Randy cradles the basketball against his side. He walks like a gunslinger who took a slug to the leg. His foot turns outward away from his body, as if it is attempting to flee the ankle. Despite the humidity, he wears a mountain-man style beard, white and gray peeking out from the chin thistles.
“How are you doing, my friend?” he asks.
The last two words are more than a greeting from Randy; they are a promise. With that title comes a dedicated block of time in his schedule. I’ve never known anyone who relentlessly pursues friendships the way Randy does.
As I ponder this question, he hands me the ball.
“You first,” he says.
I take the basketball and turn its smooth leathery surface in my hands as I try to remember how to do this. It’s been over a decade since I played basketball, and even though we’re only shooting free throws, I obsess about my mechanics.
Two bounces. Flex the knees. Release arm high. Full extension from the tiptoes.
The ball clangs off the back of the rusty rim. The ball arcs high over my head, but Randy retrieves it and hands it back. The next shot circles the rim before dropping into the space where a net should be but isn’t.
Randy keeps count for me.
“Classes are going well,” I say.
I recently abandoned him to go back to graduate school. We had worked at the same company together for three years, but I’ve known Randy for closer to twenty years. I tell him about the papers I must write, the classes I must teach.
He listens. He asks questions.
“I’m proud of you,” he says.
When it is his turn to shoot, a wicked thought crosses my mind.
“You know, I’ve been reading the Gospels.”
Randy’s ears perk up. He loves discussing theology almost as much as he loves talking about television shows, which McDonalds in town has the best fries, and which movie theater has the best popcorn.
“When Jesus distributes the wine and unleavened bread at the Last Supper, he calls it his body and blood, right?”
Randy nods. He lines up his shot.
“A lot of Baptist churches use grape juice for Communion instead. Is that like the plasma of Christ or something?”
The ball misses the rim completely. Randy removes his glasses and pinches the bridge of his nose like he is trying to squeeze my question from his mind like a zit to remove the pressure. Our group calls these reactions “heresy headaches.”
The ball rolls under a row of pine trees.
“Let me get that for you while you ponder your response,” I offer.
After Randy recovers from his headache, our conversation drifts back to jobs and the future. I try to convince him to quit the job and return to school. He offers the same excuses: the pay cut would be disastrous to his finances, his wife needs him, he doesn’t need a degree to help people. But he also makes plans to research programs, maybe take a few classes at the community college.
After 100 shots each, we retreat to his living room to watch television.
Chess and A Dream
Randy and I sit across the table from one another in my dining room. More of his pieces sit along the side of the chessboard than mine. My wife bought me this wooden set for Christmas. I’ve been studying chess puzzles in a book that is twice the size of War and Peace. I write down each of our moves in a notebook so I can study them later.
“I like your board,” he says. “Great idea to write down each game. It would be interesting to see if we keep making the same mistakes.”
Speaking of mistakes, I’m hoping he doesn’t notice the fork I just set up with my knight. He could lose his rook or his queen. I’d rather it was the latter.
He rubs his beard. His hair is thinning on the top, but nowhere near the deforestation on my own. He reaches for the bishop, slides it into position. When it comes to chess, all he sees is his own strategy. He attacks before he defends. At this rate, he might have me in four moves, except for the fork.
I take his queen.
“Oh.” Defeat registers on his face. “I can’t believe I missed that.”
The game ends soon thereafter.
“Another one?” he asks.
As Randy resets the board, he tells me about a dream he recently had.
“I was speaking at this church on 20, just outside Marengo. You know that one on the way to Rockford? I can’t remember the town. Big white building on the corner.”
I know which one he is talking about. I’ve passed it dozens of times. It doesn’t surprise me that he has dreamed about this. In college, we all thought he would become a pastor. We nicknamed him “the mouthpiece of God” for his uncanny ability to pinpoint our issues and offer relevant, Biblical wisdom.
I’ve often thought “mouthpiece” is a misnomer as it conjures a bull horn or something loud and intrusive. His approach would more accurately be described as the “earbud of God.” Randy speaks truths, firmly yet gently, into the ear where the words linger for days, working their magic.
I don’t know why he didn’t go straight into seminary after getting his undergraduate in Biblical Studies, but I’ve often thought he’d make a fine pastor.
“Maybe God is telling you to contact this church and ask if you can preach there.”
