The Tontine

'I can't pretend a stranger is a long awaited friend.'-Neil Peart


The group of young friends shook each other's hands at graduation for the final time as boys. The intersection of arms and clasps of hands made a shadow image of a wheel with numerous spokes rimmed within a circle made of now-growing men. The group continued to reach out and shake hands until each combination was realized. The words were all said so no one was trying to repeat or reiterate the earlier discussion; the silence was accompanied with knowing looks of a shared understanding.

The group broke up and dispersed in different directions with no one looking back. They had shared many memories and shared a collective upbringing of purpose. The men were all raised nearby and had acquired many of the same mannerisms and had developed an internal language full of unique and earned fluency only achieved through living in such close quarters. Some of the group knew no other friendships, as this was the first one the joined in elementary school and church groups. As they matured, they participated in sports and school together, not entertaining any significant additions to the group dynamic and they all had successfully were able to balance a social life without diluting the group's commitment to each other. Now, as graduates of their High School, they were all aware that their lives would go off on skewed and random directions and the group realized that their futures were diverging and the mass intersection of their lifelines heading away from their genesis. Other classmates remembered them as a pleasant but tight group that would discuss issues ad nauseam and always clustered together in a semi-circle or on a picnic table locked into some debate or just generic verbal jousting for the pure hell of it.

A promise was made collectively by the group, with no qualifications or misgivings. The group ceased to exist once the penultimate meeting had occurred as they realized, now as adults and holders of high school diplomas, their strength would be coming from within and the support system established during their formative years was now ready to be discarded. As the men dispersed, their support for each other would exist in their shared philosophy of purpose and desire to achieve the same goal. They would maintain friendships but their primary concern was to hold up their individual parts of a mutual goal of worthwhile happiness and a pride in their chosen professions. The five had to do what they vowed to do and they knew their success or failure was entirely dependent on their own efforts.

Steven was the oldest of the group and wasn't shy pointing out in earned seniority in light of current or potential stalemates. As the eldest by two weeks, he relied on his aged wisdom to either facilitate or mediate group issues, always with the goal of satisfactory resolution. It was he, during an epiphany during the last month of school that called the group together for the final challenge and showered them with brutal truths of what the future held.

"First off," said Steven on his front porch, "you are kidding yourself if you think this little group will survive. Because it won't."

"What do you mean?" asked someone.

"Try as we might, we will grow apart," responded Steve. "Three of us are going to three different colleges, one is going to work as a baker and the fifth is going in the service."

"I really didn't like any of you anyway," said the youngest, "especially you, Steve."

"I agree," said the future baker, "We won't see each other each day, for obvious reasons, and some of us will eventually get married. I mean, the odds are with us."

"The odds are with most of us," replied the youngest, "however, it is not guaranteed."

"Exactly," said Steve. "We will do things this summer, and then one by one, we'll go our separate ways with all good intentions to keep in touch and to write. But, it won't happen. What I contend is that we realize that right now and eliminate the guilt and frustration."

Steve took a dramatic pause and continued, "I have seen it with my brothers and their friends. When they went to school and lived here, they shared a lot of common experiences. When they graduated, they tried to keep in touch but one by one, they faded into different areas with good intentions to stay close, but time and circumstances took care of that."

"So, all you are saying," asked the silent one, "is that we should know that reality. I apologize for stealing your self-defined thunder but your opinion is so noted."

"The silent one speaks," said the young one, "and yes, I think that is exactly what Steve means but that doesn't mean we can't be heroic in our lives."

The group continued to talk and realize the summer would go fast and since they were all working during the day, the evenings would be the only time to hang out. College was beginning in about ten weeks and the silent one was leaving for the Navy at the same time. The future baker, Matty Pacquin, was beginning his vocational training one-week before anyone else left town so they calculated, nine weeks of potential evenings in front of them. At the most optimistic, they would have potentially forty-five more times to meet as a group and discuss the matters of the world, engage in something athletic or just hang out like they have been doing since kindergarten. Forty-five more days to bond together with the full realization that they wouldn't be successful so whatever time they had, they would enjoy it for what is was worth, now.

