The canary yellow three-by-five card fell to the floor, face down. Retrieving
the card and turning it face up, he stared at it curiously. It was a single
sentence, consisting of only four words in all-caps pica type. A waitress
wiped the table next to him and happened to glance over just as a look of
startled unbelief overtook him. She watched his eyes widen and hands
shake, and wondered what could possibly be on that card to trigger such a reaction.
Chilled to the bone, he was forced to begin a radical reinterpretation of the
flurried trauma of his past eight days. He slowly mouthed the four words, as if
doing so would make them less menacing and bizarre.
Three pairs of eyes focused together on the twenty-seven-inch screen. Kansas
City's placekicker planted his left foot and swung his right into the football. His
teammates' focused energy seemed to lift it that extra six inches above the bar. The
fifty-four-yard field goal was good, the first half over.
"All right!" Doc and Finney reached across Jake, slapping their hands over him
in symbolic victory.
"No way. Gimme a break." Jake's buddies' celebration added insult to injury.
His Seahawks headed for the locker room ten points down.
The three childhood friends-now doctor, businessman, and journalist-slouched
back on the recliner-couch. Doc occupied the recliner on one end, Finney
the other. As usual, Jake Woods sat between them, feet propped up on a stool and
pillow. All three wore blue jeans, Finney a navy blue Microsoft Windows sweatshirt,
Doc a snazzy maroon polo shirt, and Jake a torn and faded gray sweatshirt with an
It began for the three men like almost every Sunday afternoon the last twenty
years. None of them had a clue this one would end so differently.
"Okay guys," Finney announced, "it's pizza time-let's flip." The routine was
automatic, a no-brainer. They'd done it since childhood a thousand times, to decide
who got to bat first or who had to buy popcorn at the matinee. In the adult version,
at half time they staged two coin flips and a tie-breaker, if necessary. Loser drove,
loser bought the pizza. No home deliveries. While the winners gloated and kicked
back, the loser raced to and from Gino's in an attempt to miss as little of the third
quarter as possible.
Shoulders squared and back straight, Doc looked like a career military officer,
though he hadn't been in uniform for twenty-five years. "Tell you what, Finn," he
jabbed. "Let's just send Woody now and flip later."
Jake Woods, having lost the flip three weeks in a row, flashed a "shut up and
flip the coin" glare. His sturdy jaw jutted out in mock insult, as if to say an award-winning
syndicated columnist shouldn't have to endure this kind of abuse. Despite
his tough no-holds-barred reputation in this city, it was difficult to imagine fit but
frumpy Jake being able to intimidate the dapper and ever-confident Doc. Standing
there in his misshapen fur-lined sheepskin slippers, with disheveled hair, stray eyebrows
veering out, and a two-day beard, Jake was in weekend gear.
"Hang on," Jake said, pulling a quarter from his pocket. "This time I'll flip. I
think you guys have been rigging this. Let's see how you do against an honest two
bits. Okay, this is between you two-I'll take on the loser. Call it, Finn."
Finney's face screwed up in feigned tension as if he'd been called on to kick a
fifty-four yarder. "I can't take the pressure."
"Shut up and call it," Doc said. "I'm hungry. You can pray about it later."
As the coin reached the top of its flight, Finney called "Tails." It landed on the
coffee table, which from a distance appeared smooth and shiny, but up close
showed countless tiny dents from years of half time coin tosses. The quarter hit on
its edge and rolled around like a rim shot, seemingly taking forever to settle.
"Son of a ." Doc said under his breath, staring at the coffee table. The quarter
had stopped rolling around the middle of the coffee table. But it hadn't fallen flat.
Balancing precariously, it stayed right on its edge. No heads, no tails.
"What are the chances of that happening?"
"Girls, look at this."
The "girls," each in their upper forties, were fast friends. It came with the
package. Married to the three musketeers-or the three stooges, as they sometimes
called them-the girls were destined to spend a lot of time together. They might as
well like it, and they did. Janet wasn't around as often now, since her divorce from
Jake three years ago. But the relationship was amiable-it was a good modern
divorce-and Sue and Betsy often persuaded Janet to keep them company during
the Sunday afternoon ritual.
Sue, Finney's wife, marched into the living room first, followed by Janet and
Betsy. "Oh, did we miss the coin toss? Too bad-it's always so exciting." Noting
the look on Jake's face she added, "Lose again, Jake? Hope the Tribune pays you
well. We appreciate you keeping us fed."
"I didn't lose. No one lost. Look."
Sue followed Jake's gaze to the coin on the coffee table. "You're kidding. Don't
anyone breathe or it'll fall."
"So what are you going to do, boys? Toss again?"
"Nah," Doc replied. "Let's leave it right there. No one wins, no one loses." He
looked at Jake and Finney. "Let's just all go together."
