Gene Astkins was rushing through the aisles of Fontaine's Family Grocery Store picking up a necessities required for a lonely guy's bachelor life in his rented apartment in downtown Hillsboro.
Good thing he was carrying a plastic hand basket instead of wheeling a metal cart because he zipped around to the end of the aisle and nearly blindsided a woman coming around the corner from the next row.
"Oh, excuse me," Gene said, embarrassed by his recklessness as he did a side-step to avoid a collision and he continued on his way.
"Gene!" The woman called when he was already by her.
He turned and gave the woman a closer look. He didn't recognize her at first but it was her laugh that gave her away.
"Brooklee?" Gene asked with surprise although her hospital scrubs made it much easier to figure out it was her.
"Hello!" She said, giving him a welcomed hug. "It's been ages."
"I thought you were living in Boston," Gene remarked.
"I am," she smiled. "I came home to help my parents take care of my grandfather. He lives with them now."
"He's getting pretty drifty in the head," Brooklee revealed. "Hence, the working uniform," she joked, gesturing to the light blue scrubs.
"That's kind of you," Gene said. "Stuart come too?"
"Na," She said with a wave of her hand. "He's much too important and busy for that!"
Gene was glad that he stopped at the store before heading for the bar. At least he was still lucid and coherent unlike other nights when he dragged himself home from climbing poles and stringing cable as a lineman.
These days, Gene spent most of his times drinking in bars, get lit at The Bullpen Tavern when he wasn't sitting at home alone channel surfing with a bottle of booze on the coffee table.
"How's the nursing career going?" Gene asked.
"Oh, fine, fine," Brooklee said, with a disinterested wave of her hand.
"And Dr. Livingston, I presume?"
Brooklee laughed, never tiring of his running joke dating back years.
"Saving people left and right," she said sarcastically.
Gene had been friends with both Stuart and Brooklee in high school, though more so with Stuart because they played sports together. Gene was never that great of a conversationalist with Brooklee, self-conscious because she and Stuart were so smart and talented while he was just a dumb jock. Plus those two dated so Gene was most often the third wheel sidekick pal who tagged along, usually with whichever short-term girl he happened to be with at the time.
Stuart and Brooklee went off to college followed by med school for Stuart while Gene dropped out of Blue County Community College after one unproductive year and landed the job with Blue Mountain Cable Company where he had been laboring (and lingering) ever since.
Gene had become increasing embarrassed to bump into the couple in recent years. They lived in an impressive townhouse off of Boston's Beacon Street with admirable jobs in the health care profession. Gene lived in a dumpy three room rental in their hometown not quite embracing responsibility or direction fifteen years out of high school.
Gene was surprised that Stuart and Brookelee had yet to marry having been together as a couple since sophomore year of high school but he knew not to bring the subject up since it appeared to be a sore topic for Brooklee.
Of course, Gene was hardly in a position to comment having lost any pretense of finding true love or a serious relationship of his own. He had become the staple of one night stands and meaningless drunken flings.
Spoiler Alert: Brooklee was (and always had been) Gene's one true love but he was never going to reveal such a confession. Why ruin their friendship or make things awkward with Stuart? It was better to be a suffering in silence martyr - it gave Gene a reason to be a miserable drunk.
"You should stop by," Brooklee said. "I'm going kind of stir crazy being stuck with Pops 24/7. I had to sneak out to do this as it is."
"Where are your parents?" Gene asked.
"They're on a cruise," she explained. "They needed the break."
"Wouldn't Pops mind?" Gene asked.
"He's in bed by six when he realizes it's six at night and not six in the morning!" Brooklee said with an eye roll. "He gets up at three in the morning and does the laundry. Every frigin' day."
"Why?" Gene frowned.
"Because he's losing his marbles," she answered.
"I guess I could stop by," Gene said with a shrug.
"Great!" Brooklee beamed. "It'll be fun to go over old times." She paused for a second. "How 'bout tonight?" She asked hopefully.
"Tonight?" He asked, caught off guard by unexpected sudden invitation.
"Say, eight o'clock? I'll have the Pizza House deliver."
"I'll bring the beer," Gene volunteered.
"Great!" She said happily. "I'll see you then!"
With that, Brooklee was striding down the aisle toward the milk section. Gene watched the sway of her ponytail bouncing behind her as she walked and he let out a sigh. If he knew what was good for him, he'd stand her up as a no show instead of torturing himself being around her all over again. He had trained himself to let go and move on but every time he saw her he was lured right back into his pathetic teenage heartbreak.
Gene tried to remember the last time he was actually alone one-on-one with Brooklee without Stuart in tow. Maybe back in her college days when she came home for a visit alone.
Gene checked out in the self-service section of the store and he walked home the block to his apartment trying to figure out if he had the guts to show up at Brooklee's house on The Hilltop.
Gene never felt comfortable hanging out at either Stuart or Brooklee's houses in the expensive Hilltop neighborhood. He grew up in a double-wide with his widower father in the Hillsboro Trailer Park and he had to wonder if his current rental apartment was even a step up.
Gene was about twenty-five pounds lighter than his high school playing weight. He stopped lifting weights after his last varsity baseball game and he was forced to lose some weight in order to be able to climb poles without looking ridiculous. He was one of those guys who could grow a beard in high school and he still wore it now though he didn't keep his hair as long because it itched under the hardhat on hot days.
High school football and baseball was what connected Gene and Stuart (Stuart was also a basketball star but Gene felt he was too big and slow to play hoops effectively). Gene covered quarterback Stuart's blindside in football as the left guard on the line.
In baseball, Gene was the catcher receiving Stuart's all-star pitches. Around school, the joke was that Gene was Stuart's body man and body guard - always running interference and taking the blame whenever Stuart got in trouble.
These days, Stuart was the tennis and golf type at his Boston area country club while Gene watched sports on television. They only had the memories of their high school glory days sports success to talk about and in recent years that became less relevant even to Gene.
But Brooklee never cared about the sports, at least when it came to her friendship with Gene. She appreciated him watching out for Stuart both on and off the field but she was one of the few girls who treated the sidekick as a person and not a jock.
Gene sometimes forgot that he lived in the trailer park and was just some dumb overweight loser ballplayer when he was with Brooklee. She treated him as an equal even though she was pretty, on the honor roll and a member of the National Honor Society, lived on the hill, came from a well to do family, and was dating the type-cast golden All American Boy who came from an equally as successful and popular family.
Gene glanced at his chiseled hands after his shower as he changed into better jeans and found a respectable shirt to wear. Stuart was the GQ Model even in high school and his wardrobe today was probably worth more than the three year old truck Gene drove.
There had been few reasons to hang out with Stuart in recent years - they had definitely grown apart in life experiences and goals. How could a cable lineman compete with Stuart's growing medical profession? Did they really have anything left in common other than an increasingly meaningless shared past?
Oh yes, of course - there was one other thing they had in common (although Stuart wasn't aware of it): Brooklee.