The discussions continued to sharpen over the next few days as the group had finally come to terms with Steve's theory. If circumstances dictated a reunion, it would happen for reasons of pure friendship but no one would add any more importance to the attempt because of all mutual history. If any portion of the group saw another portion of the group, which would be wonderful. But, no one was going to shed any tears over the cruel realities of growing up and farther apart. None of the group was seriously involved with anyone so no marriage would be happening so soon to this disbursement of young adults. The weddings of eighteen-year old couples are a cruel variation of a bad prom date with the even crueler reality of the date not ending. It was decided to enjoy the camaraderie and not to give the friendship future credence other than common courtesy.

So, as the time drifted by, the five men began making plans for their departure from the known and comfortable and individually looked to the future. Each one had distinct interests born from internal desires and pre-depositions; many of the same classes and instructors were shared but the five individuals were drawn to different causes and courses of study. No academic pursuits were shared among themselves nor did their personal conversations argue a specific hypothesis or conflicting schools of thought within a discipline. They all enjoyed each other's company and found strength in their awareness that the sum of the parts were far stronger than the individual. Discussions about after high school plans began during their junior years with several members of the group declaring college as their next logical step. This town was smaller than most and the natural progression of high school to college was still the exception than the rule. Eventually, even the fourth of the five wished to attend college with one holdout, Matty, who wanted to be a baker. He found purity and art within the craft of baking and knew that his future was better served through a vocational school, concentrating on food sciences and baking. The school was all the way in New York City and was being ironically run by culinary Drill Sergeants who had worked and learned in major league kitchens. These chefs were tough, disciplined and resentful of their pupil's youth and energy and with his baby face; Matt knew it would be a long education.

Matty knew even when he was a child that he had an affinity for baking. This was not the cutesy, flower-encrusted petit fours that the girls in Home Economics were struggling over. His baking was instinctive and he created beautiful breads, crusty on the outside with tender insides and wedding cakes that were a precise balance of visual elegance and amazing flavors. In his baking tutelage, form followed function and his creations were deceivingly simple but impossible to replicate. He began working in the neighborhood bakery when he was extremely young; arranging to deliver orders on his bike and taking tips as his only compensation and eventually getting promoted to sweeping out the store for minimum wage. When the deliveries were completed, he would sit in the back with the old bakers and barrage them with questions on technique, preparation and their entire creative thought process. In his mid-teens, he was creating comparable masterpieces using the simple ingredients of his mentors but still employing closely-held secrets of his new found friends.

With other kids were learning how to de-tassel corn or muck out stalls, he was working with marzipan, clafouti and towering meringues. Not satisfied with becoming a master baker, Matthew enrolled in a vocational baking course during his senior year in order to fill in the blanks of his informal education. He knew he needed hard instruction on purchasing, food science, general business and equipment maintenance before he could realize his real dream of creating art that could be consumed. He continued to bake throughout his career; wedding cakes for the newlyweds, celebratory cakes for communions, birthdays and anniversaries and finally, cakes for receptions for funerals and retirements. The full circle of life passed through his bakery and when some families couldn’t afford a cake for a child, it would be delivered with respect and no opportunity to pay. As Matty grew older, he thought of his friends and remembered the final day they were all together and hoped he would see them again to reassure them that he had made the right choice. Even though he had formal training as a chef, Matty excelled in bakery and breads but barely demonstrated proficiency as a Sous Chef. His mastery of breads, cakes and all things baked endeared him to the European teachers because he had the touch of an old-world chef. He had learned his lessons well from the hometown chefs and it showed in his work and his love of cooking. He was at an outstanding culinary school that constantly preached a well-rounded education but his single-mindedness made him either embraced or ignored. Matty didn't care; he loved to bake and as different trends came and went in the dynamic world of haute cuisine, he continued to create masterpieces with no regard to the perceptions of others.

Upon graduation, Matty landed an apprenticeship at the small hotel but it wasn't long until the Waldorf-Astoria called. His first restaurant, a start-up which had become a critic's darling, was getting rave reviews for their outstanding breads and pastries. The food was above average but the reaction to Matty's creations was creating high excitement and it wasn't long until people found him. He prospered in the large kitchens where he was allowed to specialize and he ascended quickly through the ranks of the younger chefs. He began to partnered up with a few up and coming high-profile stars from his culinary school days. When these hotshots took off on their own, as they always did, they would need a master baker and they all called Matty. When a few of these chefs took off in the higher strats of celebrity haute cuisine, Matty was there as well holding down the strategic parts of the kitchen. He traveled extensively, married a world championship chef, raised almost a dozen children and at fifty-five decided to retire. His back was perpetually bent from working around oven stacks, his hands callused from years of burns and hard work but upon retirement, he left at the top of his game. Once the decision was made to hang it up, Matt expressed interest in going home and his wife agreed. She had heard countless stories about this town and felt it was perfect place to raise grandchildren.

