When I walk into Madonna's on a Thursday afternoon, I can tell the mood is serious. I don't pay much attention. I'm on my cell phone talking over a story idea with a friend.
Bartender Laura quickly brings me over my usual drink.
After I get off the phone and settle into my first vodka and tonic, I look around the bar. Over to my right, I see Mark and Tony talking quietly. Laura comes out from the kitchen to my left and stops at my barstool.
She has the prettiest eyes I've ever seen. On this late afternoon, they look sad.
"You know Bear, right?" Laura says.
"Yeah, Mark and Brandon's friend," I answer back.
I probably stare at Laura for too long, not connecting what she's telling me.
"He died, died in his sleep," Laura replies emotionally. "He was crashing over at Mark's. Mark's a mess right now."
I continue to stare at her, not believing what she's telling me. Bear is just a little older than my son. He's too young to die.
I touch Laura's shoulder because I know she's upset. Other customers walk in. Laura gives me a little smile before she leaves to wait on them. I take a sip of my drink and think back to the last time I saw Bear.
It was only a few days ago at the downtown Main Library. I had entered through the sliding doors facing Walnut Street when I heard someone almost yelling, "Hey, Brandon's dad!"
There was Bear with his normal smile. We chatted for maybe a minute. He was at the library that morning to do some research on a computer program he wanted to set up. When it came to computers, Bear was a wizard.
My mind returns to the present. I again look over and see Mark and Tony talking.
Tony smiles and nods his head hello. Mark's standing, and I put my arms around him hugging him tightly. I say I'm sorry and some other things probably just to hear myself talk.
I know that words aren't going to take Mark's pain away. He and Bear were best friends.
More sooner than later, I return to my barstool and drink quickly. My mind is still trying to wrap around the fact that Bear is dead.
I feel the urge to smoke alone. I look out Madonna's window to make sure other customers aren't outside puffing away.
I step outside and light up. My thoughts are on Bear and another afternoon at Madonna's some months ago when we had our first and only real discussion.
The bar was slow that afternoon. While he didn't know me, he knew I was Brandon's dad and also a friend of Mark's. He walked up and introduced himself.
The first thing I noticed about him was his pleasant demeanor. He was friendly and engaging. He was likable.
On that afternoon, we talked about his work and his knowledge of computers. We talked about Mark and Brandon and how important friendships are. We talked about Cincinnati and other cities we've visited.
When Laura wasn't busy waiting on other customers, she would join us in our conversation. We discussed where we would live should we decide to leave Cincinnati. I remember Bear telling me about a city overseas, but now months later I can't recall which one it was.
What I do recall was his spirit. Bear was a young adult full of life who lived for the present but had big plans for the future.
Mark steps outside, and I offer him a cigarette. Through tears he tells me the details of Bear's death. I ask him if he's talked to Brandon about Bear. He says he hasn't been able to get a hold of my son.
Other customers have arrived at Madonna's. When Mark and I walk back in, the bar is fairly busy. I get Laura's attention, and she brings me another drink.
Thinking of my son, I reach into my shirt pocket and pull out my cell phone. I punch in Brandon's number. On the fourth ring, he answers.
We talk briefly as I start walking toward Mark. I tell my son there's something he needs to know and give my phone to Mark. He walks back outside to give Brandon the bad news.
I go back to my drink. The bar is lively now, with people gathered around the pool table. The jukebox is playing a song I don't recognize, but it's loud.
Mark comes back inside and hands me my cell phone. Brandon and I talk briefly, but I can hardly hear him because of the music. I finish my drink and ask Laura for the check.
When she brings it to me, I look at her pretty eyes again and put my money in her hand. I squeeze her hand a little knowing she'll need to put on a happy face for her customers while her mind is really on Bear.
Now several days past that Thursday afternoon, reality has sat in. Bear is gone, but life continues for his friends there.
It warms my heart when I see shot glasses raised in a toast to his memory. It also makes me sad.
It's a shame for such a young person so full of life to be taken too quickly. It's not right. It's just not right.
CONTACT LARRY GROSS: email@example.com