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Authors: Thomas Berger

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Best Friends

BOOK: Best Friends
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Also by Thomas Berger

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Being Invisible

Changing the Past

The Feud

The Houseguest

Killing Time

Little Big Man

Meeting Evil



Orrie's Story

Regiment of Women

The Return of Little Big Man

Robert Crews

Sneaky People


Who Is Teddy Villanova?



Crazy in Berlin

Reinhart in Love

Vital Parts

Reinhart's Women

Simon & Schuster
Rockefeller Center
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2003 by Thomas Berger
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

& S
and colophon are registered trademarks of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Book design by Ellen R. Sasahara

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Berger, Thomas, date.
Best friends : a novel / Thomas Berger.
p. cm.
1. Male friendship—Fiction. 2. Psychological fiction. I. Title.
PS3552.E719 B47 2003
813'.54—dc21 2002042617
ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-5450-2
ISBN-10: 0-7432-5450-3

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To Dan and Justine Hager


s of September 2000, his best friend's ways with women were still a wonder to Sam Grandy, not because there could be any question of Roy Courtright's physical or personal charms, but rather because Sam's own temperament was such that he could not have pretended, let alone sustained, an intimate interest in more than one woman at a time.

“It wouldn't have anything to do with whether they believed me or not. I just can't handle distractions in emotional matters. Do you tell ‘em all the same things? Or if things are different in each case, how do you remember who's who or what's what?”

don't have any trouble distinguishing one woman from the next,” Roy assured him. “Think of your male friends: Do you forget their names, where they live, what their tastes and opinions are?”

“You're not telling me there's no difference? You don't change men friends once a month. You don't take them out, flatter them on their looks and clothes—”

“Or go to bed with them,” said Roy.

“You know what I mean.”

“You can't get away from the idea that it's a sport for me to pursue females. Lust, not genuine emotion. If I go to bed with her, it's a conquest by your theory, another scalp on the belt.” Roy quaffed some beer from a stein, a vessel he disliked using because of the lid that had to be thumb-blocked from falling against your cheek. “I just don't think that way. I've never raped anyone, and I'm not attracted to the underaged. I assume everybody else is an adult in full possession of her faculties.”

“Since when,” asked Sam, “is lust not a genuine emotion?”

Roy sloshed the remaining beer in the stein, on the ceramic exterior of which appeared a pair of elks in glossy high relief. “Furthermore, I don't have carnal knowledge of every woman I eat dinner with, or want to, for that matter.”

“Want to have dinner with, or want to boff?”

Such terms made Roy uncomfortable, and he himself never used them. “I'm trying to tell you there's no boffer or boffee. There's just your humble servant and another self-commanded person. Sometimes we're lovers and sometimes not.”

“Lovers?” Sam gestured with his own stein, which he had long since emptied and was politely waiting to refill at Roy's convenience. “See, that's what I don't get. The sex I can understand better than what you call love. How can one-night stands, even with the same partner for a week or two, be love?”

Sam would never understand that for Roy, making love could be a three-second meeting of the eyes with a woman in the window of a passing bus. At the same time, Roy still loved all the women with whom he had ever had intimate relations, a sizable company if not as multitudinous as Sam imagined, though no account was actually kept. Roy liked to think a great many of his former partners shared the feeling, though he knew not all did. There were of course those who felt rejected, even betrayed, when it was he who brought it to an end, and not even all of those who took the initiative in terminating the affair could forgive him for sincerely agreeing with their decision.

Roy tried to recognize his own inadequacies, though more than one of the women he had frequented disparaged his sort of self-criticism as being actually an insidious form of conceit. But there were those who found it attractive in a man forthrightly to admit his flaws without using such an admission as a pretext for an array of attention-demanding excuses. Roy would readily apologize, but he rarely explained. There were those who saw that as a kind of honesty all too uncommon in the male sex. Not all women want to be lied to, as Roy would tell the ones he thought might agree, and he was right often enough.