The next one in the group was dutifully called the youngest one, Michael. He also had no burning academic interest in college. Faced with no epiphanies of craft or beauty, Michael enlisted in the United States Army as the lowest form of human existence: a recruit. He was athletic enough but not overly skilled and he was smart enough but never would be considered an academic. He was a solid, easy-to-read, steady soul who was always more comfortable within a group than as an individual. He liked activities and events that featured teamwork and a collective goal versus individual glory and achievement. As such, Michael joined the US Army at the earliest possible opportunity and deferred his enlistment to coincide with the group's departure. Once in the Army, he adapted perfectly to all the regulations and the instinctive desire to place the group above a person. Michael spent thirty years in the Army, rising very slowly to the rank of Major, thanks to the Officers Candidate School's patience and ability to find goodness in just about everyone. But his academic limits were known from the start and since he was a product of OCS versus West Point and since he eventually achieved a college degree after years of night school, he would never achieve senior rank. He prided himself on loyal and competent service and found he had an ironic niche for Army Intelligence. Aside from the countless oxymoron references, Michael did show an odd talent in wading through mountains of paper and eventually coming out the other end. His reputation has legitimately earned in the glamorous sounding but deathly dull division named Intelligence Operations.

An often overlooked but critical component of a covert operation is an individual who can immerse themselves in the data and provide insightful but accurate guesses about someone or some thing. An analyst has to remain detached and calculating with their decisions and Michael was a legend at plodding through mountains of statistics, raw competitive intelligence data, harvested Intel and hundreds of pages of field notes. He would begin at one side of a mountain of paper and not stop until he reviewed, read, assessed, sorted and organized it in several order sequences to finally, deliver his conclusions. In the vast majority of the time, he was completely accurate with his assessments and he prided himself on his patient grinding towards the truth. There were no medals for these types of work, due to the nature of the effort, but his internal files were filled with numerous but primarily confidential commendations.

In his almost three decades in the Army, he traveled widely and lived in numerous exotic billets and ports of call. Michael married an Army brat, who was used to the nomadic lifestyle and raised four children while surrounded by extended tours of duty, several assignments in third world countries and a lifetime of experiences on an annual basis. Michael was pretty clear up front that he wanted to return to his hometown once he was mustered out. By the time of his retirement, the children were long gone and their collective wanderlust was exhausted. They both wanted to find a place that they could grow some roots and sit on the porch. His full life was more of a pleasant product of his inherent lack of confidence; he didn't want to face the unknown by himself nor did he feel worthy enough to go to college. His easing into the Army, along with a wide spectrum of other young men, was taking the easy way out. His above average intelligence stuck out like a sore thumb in the infantry and it wasn't long before the Army knew they had the makings of a possible career officer. Michael never dwelled on the lost opportunities as a High School Senior, not attempting to receive a Congressional appointment to West Point or Annapolis.

He did what he was comfortable with as a young man and now, as an old man, was content in doing something honorable as a reconnected citizen of the hometown that he left many years before. When he completed his last analysis on shipping tonnage or telecommunication compliance or whatever the hell it was, he collated his findings and placed them in a large, black binder in the Department's library and placed the documents in a secure server and left.

His retirement party was like him, sensible and reasonably easy to understand. A few pictures, compliments of the local house organ, one more commendation to place in his personnel packer and some hearty handshakes. The Intelligence group was legendary for the under-developed social skills and this party did nothing to dispel their reputation. They had already sold their house so it was just a matter of time for them to leave the base and they were hopefully to settle permanently in his hometown. His wife, as a bone fide Army brat could list more base housing complexes that anyone could every imagine, so she was excited to finally place down some real, legitimate roots. When they arrived back into town, he settled in a comfortable bungalow very near the high school field where he last saw all his friends intact. In fact, if he sat at an angle, he could see the very spot of their final disbursement.

