By Sean Dietrich
I had dinner with an old friend. I haven’t seen him in years. He looks different since he moved to Tennessee. He has a shaggy beard, lines around his eyes, a bigger waist and three kids.
Here’s the kind of guy he is: Earlier today, he opened his front door to find me standing on his porch.
“Wow,” he said. “Do I look as old and ugly as you?”
“Getting old sure stinks, don’t it?”
“Speak for yourself, I plan on using my AARP card to get free coffee at Waffle House.”
“Waffle House doesn’t accept AARP.”
Long ago, we were close. Back then, I needed a friend like him. I was a kid who had survived my late father’s mess, and I wasn’t exactly Mister Sunshine.
He was a good pal. And he was no stranger to the rain, either. His mother died when he was six, from similar circumstances. His kid brother was more like his son. We sort of leaned on each other.
I remember when he got a job at a sporting goods store. The store sold shotguns, ATV’s, crossbows, and for a few bucks you could get a fishing license. He loved this job because my friend is your all-American deer hunter.
This store also had a tall rock-climbing wall. He invited me to try it once, but I didn’t want to because I was fourteen, chubby, and I was no athlete.
I have always been the sort who spectates. Especially when it comes to sports. As a boy, I was a professional spectator. I spectated four or five times per day sometimes.
One time my friend brought me to the sporting goods store and brought me to the rock wall. He issued a dare.
Before I knew it, he had fitted me with a rappelling harness.
It is impossible for chubby boys to look dignified when wearing a harness secured to their pelvic regions.
“I don’t wanna do this,” I told him.
“I promise, you’ll enjoy it.”
“What if I fall and break my neck?”
“You don’t know that.”
“You’ll be fine.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you’re wearing a helmet.”
“You’d make a terrible trial attorney.”
At age fourteen, I was in a bad way. I both hated my late father, and I missed him. And worse, I felt guilty for having the two emotions at once. My friend was someone who understood this.
He secured the harness, cinched the rope, and told me to start climbing.
I placed one hand over another. I should not have been climbing that wall. Boys like me didn’t climb things. Boys like me ate Moonpies and had kankles.
When I ascended six feet, I slipped. I lost my grip, but I didn’t fall. The rope caught me.
“You’re doing good!” shouted my friend who was miles below, tugging the rope from which my life dangled. “Keep climbing!”
I used my scrawny muscles to take me higher. I ascended, little by little. I’m certain I looked ridiculous to people watching. And there were several watching.
The onlookers were local high-schoolers, most of them worked at the store and already knew how to climb rock walls.
There was Matthew—a young man built like Arnold Schwarzenegger, who lettered in three sports and knew how to talk to girls.
There was Rachel—a blonde Matthew often talked to.
There was Dillon—a fisherman, basketball player, Boy Scout, humanitarian, alpha male, and international supermodel.
And me. A little fat boy on a string.
“I can’t do it!” I shouted.
“Yes you can!”
“No I can’t!”
“You’re doing great!”
My arms and legs were Jello, and I hated myself for getting stuck on this medieval amusement device. My entire adolescent reputation hinged on whether I could make it to the top, and it wasn’t looking good.
I slipped again. I wanted to disappear.
“Don’t worry!” said my friend, “I’ve got you!”
Don’t worry? I looked like Baby Huey on the flying trapeze. Everyone would remember this embarrassing stunt forever. I would probably make the newspaper.
I finally reached the last rung. At the top was a brass bell. I rang the bell as hard as I could. I let go of the wall. I hung suspended in the air.
My friend lowered me to the bottom. When I arrived on the floor, my friend started applauding. Then, the whole store applauded me. Every single person clapped.
Me. The round child who’d hung from a string and rang a bell because someone told me I could.
“You did it,” my pal said, slapping me on the back. “I told you so.”
“I didn’t do anything,” I said. “I fell a bunch of times, it was only because of you that I made it.”
Well. Maybe I ought to finish the story right here.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.