The friends, who had had such discussions forever, were drinking the amber product of the latest microbrewery of which Sam, the beer connoisseur of the pair, was enthusiastic. They sat in oversize chairs covered in an unctuous leather that conformed to the body as if custom-molded to each behind lowered into it. The entertainment center in the room in which they drank beer from Sam's collection of hinged-top Old Country steins must have cost an outlandish sum of money, with its six-speaker surround, giant-screen television, DVD system, digital satellite receiver, every band of radio, and even all forms of outmoded sound reproduction, from a three-speed turntable for antique discs (Sam was a purist who preferred to have the originals on hand for comparison, however faded and scratched) to tape and CD players.

Roy might be the womanizer, but Sam was promiscuous with money. He had always lived beyond his means. As a boy he overspent his allowance, which happened to be larger than Roy's. When Sam grew up, he reversed the predictable change and became even more profligate. He was the kind of prey dreamed of by those who actively sought investors for business opportunities. Though a personal god had thus far sheltered him from outright swindlers, and others apparently profited from the same franchises, video rentals, pet care investments, etc. that went bad for him, Sam made little from such ventures while diminishing his inheritance, none of which he ever used to pay his debts except under threat of legal action.

He had been borrowing money from Roy for two decades and never yet had offered to pay back a cent. Roy was aware of this situation only if he forced himself to think about it, and when he did, it was with a certain satisfaction. He had more money than he, never a big consumer, needed; it was something he could do for his friend.

They had been best friends since adolescence. As a child Roy was undersized, but as an adult he grew to stand five feet ten, whereas Sam had always been larger than average in all dimensions, rising when fully grown to six-four. Tall as he was, he could support extra weight, but at three hundred pounds he carried too much. Roy was the one who kept in condition. One-eighty was heavy for his height, but owing to the weight training he had practiced since boyhood, it was mostly muscle.

Sam's only consistent strenuous exercise was lifting a loaded fork from plate to mouth. In this he had been abetted by the females in his life, beginning with the mother whom he had lost at an early age and continuing through a series of housekeepers and his father's lady friends to his own wife of three years, a bank officer whose enthusiasm for cookery was so avid that after a day's work she could go to the kitchen and prepare gastronomic marvels, though it was the Grandys' frequent guest Roy Courtright who appreciated these meals with more discrimination than his best friend, for whom the concern with food was more a matter of quantity than quality.

Kristin Grandy seemed nevertheless not to care much for Roy, and, her cuisine aside, he had little in common with her. Had she not been the wife of his best friend, she was not a woman he would likely have known. Her tall, slender, blonde person was probably attractive enough, though he loyally avoided making physical assessments of a friend's spouse, but her manner made him uncomfortable, unable as he was to decide whether it was disdain or indifference. She stared at him from time to time through gray-blue eyes that seemed to become glassy for that function alone, returning to normal when they focused elsewhere, especially on her big bear of a husband, of whom she was obviously very fond, which was admittedly another point in her favor. Roy too had always been partial to old Sam, whose spirit was as generous as his appetite.

Roy and Sam had had similar boyhoods as partial orphans, with the untimely death of Sam's mother and the abrupt departure of Roy's in a love affair and subsequent remarriage, after which he and his twin sister never saw her again. Both boys lived in the same prosperous community and each disliked his father. Each was the brother the other never had, and in that role Sam was the far more enterprising. Though unlike Roy he was never an athlete, Sam could talk spectator sports for hours. He also collected neat stuff: horror-movie posters, even some predating the pictures they had seen together; antique baseball caps, many signed by their original wearers, though he suspected some were forgeries and didn't care; and souvenirs of war: a defused German grenade from World War II, shaped like a potato masher, brought back by one grandfather, and rusty North Korean memorabilia from the other.

They went to the same prep school and later entered the same humble branch of the state university because neither was a good enough student to be accepted by a more demanding institution nor wanted to be. Roy dropped out as soon as he got his inheritance, while Sam stayed on and actually got a B.S. in Business Administration, an accomplishment still capable of giving them a laugh.