"Together." A familiar thought. Forty years ago the three had played army,
hunted lions, dug up treasures and discovered aliens together in the fields and hillsides
and forests of Benton County. Together they'd exasperated their mothers,
annoyed their brothers, harassed their sisters, confounded their teachers and principals,
though not nearly as much as they remembered. Together they'd spiffied up
and swaggered into Kathy Bates's eighth-grade party, and trembled wide-eyed later
that night when the police showed up. In high school they each earned letters in
three sports, fought side by side in the state championship football game, and took
their dates to the prom together. They'd gone off to college, joined ROTC, and
graduated together. They'd entered the Army, traveled off to three different parts of
the world, then shipped out to Vietnam as greenhorn lieutenants within three
months of each other. In the almost quarter century since the war, they'd been best
man in each other's weddings, and seen their children grow up together. And
together they'd gone off on more hunting and camping trips than they could count,
the kind where it was miserably cold and you hunched in close to the fire and the
smoke stung your eyes and permeated your coats and flannel shirts, and you never
got off a good shot at anything but an empty chili can, and you told stories you'd
told a hundred times and laughed harder than you ever remembered laughing
before. This was just Sunday pizza, but "together" sounded good.
"I'll drive," Doc said. Finney saluted good naturedly. Jake kicked off his slippers,
which he brought to Finney's every Sunday, and slipped into his Nikes, not
bothering to lace them. The guys all grabbed their coats.
"We've got twenty minutes till the third quarter." Doc was half way out the
door when he turned. "You made the call, Betsy?"
"Have I ever fumbled the ball, Doc? Of course I made the call. One giant Hula
Lula and a deep dish heart-attack-on-a-crust." This was the girls' nickname for the
Meat Eater's special, full of the cholesterol their used-to-be-jock husbands' arteries
didn't need but especially craved during football season.
"And, guys, don't slam the-" The loud crash toppled a photograph from the
mantle. "Door," Sue added weakly, as Janet and Betsy giggled. Nobody noticed the
coin fall on its side.
"Bulls in a china shop," Sue said, with more fondness than exasperation.
"Yeah, and there's no china left," Betsy added. "Not in my house. But the bull's
still charging!" All three flashed a what-can-you-do expression, laughing together.
As the three bulls made the brisk walk to the car, Jake glanced up at the
swirling gray of the Oregon sky. It looked as if it had been rubbed hard with a dirty
eraser. No rain yet, but the sky felt heavy, and to someone born and raised here,
even the air's smell and taste signaled the threat of long heavy rain. A storm's coming,
Jake felt certain.
"With you in a sec, Jake." Doc and Finney were taking care of something by
Finney's car, while Jake waited by Doc's. He didn't mind. He breathed in that air,
that rich fresh Oregon air. There was no place like this one. Jake, along with Doc
and Finney, had grown up in a small town in this same Willamette Valley, less than
a hundred miles south of where they lived now. Anyone raised in the Pacific
Northwest always wants to come home, and after college and the army Jake's internal
homing device reeled him back, along with his friends. He loved the rugged
mountains forty minutes to the east, and the jagged Oregon coastline ninety minutes
to the west. He loved the endless towering Douglas firs, so thick you could pull over
to the side of the road, walk half a mile and be a world apart from everyone else on
earth, inhaling the aroma those car air fresheners tried in vain to imitate. He loved
something green growing everywhere you turned, and the four distinct seasons,
each with its singular beauty, precisely ticking off the cycle of each year. Most of all
he loved sharing this huge state with far fewer people than inhabited single cities in
the east, midwest, south, or down the coast in California. In Oregon you could
drive some roads and see more deer than cars.
Oregon was paradise for the hunter, fisherman, boater, hiker, backpacker, outdoorsman
and wilderness lover. There was some of most of those in Jake. But he
loved something else about this place, at least this northern Willamette Valley that
had always been home. He loved the independent spirit, the rugged individualism,
the free thinking initiative of people who weren't slaves to tradition or convention.
People who didn't like being told what was right and wrong, who decided for themselves
what they should and shouldn't do. A progressive state, Oregon had become
home to nuclear protesters, animal rights protesters, environmentalist protesters,
homosexual protesters, "legalize marijuana" protesters, "right to die" protesters, and
representatives of any and every challenge to the status quo. Why, Jake wasn't sure.
Maybe they'd inherited genes of individualism and autonomy from their forebears
who braved the Oregon trail, who kept leaving behind the established order of
American civilization, going west until the land ran into the Pacific Ocean, stopping
only then, so far from the political power brokers of the east or the midwest
conservatives or the southern Bible Belters that they could live their own lives as
they saw fit. Church attendance was lower here than anywhere in the nation.
People had better things to do on weekends than sit in stuffy old buildings, bored
and feeling guilty. Oregon was free spirited, a great place to live, Jake's kind of place.
He'd been all across his country and a dozen others, but wouldn't trade this place
for any other.
