It didn’t help that he felt abandoned by everyone. He couldn’t see past the inner turmoil the stirred in his soul constantly. It felt like something was wrong with him, but he couldn’t put his finger on it, nor could he find a way to medicate it. Sleep seemed to take hours to overtake him, because he kept thinking of things he needed to remember and things he needed to forget. When he slept, he was thrown into a surreal dream world that kept him stressed throughout the night and spat him out in the morning to wake up groggy and sleepier than before. He wondered if it would ever end. He wondered if there was any hope. One calm summer day, hope walked into his life.
He put the bag of wood screws, hinges, and wood stain on the counter.
Kevin looked up. The cashier was staring at him. “Yes? Do I know you?”
“Bro, it’s me, Michael!”
“Michael Kilmer? I haven’t seen you since, I don’t know, you graduated?”
“Hey, don’t forget that one time at Steak & Shake five years ago!”
“Oh yeah, how could I forget that 2am fries run?” They both laughed. Kevin asked, “So what are you doing in this little hardware store? When did you move back in town?”
“Well, I was managing one of those big supermarkets in Minneapolis, and it was going great, but I just felt like it wasn’t my thing. Then I heard that Joe was selling this place, so I bought it.”
“You just bought a store? What did you just put it on your credit card along with a couple DVDs and some fish sticks?”
“Nah, I paid for the fish sticks in cash.” Michael quickly responded, “But no, I got a loan, sold the house, and now I’m living in an apartment over on Cypress.”
“And you own Joe’s Hardware.”
“Yeah, that too. I’m loving it, it’s exactly where I was meant to be. It just feels so right.”
“If only I could find something like that.”
“What have you been up to? I thought you were going to be a teacher by now.”
“Yeah,” he exhaled slowly, “that fell through. I just. I don’t know.”
A concerned look crossed Michael’s face. “Kevin, is everything okay?”
“Life is just kinda hard right now. I don’t really want to talk about it.”
“I gotcha. Well, I think we need to hang out sometime. Maybe over a couple plates of eggplant Parmesan?”
“Oh sure, you know how much I love that stuff!”
“Bro, you hate it.”
“Well, have you tried that new burger place over on Hill Street?”
“Not yet, when are you thinking of going?”
“I could do 11am tomorrow.”
“So could I.”
“Great, I’ll see you then?”
“Yep.” The two men shook hands. “Have a good day.”
“You too, Kevin. It was good to see you.” Kevin walked out to his aging compact car, thinking about how in high school, when he, the sophomore that had just moved from Georgia, became friends with the senior who still shot spitballs at his crushes. The senior who protected him, told him of Greely High School’s long and hero-filled history, talked several teachers out of giving Kevin detentions, got Kevin several other detentions by framing him for his own shenanigans, and was the reason Kevin survived that year of school. He could still remember looking for a blond mop of hair bobbing around the hallways, Michael’s hazel eyes lighting up at new ideas to make cafeteria food better, and seeing his lanky form draped over Mrs. Jackson’s podium in an effort to show how a slug crawls over obstacles. After Michael graduated, school wasn’t the same. Kevin sat with new people at lunch, earned his own grades and detentions, and stopped going to football games since there was no one to poke fun at their own team with. That was close to 7 years ago. Last he had heard, Michael was in college and dating a cheerleader, but he wasn’t sure if Michael had been sober that night in Steak & Shake when they happened to see each other almost five years ago.
Kevin had been heading home from a concert, and Michael, well, Kevin didn’t know why Michael was there, but noticed he ordered six orders of fries for himself.
“Hey man, how are you doing” Michael said, seeming to slightly recognize Kevin.
“I’m doing good. How have you been, Michael?”
“Bro, it is you! Oh man. Kev-man!”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Yep, it really is you,” Michael laughed, “it’s been so long, bro.”
“Yeah it has. What are you up to these days?”
“Oh you know, college, ladies, and parties. Not really in that order.”
“Oh cool. I–”
“Yeah man, well hey, it was good to see you. I gotta go. Gotta keep my cheerleader believing I work and stuff.”
“Uh, okay. I’ll see you later?”
“Maybe, man.” And with that, Michael had left. How did he go from that to the man Kevin had seen today? Kevin wanted whatever Michael had found, and he needed it soon.
The next morning, Kevin stayed in bed for as long as he could let himself, which was only until 8am. Years of early morning work had spoiled his ability to sleep in long ago. It was the first of three days off he had that week and he was determined to relax. He wondered into the kitchen of his cramped apartment, and rustled up some comfort breakfast food: pancakes, bacon, eggs, the works. He recalled the plans for burgers, but didn’t know if he actually wanted to go. It was a chance to catch up with an old friend, but he felt apprehensive about letting another person get to know him. It seemed like people were interested in knowing him, but only at first. After a while, the friendship would cool to more of an acquaintance. The only explanation that seemed realistic to Kevin was that he was just too much for people. He felt like he was unique to the point of awkward weirdness to people. He didn’t want to be someone he wasn’t, but he knew to make friends he had to act at least slightly normal, but once he felt like someone was actually a friend, he let his guard down, hoping they’d still want to hang out with him. It hadn’t really worked out so far. Besides Michael, but that was in high school, what if they were both so different now that it was hopeless? But then again, he had heard the burger joint was delicious. He made up his mind right then; he would go, if only for a burger.