The three other men went straight to college and thanks to astronomical draft lottery placements, sailed through school with no worries of losing a deferment when they tumbled out the other end. The two Bobs and Steve all attended large schools and graduated in allegedly different areas of business.

The first Bob went into the sales division of a multi-national conglomerate and realized after about the second day that his job had nothing to do with sales. His customers were inherited from the last salesman and all he had to do was avoid catastrophe and maintain the status quo. His customer (he only had one) was completely reliant on his company's products and was not in a position to even imply a possible change in vendors. Bob dutifully called on his purchasing managers and took their orders. He returned their calls and when they got promoted or retired, he would help train in the new purchaser and basically tell them what they had to do to be successful.

The years went by and the first Bob enjoyed consistent promotions within his company. He had little to do with anything tangible but he did enjoy the internal success that came his way and for the most part, became a company man for no other reason except that was his only avenue. He moved for his company, married someone from his company and lived in neighborhoods that were dominated by fellow co-workers. He amassed a tremendous collection of promotional apparel, coffee cups and other types of marketing crap through the sheer number of years on the job. When he finally retired, he tossed all the plaques, certificates, manuals and countless logoed products into a dumpster the night before he retired. He didn't need any of that stuff at home and felt that when he retired, he was going to stop drinking coffee out of cups adorned with logos and words. The retirement party was sweet and well attended, people said good things about him and early Friday afternoon, and the first Bob took his gold watch and walked out of the division cafeteria hand in hand with his wife. As they got settled in the car and before he turned the ignition key, he looked at her and said that it was time to go home.

Retiring in his early fifties, the first Bob began to work with the town's Service Corps of Retired Executives and realized how much he liked building things. He assisted a lot of start-up companies in developing sales and marketing infrastructures, which focused on true business development. After awhile, he began consulting full-time with these groups and was having more fun than ever before. Life was fine before but life was just perfect now. Some of these groups were recent immigrants who needed both Bob's general business skills and his wisdom. He assisted in resolving cultural issues, acquiring green cards, helping with reuniting families and guiding his new charges through the bureaucracies of local and state governments. New families called both him and his wife, numerous times, in the middle of the night with sick children or general befuddlement that comes with being a foreign national with little or no English proficiency except the memorization of the first Bob's phone number. Dozens of times, whole families would show up at their house for dinner or the first Bob and his wife would attend genuine wedding celebrations and intimate dinners with exotic and wonderful dishes that were proudly displayed by there new friends as the best food anywhere in the world. They enjoyed the hospitality of their newly relocated friends, they realized it was far more important for the immigrants to proclaim the beauty of the food as they felt closer to their homeland when they were scooping up couscous or humus or onlyGodknowswhat stew.

Their lives had changed significantly; after decades insulated within the confines and social mores of a large company, they finally began appreciating new and different aspects of life through their work and friendships with their international acquaintances. They celebrated Ramadan, Purim, Chulalongkorn Day, Whit Sunday, Lok Pay and other holidays and began to travel internationally to see new places, all with the support and encouragement of their new friends. For years, the first Bob only traveled for business or on company-sponsored trips given to sales performers while staying in chain hotels and attending the requisite sales meetings but no more. They traveled lightly, staying in hostels or houses of friend's friends. They continued to grow as world citizens and became more and more generous with immigrants. It was an interesting dichotomy for the first Bob to see his town again and see the significant changes that were brought about by the new waves of immigrants. Although many of the older folks were put off by the changing demographics, Bob realized that the influx of new people was critical for the survival of the town. If the new immigrants were old, retired farts like him, the town's schools and developmental future would be in jeopardy. It was good to be home and he was going to enjoy every minute of it. As his friends began arriving into town, he knew the rest of his life was going to fill out nicely as well. For the first time ever on Earth, someone finally and truly enjoyed the best of both worlds.

