Sunday 6 November 2022

November by Jim Bates, hot chocolate

We got our booster shots earlier this month. Yea! And Andy got his first Covid shot. Double, yea! But people are still dying, and the pandemic is still raging on.

            Amber, who was a vehement non-mask-wearing anti-vaxxer when we’d first met her in the early part of the year, has become a huge advocate of following “The Science.” It’s good to see.

            “I just don't get it,” she said recently when she and Arnie and Linn and Jack and Meg and I were doing something we’d never done before – having a meal together in a restaurant. Yeah, in a restaurant.

I guess I should explain.

The place is called Margie’s. Margie is an old hippie who went to college at Bemidji State back in the 60s and fell in love with a local woodworker. So she stayed. Born and raised in Atlanta, she also fell in love with the Northwoods and the pretty college town situated on the shore of Lake Bemidji. She loved to cook and opened a restaurant in an old brick building downtown and slowly built a loyal clientele of customers who liked her hearty food, cooked with an eye for detail and a touch of whimsy. Her sweet potato fries are still a huge local favorite. And she still works there, as do her two daughters and two sons.

We three couples had decided to treat ourselves to a meal out just for the fun of it. Meg had made reservations we’d all driven up Saturday afternoon in mid-November. We were now chatting, sitting around a scarred, wooden table with native American flute music playing through speakers hung in the corners. The place had an aroma of herbs and grains and natural ingredients that was mouth-watering. It was like stepping back in time.

            It was also one of the few places around that required masks for its employees and customers. At least until we were seated. That was a big reason why we’d made the choice. That and the chance to get out and sample some different food other than our own cooking. That didn’t hurt either.

We all leaned in as Amber continued talking, “It’s obvious that without the vaccine your chances of dying are like ten times greater. Plus…” she pointed to our four kids who were ignoring us and playing a game of Candy Land on the floor in a specially designated Kids Section of the restaurant. “What about them?” she asked, rhetorically.

            “I know,” Linn added. She, like Amber, had been on the anti-mask, anti-vaccine bandwagon until she and Meg had talked. Now, she was all about being safe and doing what could be done to keep the kids safe. She, too, looked at the four kids. “It just makes sense.” She then turned to her husband. “Right, Jack?”

            Jack nodded and sipped on his glass of water. Normally extremely talkative if it was just me and him, he took a back seat whenever we six adults were together. So did Arnie, Amber’s husband, both of them being content to let the conversation flow around them. “Absolutely,” he said. He looked at Arnie. “Right?”

            Arnie nodded. “Right.” Then he bit into his black bean burger. “Oh, man. This is the best,” he said, chewing ecstatically. Then he looked at Amber. “Almost as good as yours.” He winked at her.

            Amber playfully slugged him in the arm. Three months pregnant, she was starting to show. “You better believe it.”

            We all laughed.

            Meg interjected. “Down at Lee’s school they wear masks all the time. Not all the parents like it, but they comply for the good of the kids. No one wants to go back to distance learning if they can help it. That was a disaster.”

            I jumped in. “Most of the parents see the value of having their kids with other kids. That socialization is really important. Studies show it.”

            Linn asked, “What about the parents who don’t comply?”

            “That’s up to them,” I said, holding off on shoveling some sweet potato hash into my mouth. “They know the rules.” I shoveled it in and chewed, like Arnie, ecstatically. We were loving having some different food for a change.

            Meg added. “That’s what I like about the school district down there. They set the rules and enforce them. It’s not about the politics of masking and vaccinating, it’s about what’s doing what’s best for the kids.” She took a bit of her soybean burger and chewed, having made her point.

             “Here! Here!” Jack finally spoke up and raised his glass of water. “I’ll drink to that.” We all laughed and raised our water glasses and toasted with him.

            The meal went on like that, good friends just chatting. The kids wandered over and munched on some of what their parents were having, plus a big plateful of onion rings and one of sweet potato fries. It was a fun time.

            Before we ordered dessert, I looked at Meg. She smiled at me and then turned to our friends. “Okay, while we’re all together, Lee and I have something we’d like to say to you all.” I looked at Jack. He returned the look, thinking back, I’m sure to our conversation the month before when we were cutting wood. About whether or not Meg and I would stay up north or move back to the city at the end of December.

            Meg continued. “You know that our lease is up next month.”

            Linn interrupted. “So, have you decided what you’re going to do?”
            Meg, who never blushes, blushed, turning beet red. “Well…”

            Amber excitedly jumped in. “What? Meg. What are you going to do?”

Meg turned to me. “Lee, you tell them.”
            I looked at Jack and Arnie. They were both grinning at me like they knew. No need to beat around the bush with them. I grinned back at them and spread my arms wide, encompassing the entire table. “We’re staying.”

Just as the words came out of my mouth, I had a horrible thought: what if they aren’t happy that we’re staying? Meg and I had talked about it a lot, especially during the last month, about what we wanted to do. When we decided to stay, sell our house in Minneapolis and move to Esker permanently, we thought our friends would be happy for us. But…what if they weren’t?

I needn’t have worried. As soon as I spoke the words, ‘We’re staying’ their cheers told me otherwise. They were happy. Ecstatic, actually. For us and for themselves. It was a great feeling.

For Meg and me, it all came down to this: Friendship. Sure, we’d first moved up north to get away from the pandemic. We figured if we moved to a less populated place, the chances were minimized of us getting Covid and getting sick, especially our kids. We masked up and social distanced in the city. What was the difference in doing that in the little town of Esker? Frankly, not much. In fact, in many ways, it was worse. Even though there were fewer people up north, those fewer people were independent-minded and didn’t like people or the government telling them what to do. Like Jack and Linn and Arnie and Amber. But we’d become friends because of our kids and, because of their kids, Meg was able to convince them that the scientific evidence for the best way to deal with Covid was sound. They turned around in their thinking and the more time we spent with them the better friends we became.

So, when it came time to consider going back to Minneapolis next year at the beginning of 2022 it all boiled down to this: did we want to live our friends behind?

Meg and Linn and Amber were very close. Meg took care of Sam and Willow five days a week while their mothers worked at their jobs. Jack and Arnie and I spent a lot of time together and though I wasn’t as close to them as Meg and Linn and Amber, we still got along well and enjoyed each other’s company. I was a loner by nature but was becoming less so the more time I spend with the two of them.

So, yes, that’s what it came down to - leave our friends behind and move back to Minneapolis, or stay in Esker and keep building our new life in Northern Minnesota.

As Meg put it, “When all is said and done, the pandemic eventually will go away. Friendships, though, can be forever.”

Which is what I said to the table that Saturday afternoon.

Jack laughed. “That’s kind of poetic, Lee.”

I pointed to Meg. “It’s Meg’s line.”

Jack said, giving me a hard time. “I thought so.”

Arnie leaned over and shook my hand. An unexpected, by nevertheless, much appreciated gesture. “That’s great news, Lee. I’m glad.”
            I don’t know why, but knowing Jack and Arnie, two guys I admired greatly, were glad about our decision, really made me happy. I looked at Meg. She wiped a tear from her eye just before both Linn and Amber stood up and hugged her.

Jack shook my hand like Arnie had and said, “We’ll make a woodman out of you yet.”

All three of us laughed. It was a good feeling.

About the author  

Jim lives in a small town in Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in nearly four hundred online and print publications. His collection of short stories “Resilience” was published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing. Additional stories can be found on his blog:

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