A few days later he takes my advice and calls the church. No, they don’t want him to come preach at their church, thank you.
Television and Another Dream
Randy and I just finished watching two episodes of The Muppet Show. The next episode of Castle won’t air for a few more weeks. This is the final season of our favorite show, and we both agree that its time has come to an end. There’s not much left for the show to explore. The relationship between Castle and Beckett feels strained. Some of the plots seem recycled from earlier seasons.
A plastic McDonald’s cup peers out from the wreckage of empty Pepsi cans on Randy’s tray. The ghost of quarter pounders and French fries haunts the air between us. I try not to notice the rows of books on the table next to me, the papers on the dining room table that never seems to get used.
I thread my hands through the front of my hoodie. My fingers meet above my own expanding waistline. The weather is warm enough to play basketball outside, but we aren’t going to do that. We haven’t shot free throws in several years.
“How are you doing, my friend?” he asks.
I decide to tell him about a dream that’s been troubling me lately.
“I’m driving home from work, and I pass through an unfamiliar city,” I explain. “The road splits in two directions, and instead of following it straight, I veer to the right. It doesn’t take long to realize I’m lost. I pass under a bridge, hear the tollway roaring overhead. I turn onto the on ramp. Instead of a highway, I find myself at church, but it doesn’t look like church. It is more of a community center with round tables. Pastor concludes his message with these words, ‘Why spend your time, money, and talents working for Rome? Come over to God’.”
Randy closes his eyes and rubs his chin thistle. A wildfire of white and gray ravage the beard without consuming it. He chooses his words carefully, or perhaps, the words are choosing him.
“God is telling you that you will need to make a choice,” he says. “On the one hand, you will have the safe road, the one you’ve always taken. On the other hand, you will have a decision that will take you into the unknown. I don’t know when it will happen, but one day you will need to make a decision.”
Perhaps this decision is closer than Randy knows. I’ve grown tired of driving 1-hour each way to college three times a week. The late nights in classrooms with people younger and smarter than me leave me wondering if I’ll ever find a teaching job in my field. The PhD candidacy exams are coming up. Beyond that is the torturous dissertation process. I want to quit my program, but I can’t go back to customer service. The bland cubicle walls reek of recycled air and mediocrity. The thin gray-tan fabric is flypaper for trapping dreams.
I desperately want Randy to escape this toxic environment. His supervisors criticize him for everything. He’s had too many absences due to sickness. He doesn’t take enough calls. He doesn’t sell enough product at the end of the calls. He has too many open inquiries that he hasn’t resolved. He is currently on triple probation. He arrives before his shift and stays long after he is off the clock just so he can finish tasks.
“Have you thought any more about going back to school?” I ask.
Randy tells me that he recently asked a psychologist friend of ours for a letter of recommendation for a counseling program he is considering. He has been talking to an admission counselor for a school that has a satellite campus nearby.
Television and the Decision
The first season of MacGyver is over. Although it was okay, we are looking forward to the fall premiere. We switch to Psych instead. Randy has already seen the series, but he is content to watch it again with a friend. He laughs at all the jokes as if he is hearing them for the first time. Occasionally he pauses the show, rewinds, just to catch a one-liner or sight gag another time.
Between episodes, he asks, “How are you doing, my friend?”
I recently returned from a campus visit in Sioux City. The job seems promising, but it has been two weeks since I’ve heard from the university. My wife, Christy, has already landed a job in Sioux City’s school system. She keeps stalling her potential employer, waiting for a favorable reply from my lead. We talk about moving even if I don’t get the job.
“I don’t want to leave the area,” I say.
Life in McHenry has been good. We live within 10 minutes of many of our college friends. We have shared jobs and holidays with these people. I have lost count of how many weeks I’ve spent at Randy’s place or how many times he has been over to mine.
“You have to go,” he tells me.
Randy is on the job market again. After losing his job a few years previously, he started working with his wife at a small, privately-owned insurance company. He lovingly calls the staff, “a dysfunctional family.” The work is safe, but it is also boring. He needs a new challenge.
To me, all his potential jobs look the same: customer service, order entry, administrative work. He should be in school. He should be a pastor or counselor. He could spend all his time talking to others, listening to their problems, and offering them advice and direction. He would be good at it. Better than most.