The second Bob started on a similar path as the first Bob but after a few years with a large international corporation, he realized that his creativity and desire to pursue paths not yet seen to be attributes on how not to become President. He learned his basic business commerce from the corporation but struck out on his one once he had saved up about six months of salary. Over a thousand miles from home and single, the second Bob got involved in the ground floor of the overnight shipping business. The pioneer of overnight shipping suffered absolute failure for several years as he attempted to build an infrastructure that would support the concept of products moving from one side of the country to the other in one night. When the history of the company was written, the chance meeting of the founder and the second Bob was considered a seminal point in the success of both the idea and the company. The founder's vision and Bob's overall creative prowess combined into an unstoppable force that almost overnight made them both billionaires. In the twenty years with the Company, the second Bob served on the Board and enjoyed the status of the number two man. Just like there was a Hewlett and a Packard or a Johnson and another Johnson, the second Bob was one of the two main ingredients that made a legend loom very large.

A single billionaire doesn't run free too long but the second Bob lasted longer than most. An adrenaline-fueled workaholic, the second Bob finally fell in love with a wonderful and intelligent woman and they began to plan their exit out of the world that they were currently in. The second Bob knew that he couldn't keep up the pace and the first Mary grew tired of having loads of money and no time to enjoy it. They were both at home, in a rare time with both of them had time to talk. Sitting in the breakfast room, the second Bob said, "I think I have had enough."

"Me too," said Mary, "How much money do we have?"

Bob thought for a minute, as Billionaires do, and said, "In real cash, maybe one hundred million, a billion dollars worth of stock and all the stuff adds another two hundred million." All the stuff included a kick ass collection of Hudson River School art, a half a dozen homes in cities no one has ever heard of plus every rich person's toy imaginable.

"So we can eat," said Mary without looking up from her newspaper.

"I have a feeling we will be okay."

"Okay, what do you want to do?"

"I would like to go back home and putter around with some of my friends."

"You have friends?"

"I got some old friends, we don't see each other but I don't want to work hard, I don't want to travel much and my head is too full to keep going much longer."

"What do you want to do with all the stuff?" asked Mary.

"Well, I don't want to move it. Let's give the art away to a museum that we like, keep the cash and sell everything else. I suppose the SEC has a few rules about dumping a billion dollars of stock but we can settle that later."

The second Bob went to work that day and sat down with the founder as they have been doing for almost twenty-five years. They sat in their shared office, each on the side of a second-hand partner's desk and the second Bob told him that he wanted to quit.

"Hell, I want to quit too," said the founder.

"You can't quit," said the second Bob, "it's your company."

"Well, you can't quit either," said the founder, "it's your company too."

The founder wasn't kidding. It was no surprise that they both owned equal amounts of the company but the second Bob was rarely in the limelight and allowed the founder to enjoy mythical status as a visionary. The employees knew the truth but no one went out of their way to correct the media reports. The second Bob was the quintessential guy behind the guy, avoiding the media, barely being connected to the company's success and basically showing up only in the corporation's annual report picture and 10-K report compliments of the SEC.

"Listen," said the second Bob, "I have a load of money and no time to spend any of it and no time to do anything but work."

"I got an idea," said the founder, "You don't quit but just stop coming in. You show up every once in awhile for board meetings and things like that and we'll call it even."

"Do you promise to cut my salary to zero and not involve me in company business?"

"I promise," lied the founder. "I will only call or visit to be social. Do you have enough money? Do you need anymore for this secret retirement?"

"No, I'm good," said the second Bob, "I'm taking off." And he walked out the door and looked in and said, "I really don't want to stay for the entire board meeting."

"And I am good with that," said the founder truthfully, "I will see you when I see you."

The second Bob drove home and met Mary in the driveway.

"I quit today," said the second Bob.

"Me too," said Mary.

And they went in to pack. They made a few phone calls and put their house on the market with a discrete realtor. The kids were all gone and they really had no next-door neighbors mainly because next door was about two blocks away. Unsure what to do first, they decided to take a trip and during the trip, they would decide formally on their choice for their new hometown. Mary had no opinion so she allowed the charade of deciding where they were going to live even though she was convincing it would be Bob's hometown. After ten days in a forgettable paradise and then a month in Lisbon, they flew back to Bob's hometown and bought the second house they saw. They faxed a very short list of furniture, clothing and other items to their housekeeping staff with instructions to pack that up and send it to a new address. Everything else was sold with the house and divided up amongst the loyal staff or disposed of with a needy charity. Sitting on a front porch for the first time in many years, the second Bob was relaxed and convinced he and Mary made the right move.