It was now twenty years since their friendship had begun, and both their fathers were dead, though by quite different means, and the friends' respective inheritances were markedly dissimilar in sum. An only child, Sam certainly got more than a pittance from his stockbroker parent, combined with what his mother had left in trust; had he used it wisely he would never have wanted for another dollar. But Roy and his twin sister, heirs of a manufacturer of shipping containers with an international market, split major money, a state of affairs that had long been a preoccupation of Sam's.

Roy now finally swallowed the dregs of the beer and, to Sam's audible relief, surrendered the empty vessel. “You get started on this subject every time you have to wait for me to empty a glass. If you'd just simply go get a refill when you want one, you'd never have to kill time in that way.”

“If—” Sam said, grunting in the effort needed to lift his poundage from a soft chair while he clutched the two beer steins, his forearms doing much of this work, “if I did that…” He resumed when his legs were firmly under him, “I'd be an alcoholic.”

“Don't talk that way!” Roy despised his best friend for admitting to such a weakness. “If you would exercise a little—”

“I would be so bored I'd end up drinking more.” Sam's big face showed an affectionate smirk. “I can get more of a reaction from you by mentioning beer than by sticking my nose into your love life.”

“My own appetites don't give me any problems,” said Roy. “When I find the right woman, I'll know. I won't go on this way for the rest of my life. Meanwhile, I can handle it.”

“I'm glad to hear that,” said Sam. “And you don't have to worry about me. My blood pressure is normal, and my cholesterol count last time was, if anything, on the low side. Being a bit heavy is all to the good for drinking, you know: You can soak up a lot of booze without damage.”

If you consider that an accomplishment,
Roy did not say. He might needle Sam, but would take pains not to wound him. This was only self-interest. Where could he ever find another such best friend? Not to mention that he was, as so often, under Sam's roof. A single man, he seldom entertained at home, unless you could classify as true guests the women he brought to his apartment when their own residences were off-limits for one reason or another (lack of privacy, owing to roommates or the presence of a husband). He endeavored to repay Kristin and Sam with gifts of white truffles, real balsamic vinegar, and château-bottled vintages, and he took them to the restaurants of auteur chefs. But he was aware that no such measures could supply the equivalent of their hospitality.

He and Sam concluded their colloquy with an exchange of shrugs. With Sam it was necessarily a gesture of substance. He had a larger bosom than that of his wife. He lumbered to the bar at the end of the room and found two more bottles of beer in the half-size fridge underneath. By the time he brought them back, Kristin's cheery “Hi-hi” sounded from the doorway.

Roy turned to wave at her, not an easy movement in the clasping chair, but, soon swathed in Sam's embrace, she did not see him. He glanced at his drugstore digital watch, which he would have been derided for wearing had Sam's back not been turned. Six-twenty, a little early for Kristin's return from work, though her bank was only five miles away. She expected to be appointed branch manager one of these months, replacing the only male employee in the building (the men in the nighttime cleaning crew worked for an outside service). Sam took satisfaction in this state of affairs. “Hell,” he said on occasion, “women are always better with money than men.” Roy was not sure that the theory was always valid, his mother having been a notorious squanderer, but given his friend's situation, brought no questions to bear upon its particular application in the Grandy household.

Staying turned was giving him a crick in the neck, so he looked away, apparently just as Kristin emerged from the bear hug and addressed him. His relations with her were often so mistimed, for nobody's fault.

But she was in a positive mood at the moment, speaking in exclamation as she walked into his line of sight. “What a great-looking car!”

“We just acquired it,” Roy said, genuinely pleased. “It's an Alvis.”

“British? Steering wheel's on the wrong side.”

“You have a sharp eye,” said he, then regretted making what she might well hear as a patronizing observation, because he had, after all, left the top down on this dry, clear September day. “In giving it a price, we have to calculate whether the snob appeal will outweigh a certain inconvenience.” Roy was sole owner of a vintage-car business; the “we” included only his part-time assistant, a middle-aged woman who played no role in pricing the cars, having no interest in them. But he was sensitive with regard to the use of the perpendicular pronoun when speaking with female persons he did not know well. “It's mint. After more than forty years, the mileage is under eighty thousand.”

BOOK: Best Friends
12.88Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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