THIRTY YEARS EARLIER…
The basement research lab always stunk. No matter how hard the janitors washed the walls and floors, no matter how many chemicals lined the shelves, nothing could quite cover that musty, underground odor. It had always been Charlie’s least favorite part of his job at Keuka College. Today, however, nothing could dampen his mood. He and Harley were working in the lab together, finishing up the data gathering process for their upcoming presentation on freshwater mollusk reproductive habits. More importantly, they had plans to go out afterwards.
The colleagues had been working for about three hours when Harley decided to finally take a seat at the lab counter. He put his herculean elbows on the desk, accidentally crushing a glass slide. He recoiled as the broken glass fell from his elbow and twinkled to the floor.
“Dammit Charlie, you ever figure we just snatch up all these mussel samples and take ‘em back home to the kitchen? I’d rather stir ‘em up in some lemon and garlic and call it a day.”
Charlie didn’t look up from his microscope. “Help yourself, their tissues are probably bursting with pollutants and waste. I’d love to see you try to choke one down.” He was about to remind Harley to sweep up his mess of glass when the telephone rang. Charlie finally looked up. The lab phone never rang. The duo exchanged confused glances before Charlie walked to the wall mounted phone and picked up.
“Hello, you’ve got Richard Charles Darling.”
Harley watched Charlie’s expression change as the voice on the other line spoke. Maybe it was just Charlie’s fear of phone calls, he had always been awkward at those. As the conversation continued, however, it became more and more apparent that the call was a serious one.
“Yes,” Charlie seemed to struggle getting the simple word out. “Yes, I can start any time after May... Yes… Sounds good. Thank you much sir.”
He had barely placed the phone back on the hook when Harley asked, “So what was that all about?”
Charlie took a deep breath. “That was the Department of Defense. US Navy. I can’t believe they called me back.” He began to fill with an electric energy that filled the room. “They want to recruit me, they’ve seen our research, they want to put me to work! The fucking Pentagon!”
“Whoa, whoa,” Harley slowed his friend down, as usual. “What in the world could they want from you? I thought our work was, I don’t know…not particularly politically invasive.”
Charlie’s energy was only growing. “Top secret, Har, they wouldn’t even tell me. But I can’t pass this up! This is amazing! This is insanity! Hey I bet if I put in a word they would get interested in you too, all our work has been collaborative, we could do this together! Finally! We’ll get out of this stupid, stinky basement—”
Harley bit the inside of his cheek. “You know I can’t do that. I’m working on my tenure, I’m almost there. My family is here...” Charlie’s face fell, and Harley couldn’t quite hide the disappointment in his voice. “My future is at this school, you know? My future is on Keuka Lake.”
He thought both of their futures would have been on Keuka Lake. After all, they’d been thick as thieves ever since their childhood days of fishing from neighboring docks. Charlie was his first roommate, his first study partner, hell, they’d even been inseparable through grad school. Somehow, Harley had never pictured they’d go their separate ways, but here came reality express-delivered in a phone call.
They went out that night, and the beer and music shifted the focus just enough for Harley to enjoy himself. Their favorite local band had finally come out of hiatus, and the sounds of steel drums and saxophones were punctuated by drunken hoots and hollers. The bar was packed, and the boys recounted memory after nostalgic memory to the taste of Coors Light.
“I’ll never forget the time you told Candace you could water ski, back in tenth grade” Harley belched. “You always had the biggest dumb crush on her. Man, I’ll never regret cranking that steering wheel so fast and watching your skinny ass fly thirty feet across the water!” Charlie shot beer out of his nose and choked on squealing laughter.
“I remember bobbing back up to surface and thinking ‘where the hell did those goddamn skis go?’”
“I swear one of ‘em almost hit Candace!”
They cackled and heckled each other for hours, before Charlie got up to hunt down any poor girl who could keep up with his dance moves. Harley shouted for encore after encore, spilling the contents of his entire wallet to tip the band. Charlie got behind the mic and sang “Tiny Dancer”, stumbling over every word. It was the last time they ever took on the town together, it was one of the last times Harley ever saw Charlie bubbly and cheerful.
It was the memory that brought a tear to his eye, as he kicked his old friend out of the bar.