My dashboard clock read 11:46 PM when I pulled to the curb, and the temperature indicator told me it was a frigid twenty-four degrees outside. I switched off my wipers and headlights, killed the engine, wrapped a scarf around my neck and pulled on a pair of warm gloves, grabbed the bottle of Veuve Clicquot I’d picked up at the Blue Front, and got out of the car.
Billy’s street was deserted and lovely at this hour, despite the cold. The tree lawns were lined with bare-branched sugar maples, there were no streetlights, and the fat snowflakes drifting silently down from the heavens turned the night into a scene from a Grimms’ fairy tale. I hurried up the front walk, took the six wooden steps to the porch two at a time, and leaned on the buzzer.
A minute passed, and then the door swung open, revealing my childhood friend in a pair of truly ridiculous pj’s, with characters from The Simpsons cavorting up and down his arms and legs and chest. He was bleary eyed, obviously confused at being hauled out of bed at this hour. When he saw that it was me, he first smiled and then did a bit of a double take, worried there must be something wrong for me to show up on his doorstep so late.
“Jerry,” he said, and there was a hint of a question mark in his tone. “Is there … ?”
I held up the bottle and grinned. It took a moment for the penny to drop, but then it did.
“You remembered!” he said. “Is it after twelve?”
“Not quite. But I wanted to be here at the stroke of midnight to toast your latest victory.”
“As always, sir, you are gracious in defeat.”
“Well,” I demurred, “I don’t always lose.”
“That is correct,” he agreed, and then he realized we were standing there with the door open and Old Man Winter whistling his way into the house. “Come in out of the cold, my friend,” he said. “I see you sprang for the good stuff. Let me grab a couple of flutes and switch on the fire.”
And he about faced and headed back to the living room.
Competition has always been at the heart of my friendship with Billy Midgley. As little boys growing up only children in side-by-side split-levels on Ann Arbor’s Barrister Road, we argued over which of us had the best collection of green plastic Army guys and who’d found the most hidden eggs on Easter morning. In kindergarten at King Elementary, it was whose finger painting would get the most lavish praise from Miss Raab, our art teacher, and who could count the fastest to a hundred by tens.
By junior high, our friendly rivalry had turned, focused in on the world of athletic achievement. When the luck of the draw put us on opposing dodgeball sides, the only thing Billy and I cared about was nailing the other one and knocking him out of the game. In high school, we were both forwards on the Huron River Rats, and I swear, we were more concerned with who would sink a higher number of the newly adopted three-point shots than with whether or not our team would actually beat the stupidly named Pioneer Pioneers.
A few years before that, though, in the summer between eighth and ninth grades, Billy and I had recently left childhood behind and become teenagers. On June 21, 1985, we rode our bikes downtown and lined up with a hundred or more other kids to see the opening-day matinee of a new science-fiction movie, Cocoon, directed by Ron Howard and starring a bunch of old people neither of us had ever heard of. Instead of boring us with a bunch of classical stuff we wouldn’t have understood or enjoyed, the guy who played the 1927 Barton Opus 245 organ before show time rocked out on a bunch of songs that were in the Top Ten that week—Bryan Adams, Phil Collins, Tears for Fears, Prince and the Revolution—so we would have been in hog heaven even if the picture had sucked. As it turned out, though, Cocoon was great fun, and for months afterward we’d bust out for no reason whatsoever with lines like “Every ten or eleven thousand years I make a horrible mistake” and “Men should be explorers, no matter how old they are.”