Sunday, July 09, 2000

Out-of-touch friend wrenches the heart




map
        I call Fred every so often. They're house calls, friend to patient, to make sure the rhythms of his world are holding steady.

        I hadn't talked to him in a while. Fred is my best friend. He's also a recovering alcoholic. At least he was the last time we talked. With alcoholics, you just don't know.

        A few years ago, he tried to kill himself by drinking drain cleaner. He spent time in a hospital, he came out and pronounced himself ready to to live again. Eventually, he got a job.

        He was working at the restaurant he worked at when he was drinking. He was hanging around the same people. His wife told me she was glad he was productive again. She also said she was scared to death.

        That was six months ago. Now, she's not saying anything. Her number is unpublished. And Fred, well, Fred has disappeared.

        I lost his phone number.

        I looked in all the usual places. Rolodex, desk drawers, file box. I searched pants pockets and coats. I even checked my golf bag. The last time I saw him, we played 18 holes in Arizona, where he lives. I should have had his number filed electronically somewhere. I didn't.

        I tore up my office at home. I yelled at myself, I smacked my own head.

        There is a good chance nothing is wrong, but at times like this we tend to imagine the worst. The last time I called directory assistance, the number was listed under Fred's name and his wife's. Now, her number is unlisted, and the three numbers the operator gave me for people with his name aren't him.

        I tried finding his mother's number and his father's. No luck. He could be anywhere. There are lots of definitions for hopeless. This is one of them.

        We have a million ways to stay connected. They seem to multiply daily. Voice-mail, e-mail, pagers, cell phones, Palm Pilots. Almost every day in the mail, I get an ad for Sprint, MCI or AT&T long distance. I get a disc from AOL for 500 free hours online.

        I have a programmable phone. Up to 20 numbers, I think, at the press of a button. Only now, I'm beholden to a scrap of paper I can't find.

        “I'm looking for a Fred S------,” I say. I name the town.

        “Do you have a street address?”

        No.

        “Hold for the listing.”

        I dial. Someone named Fred answers.

        “This is Paul,” I say.

        “Who?”

        Fred could call me. He could see how I was doing. He could tell me he needed help. I'd be there that day.

        He doesn't call. He has always been bad about that. One, he doesn't want to bother me and, two, he's lazy and broke. You'd think he needs the friendship more than I do. But you'd be wrong. Fred and I go back 30 years.

        Kids are the only people who really know friendship. They're the only ones who feel it. I've never had any friends better than the ones I had when I was 10. I doubt I ever will. It would be extraordinary.

        Adults are too heavy with agendas, perceptions, prejudices and insecurities to form great friendships. They don't have the time.

        You only get one best friend who is not your spouse. If you're lucky.

        I have one. Only, I don't know where he is. Or if he is.

        The line between connecting and not can be as slim as a slip of paper with 10 digits on it. I lost the number. I hope it's all I've lost.

        Paul Daugherty, an Enquirer sports columnist, writes a lifestyle column on Sunday. He welcomes your comments at (513) 768-8454.