As Kevin pulled open the door of We Love Burgers!, he saw Michael was already there, waiting. Michael slapped Kevin’s bicep, “Hey man, you made it!”
“It’s burgers, why wouldn’t I?”
“That’s a valid argument. Why wouldn’t Kevin Lydell eat a burger? Besides death or it having a spider on it.”
“I don’t know.”
“Me neither!” It felt like old times, and Kevin could feel himself slipping into a high school persona as an unconscious effort to revive the old camaraderie.
“But yeah, Kevin, I’m glad you’re here, I want to hear what you’ve been up to.” There went the old times. Kevin smiled and said, “Yeah, man.” Because that’s all he could think to say. “Yeah, man.” What a dork, Kevin. That has to be what Michael’s thinking. Man, get it together!
They sat at their booth, eating some of the best burgers Kevin had ever had. “So Kevin,” Michael queried, “how was the rest of high school?”
“Eh, it was alright. I graduated and I was happy, you know?”
“Yeah, I know that feeling. What did you do afterward?”
“Well.” Kevin formulated his answer quickly, “I started going to community college because my scholarship was through them, but then I lost it. I just didn’t pay attention to the fine print, and my grades slipped just a little too far. I working at the feed mill then, and couldn’t afford to go on in college, so I dropped out.”
“Man, that’s rough. How did your dad take that?”
“I think he’s still mad at me, but I don’t care, it’s my life, not his, I ruined.”
“So what did you do after that?”
“Well, I found a job with a little start up in town. We made computers for kids, but somehow our patents got into Microsoft’s hands and they ran with it. We couldn’t fight them in court because they’re shady and filthy rich bastards, so that place went belly up about three years ago. Then I bounced around odd jobs until I got the one I have now.”
“Wal-Mart.” Kevin said with more than a little embarrassment.
“For real? Does it pay okay?”
“It pays the bills, but not much else. I’m in a program to be a manager, so we’ll see what happens.”
“Well that sounds like a plan. What do you do on your off time these days?”
“I like to go kayaking down on the river, but otherwise I don’t do much. Maybe some TV and stuff.”
“Well Kevin, it sounds to me like you’ve grown up okay. You have a steady job, you get outside some, and you live by your family. That’s better than I did for quite a while. I thought I could find myself out there somewhere. Somewhere far away, but really I found out how little faking it makes me happy. I had a crazy income, the ladies loved me for it, and I had all this stuff, but I still felt empty. I still felt like I was a boy trying to act like a man.” Something about that struck Kevin. Michael had just put words to his feelings. Feeling uncomfortable, he looked at his watch, but Michael kept going, “I met this guy, Josh, and he told me how to fix it. And let me tell you, he wasn’t lying.”
“What did you do?”
“I forgave my dad, and I started countering all the lies I believed about myself with truth.”
“Forgave him of what?”
“Everything, man. And it wasn’t easy. I hated him, for sure, but I got help, and I’m so glad I did.”
“Are you two friends now or something?”
“Nah, he’s lives on the East Coast, so I don’t seem him at all, but I don’t hate him, that’s the point. Hate and bitterness does nothing but hurt you and make you hurt others whether you intend to or not.”
“Who helped you?”
“Josh. He’s really good at seeing through people and figuring out what they really want. He saw that I really wanted to stop hating my father, and he helped me stop. Then he helped figure out what lies I was believing about myself, and he told me the truth. I feel so free from so much crap, man, it’s awesome.”
“That sounds awesome.”
“It’s all about recognizing how different situations and events from when you were growing up made you feel, and what you felt they said about you. Generally, it’s lies. And then you recognize it as such and you tell it off with truth.”
“That sounds weird.”
“But it’s effective. I should introduce you to Josh sometime.”
“Yeah, sure.” Kevin knew Michael recognized that he didn’t mean it.
“Well man, it’s been real, but I gotta scat. The wife is waiting for me to get back to the store.”
“I didn’t tell you about her? Man! I feel like a terrible husband, especially since I’m married to someone like Kelly. She’s the best thing since sliced water!”
“That’s not a thing!”
“Of course it is! Well, I’ll introduce you to her sometime. Maybe we’ll have you over for dinner sometime. She makes an amazing meatloaf.”
“Yeah man, hit me up.”
“Okay, I’ll see you later.”
Michael didn’t make it to the store that day. He was t-boned by an overloaded tractor-trailer minutes after leaving the burger joint. I lost a good friend that day, but I gained several more because of him. I met Kelly, and she introduced me to Josh. Josh is a better friend than Michael let on. In the months since, I have found myself closer to Josh than Michael and I ever were, and he’s helped me find out the truth about me. I no longer feel a cloud over me when I wake up. I feel free. All that Michael told me about truth, well, it’s true. I’m glad I ran into Michael that day. It’s sad that he was gone so quickly, but he certainly made an impact on my life, and I will never forget him.