The last one to arrive home was Steven. His years away from home were the most interesting because it appeared that he was the only one that never wanted to leave. After graduating from college, Steven was going to marry well and come back home for a life well lived. But unfortunately, things never work out the way they were planned and Steven was thrust into the challenging and miserable world of fast food management. Hired right out of school as a naive Manger Trainee, he took the title and found himself in a small Midwestern town after completing an extensive five-day management class at the franchise regional headquarters. Cruelly and unceremoniously awarded the role of the newest Assistant Manager, Steven began a two-decade plus career with a series of fast food retailers.

Fast food retailing was, and continues to be bad theater: bad hours, questionable sanitation, mind-numbing turnover, bizarre employees, thankless efforts and a constant and never-ending stream of hungry and stupid people. The vocation is usually reserved for people that are so truly desperate for employment that even a neutrino of intelligence and a pleasant work ethic is enough for constant promotion. After about two months, Steve realized the he had a choice: quit this crap hole job and start an exhaustive job search or embrace it. The search would be agonizing due to his lack of interest in just about everything. His academic career was not illustrious and he established a pattern early on to do just enough to pass his classes but showed no interest in anything. As a senior, his classmates were salivating for careers in international finance or brand marketing; he had no opinion and could barely work up enough enthusiasm to make appointments for on-campus interviews. Obviously, his choices were limited to the career bottom feeders when he made his initial foray into the manic world of retail food management.

Surrounded by the realization that a lack of passion makes for poor career and life choices, he decided it was up to him to make something worthwhile of his ignorant, but obvious dynamic career choice. Steven began to take it seriously; he memorized the operations manuals, he forced himself to have fun and he poured out all the available energy to motivate employees and greet customers. Overnight, his shifts became popular and his crew's turnover stabilized. His food costs were below average and his energy caught the eye of the owner. At the end of every shift, Steven would dutifully track his performance and go home and collapse to do it all over again the next day. He would go to bed with caked on lard on his pants, condiment splashes on his shoes and thawed French fries embedded in a variety of apparel crevices. This went on for days, weeks and seemingly ions. However; he finally caught a break.

The owner planned a new store and tapped Steven to run it. Yet again, Steve moved to another tiny little town and started over again. He hired an entirely new staff, supervised the building of the new restaurant and for four months, worked eighteen-hour days getting the store ready. The store opened to huge numbers and Steven was tapped six months later to do it all over again. By this time, the performance of the store was better and Steven's efforts were more efficient. He knew he had found his niche; opening fast food stores and moving from town to town spreading the gospel of high cholesterol and fat-enriched food from one town to another.

That type of operational expertise does not stay secret for long. After about a half a dozen successful openings, Steve accepted a job with a competitor as a Regional Marketing Manager and his career began to ascend. The fast-food industry is as whory of an industry as any and after awhile, Steven had either worked for or been recruited by every major fast food company in the country. As the years went on, Steven got married and raised a family. He traveled less and less as the years went on and the calluses that were formed in the many years of working on the grills began to disappear. He spent more and more time in the classroom or the office with just fading memories of working in the stores during the lunch rush. His salary was increasing and his stock portfolio was saturated with restaurant stock from all his former and current employers. The stock options were discovered in the fast food business and viewed as an innovative piece of compensation and he took as much as he could because that stock always seem to grow. The industry was growing exponentially and he rode the wave into paper riches.

His net worth was growing and he and his family lived in a nice home in an affluent suburb. She was a teacher and the kids were wonderfully plain and pleasant. Surrounded by official professionals, Steven always felt sub-standard when he explained what he did. Even though he managed a fifty million dollar business with several hundred employees, when he explained that the business consisted of a fleet of fast food restaurants, it made it sound kind of second-class success and something not to be proud of as compared to being a doctor, lawyer or professional manager. Steven still had to wear company-issued apparel and just like a cop who longs for plain clothes, Steven knew as long as he had to wear a stupid paper hat or logoed shirt with a name tag, he was always going to be treated as a poor man's professional. The years continued and the physical toll of working with greasy floors and fry pits, soapy steps, hundred pound buckets of pickles, large dumpsters and dangerous Taylor ice cream machines, Steven hung it up on his fifty-second birthday. He couldn't wait to stop smelling like lard and urinal cakes, he wanted to go back home and get a job when no food or teenagers were involved.