But he could not get into a graduate program. His GPA was too low as an undergraduate. He will need to take classes at a community college first, probably statistics, maybe a course in Psychology. To make the adjustment will require a lot of time and money. Time away from friends. Money he doesn’t have.
Randy could spend all our time complaining about his problems, but he shifts the conversation back to my life. The mouthpiece—or rather, earbud—of God has wisdom to offer.
“This job is the fulfillment of that dream you had years ago,” he tells me. “The road is splitting, and you must choose the unknown. Don’t worry. This is where God has been leading you.”
After another episode of Psych, it is time for me to leave. While I put on my shoes by the sliding glass door, Randy leans forward in his chair.
“I’m proud of you, my friend.”
I receive the job offer a few days later, and I accept it.
Not a Dream
Living in Sioux City takes some adjustment. Although we’ve made some friends and found a new church, Christy and I are only one year into the experiment. It doesn’t feel like home yet. I’ve only talked to Randy a few times since we moved. I keep meaning to pick up the phone, but I’m too busy.
One night, we miss several messages from our friend Bill. When Christy calls the next morning, I hear her crying in the other room. I go to investigate, but she just hands me the phone.
“Randy had a heart attack last night,” Bill says. “He’s on life support right now, but there’s no sign of brain activity. Everyone is gathering to say their goodbyes.”
It is a long drive back to McHenry two days later.
The Last Dream I Recorded
Randy and I are playing chess and for once, he is beating me soundly. It seems like he has taken two moves for every one of mine. I see the checkmate coming, but there is nothing I can do to stop it. He wins.
I congratulate him. He no longer has a beard. His face is younger without all the worry lines that accompany life. This is the face I remember from college. He’s been gone for over five months now, but in dream time, it might as well be yesterday.
“Are you happy?” I ask him.
He sighs. “Yes. Are you, my friend?”
“No, but I’m trying to look like I am.”
My Last Game of Chess
Pastor and I hunch over a table in the back of the Caribou Coffee. He asks me about my life. While I’m distracted by the conversation, he barely beats me. Most of our pieces stand at the side of the board to watch the last few moves.
“Another one?” he asks.
We reset the board, switch colors. I remember openings and strategies I haven’t used since Randy sat opposite me. My wooden travel board is at home on our bookshelf. It still holds the pen I once used to record our matches. Somewhere in the clutter of my desk, there is a notebook with several of our games. I haven’t looked at the old matches or replayed them.
“Ready?” Pastor asks.
Distractions set aside for a moment. I move my pieces rapidly. I attack. I don’t defend. I don’t think beyond the next move. Instinct takes over.
Pastor barely has time to respond before I take one of his pieces and set it aside. No clear strategy emerges. His pawns fall. His queen and bishops run around the board, chased by my own pawns. Each of my moves elicits an “oh boy” or “oh no” from him.
This second match lasts only a few minutes.
Pastor leans back to survey the wreckage.
“I think I got lucky with that first game. You are relentless.”
I don’t know if this is a compliment or not. It feels weird to play chess again after so much time. I still miss my life in McHenry. I often wonder how life might have been different if Christy and I had stayed. What would Randy and I have done with an extra 10 months? Played chess? Watched television? Maybe we would have picked up the basketball for old time’s sake.
I often wonder what Randy’s life would have looked like if he had gotten a graduate degree in theology or counseling. How many more lives could he have reached? How many words of wisdom would he have dispensed? Then I remember all the hours it took to get my own degree and all the friendships I let slide. If Randy had gone back to school, he would have been too busy for all his friends. Time away from people would have hurt him more than suffering through one customer service job after another.
Some people don’t need a degree to accomplish their purpose here. The trajectory of their lives is a straight line, the flight path only understood in hindsight. What looks like stagnation or frustration to outsiders is strategic placement. For some to move forward, others must remain behind to guide them. It is the stationary people in life who provide direction to the rest of us wandering souls.
Randy remained on the straight path. Mine veered west to a new city, a new job, new church, and new friends. I would not be here if Randy hadn’t intervened in my life and spoken the truth when I needed to hear it. I would have given up. I would probably be suffering at a customer service job.
I hope you are fortunate enough to have a mouthpiece—or rather, earbud—of God in your life. Or maybe, you fulfill that role for someone else. Regardless of your direction or placement, moving or stationary, don’t miss the opportunity to say the words I never got to say to Randy:
I’m proud of you, too, my friend.