Of all times, Sunday afternoons with his friends left Jake feeling free and content.
But today an uneasiness gnawed at him. The coin and the clouds and the time
of his life conspired to fill him with uncertainty and dread.
"Okay, let's go. Time's wastin'!" Doc took charge again, and they piled into his
cherry-red Suburban, a fully loaded four-wheel-drive with a 454 engine. Doc
hopped in the driver's seat, Jake scooted to the middle, Finney squeezed against Jake
to close the passenger side door. It was a snug fit in the bench seat, but no one
thought of hopping in back. It was only a ten minute drive, seven minutes for Doc,
half of it on open highway.
Jake always marveled at Doc's cars, thinking they'd be more at home sitting in a
shopping mall. This one was a year and a half old, but meticulously clean, with
gleaming windows. The smell of the rich gray upholstery was so strong Jake could
taste it. How can Doc keep this thing smelling like he bought it yesterday?
"A man's vehicle," Doc started in immediately, before he'd even shifted from
reverse to first. "Three men, one of them a real hunk, shoulder to shoulder in the
front seat. Must have been a thrill to drive it this week, huh Finn? Made you feel
like a man, didn't it?" Doc eyed Finney, who'd borrowed the Suburban two days
earlier to move some office equipment. "Not one of those wimpy cars guys low in
Just as he pulled out, Doc flashed concern at some faint vibration only he
would notice. Jake shook his head in wonder. He takes this car into the mechanic
faster than some mothers take their kid to the doctor.
Finney noticed Doc's concern too, and traded a knowing smile with Jake.
"Hey, it was working perfectly when I had it, Doc! Of course, I had to pull in for
gas every other stop light. My wimpy car could make it to Tokyo on the gas this
monster burns on the way to Gino's."
"Yeah, well it's still wimpy. You are what you drive. And you always were a
"Doc, old buddy," Finney began with a sigh, as if he'd been coerced into dredging
up an ancient story. Doc knew exactly what was coming but forced himself to
look like he didn't.
Leaning forward and turning to look past Jake, Finney asked Doc, "Remember
the dorm wrestling championship? You actually made it to the finals. You were
almost in shape back then." Doc sucked in his waist and flexed his arms against the
steering wheel to prove he still was.
Finney resumed the familiar folklore. "But somebody beat you, Doc, he beat
you real bad. And despite the brain damage you suffered that day-and Lord
knows you couldn't afford any more brain damage-I'll bet if you think real hard
you can remember who that somebody was."
Doc closed one eye and squinted the other, as if trying to remember.
"And if that somebody is a wuss, Mr. Macho Chief of Surgery, would you
explain what that makes you?"
"Hey, I had a wrenched shoulder and torn cartilage in my knee." Doc began
rustling through his duffel bag of favorite excuses that grew with the years. "And I'd
just had the flu."
"Yeah, and as I recall you'd donated blood that afternoon," Finney added.
"No, that was in the morning. In the afternoon I was having a heart transplant."
Both men laughed heartily, the way you laugh with your oldest and best
friends. At the same moment, both realized Jake wasn't laughing. His face was
scrunched and his expression distant and uncharacteristically troubled.
"Jake," Finney said. "You're awfully quiet. Doc could bore a guy to death, I
know, but that's nothing new. Something wrong?"
Jake, right index finger aimlessly stroking his graying temple, made a slow dissolve
from the inner world to the outer. "Wasn't that thing with the quarter sort
of . eerie?"
Doc flashed him his familiar screwed-up face that called people "weird" without
a spoken word. "You still thinking about that? What's the big deal?"
Jake, his reputation as Mister In-Control and Unflappable on the line, tried to
downplay his response. "I don't know," he finally answered. "For some reason, it's
almost like . like it means something."
Doc flashed a spacy look and hummed the theme from The Twilight Zone.
"Don't get spooky on me, ol' buddy. Things don't mean something. They mean
nothing. Zilch. They just happen. Unless you buy into Finney's way of thinking,
that is, which someday you may if you get Alzheimer's. One kook's enough for this
threesome. Right, Finn?"
Finney knew how to roll with Doc's punches and counter with his own. But
right now his energies focused on Jake, who appeared to need more than a lighthearted
slough-off. "Well, I don't know if the quarter means anything. But I know
life does. Things have meaning and purpose. Maybe even a coin toss. Who
"Sure, Finney, whatever you say." Doc rolled his eyes back so far all Jake could
see was white. "But I've always found that meaning in life is no substitute for a cold
beer with your pizza. Know what I mean, Woody?" Slapping Jake on the thigh,
Doc turned suddenly into the 7-Eleven, his tires bouncing off the curb.
As Doc hopped out, Jake seized the opportunity. "It's weird, Finney. Why is
that quarter bugging me? It's like it's . a sign or something."
"Maybe it is a sign, Jake. I don't know. Maybe Somebody's trying to get
through to you again."