When the last kid went to college showing no interest in ever returning, Steven waited two weeks later and retired. He and his wife sold their home and packed the trucks themselves and drove back to Steven's hometown. It was good to be back but he began to hear that the old group was reassembling in town and he wanted to be part of it and be proved somewhat wrong from his comments of many years prior.

Within one month of the Tontine, all five men departed to areas unknown and distant with no plan except to do good things and definitely a desire to leave their familiar surroundings. And within one month and thirty-two years later, all five men and their wives returned to the hometown to retire or to seek some solitude within the friendly confines that they grew up as young adults. Since the friendships were solid but dormant, the trend of all five returning alumni could not be ignored but no assumptions were being made. Each year, the group dutifully sent out holiday cards so the rudimentary information including wife's name, number and gender breakdown of children, high-level vocational summary and general philosophical assessment were within the group's collective awareness. Being a small town, the five began to collect at one of the houses, as they did as teenagers and their wives seemed pleased with the collective peace of mind.

When they all reunited, no one had to work and none of the five felt compelled to do much of anything for awhile. It was like going back to their High School days but you didn't have to attend classes, worry about acne or getting caught doing some illegal or immoral. They were five men that reconnected after many years with an impressive collection of learned life lessons as well as a positive aura that comes to people who realize that they are exactly where they should be at this moment. Discussions would last for the day and each member of the group would expound on an idea and attempt to use their experience as metaphors to convince the rest of the group of their opinion. Theories would run the gamut of world politics or religion and the solutions would be coming from all disciplines ranging from the second Bob's yammerings about standard cartage rates to Matty's soliloquy to the succulent powers of gluten and yeast.

The dynamics of the old group had evolved and for the better; none of the group had attempted to wrest control from the others because of their ages and interests. They all came home to reconnect and seek out the best ideas from the past so they could blend those ideas with the wisdom and resources of today. The group would meet often to discuss the events of the day and during the round robin discussions, the sheer amount of work that was produced by these five was significant.

It didn't take long for the group to get back into a rhythm. The wisdom of the five men was impressive and almost immediately, different groups were helping each other out on issues and interests. The dynamics were sitting there, almost thirty years later except for the element of the unknown. All the men had returned to their hometown to retool and to decide what they wanted to do when they grew up. They rented an office on the main street in town with a large, picture window looking out on the street and a full kitchen in the back. Their wives didn't mind the attempt at normalcy because the five men were not slated for a life of leisure. The five wives got along famously, especially since none of them had any friends in the town. Getting together in a complimentary nature to the men, they took the time to reconnect old holiday cards and notes and filled in the blanks that the five men had failed to resolve to the ladies mutual satisfaction.

"I can't get anything out of Bob," said one of the wives. "He goes out with the boys, they goof off all day and he comes home. I ask him about the other families, their children, their grandchildren and I just get a shrug."

"Are you talking about the first Bob or the second Bob," said Matty's wife, "I am sorry, I can't keep the Bobs straight yet."

"It doesn't matter," said the second Bob's wife, "It is the same thing with me. Honestly, I am amazed he gets all the way back home by himself."

A mile away, the five friends positioned their desks into a semi-circle and would meet the morning to discuss their agendas. The days were pretty light and occasionally they would collaborate on a small project for SCORE or an old business friend or contact but for the most part, they would look out the window and just talk. They all had their own phones and office paraphernalia, but generally it was a clubhouse that provided them with a place to go. When a request was made for someone's help, it was always denied with enthusiasm and then always accommodated.

"I am retired," said Matty, "If you want a birthday cake, make it yourself."

"Helluva way to make a living, Matty," said Steven. "Anyone for a walk?"

"Not for me boys, I got a few of my real friends coming over today," said the first Bob. "You girls can pick up around your area, which would be nice."

The building was purchased by an anonymous but retired billionaire and the office chats were therapeutic for the group and they all needed the sense of camaraderie. Whether the group was a product of senior management upbringing; contesting with politics and unseen enemies, or whether the group was made up of craftsman, exhausted by years of isolated but quality efforts....it did not matter. All the men needed each other and the sense that they were safe allowed to complete the Tontine and they were all better for it. But surrounding circumstances were also better because of them, individually and as a group, and reflections to that end made for nights of contentment and days scheduled to their collective satisfaction. 

Back to Short Stories