especially since he’s about to retire. He’ll be seeing the rest of the world. He may not ever see Nani much anymore either, like he says, if she doesn’t want to travel as much as he does.

He turns to Ricky. “Thanks for hosting, brah. I’ll be looking for you at the craft fairs. Nani likes to go sometimes.”

Ricky and I watch him go.

“I guess I’d better be headed out too,” I say, reaching for Ricky’s hand. “I hope the next time we see each other won’t be too long.” I say it, but I wonder.

“Right, yeah,” Ricky says. “Hey, I can email you a list of the fairs, the dates. Maybe I’ll see you at one of them.”

“Great,” I say, although I know I’ve never been to a craft fair in my life and would rather avoid them until I do die. “Yes, please send me that.”

Ricky follows me to the gate. We pass his kiln. It’s a monster.

“Mind if I stick my head inside your kiln?” I ask.

“Sure, check it out.”

I find I actually can almost walk inside. “Wow, this is amazing, Ricky.”

“Like I said, let me know if you want to be cremated in it. For you, it’ll be free.”

We both laugh.

As he closes the gate behind me, I wonder if maybe I did offend them by saying what I said. Ricky, I realize, wouldn’t have my email address. And if he doesn’t have my phone number, oh well, at least Bobby does.

It’s sad, but I have a feeling that we may very well not see each other again. When was the last time? I search my fading memory, but the beer gets in the way.

Yeah, maybe we might not. Maybe not even at each other’s funerals.

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