There are things in my life that I know with absolute certainty, but only a few. I love the Pittsburgh Pirates and I love The Who. Clint Eastwood can do no wrong in my book, and spring edges out summer as my favorite season. I'm a simple man, and would probably be content to spend my time on a desert island eating nothing more than hamburgers.
It goes without saying, of course, that family and friends tower above the rest. I love my wife, Heather, and my parents and siblings. Yet, no bond ever seems to match the one that most of us share with a lifelong buddy. A pal from childhood likely knows more true dirt about you than any kin possibly could, and that makes this bond a solid one.
Johnny McWilliams was always that friend to me. I was the lanky Little League pitcher while he was my classic pudgy catcher. I threw and Johnny hit, and by the end of that first summer together we became inseparable. We endured high school as comrades, and even got into a little pile of shit with the police once. He was the best man at my wedding, a mere week after holding my hand through an arduous vomiting session at my stag party. Johnny McWilliams was gold to me.
"I'm not going to be seeing you for a while, Mike."
I listened, as Johnny finished his fourth slice of our Meaty Deluxe pizza and tried to conceal a rumbling belch. He reached for number five, as I contemplated his current weight. While I had filled out nicely over the years, at a cool one-seventy-four, Johnny had to be tipping the scales at over two-fifty. Some guys can carry that weight without any problem, but not Johnny. My 28-year-old best friend was fat.
"What do you mean, John?"
"I'm going away," he answered. I must have looked puzzled, because he chuckled and stated, "Don't worry, it's not prison or anything."
"It's a high intensity diet plan, at this institute a couple of hundred miles east of here, near Harrisburg."
"And how long is this for?" For some reason, I could smell a rat.
"Only a month. But it will be worth it, buddy, trust me. I've done the research and it's a no-brainer. Just don't ask what it costs."
Johnny dug into his pizza while I sat quietly, my stomach already full. I feared my friend was getting desperate. His girth had always been a personal issue, but I couldn't ever remember him talking about a commitment of this magnitude.
"Let's face it, Mikey. I'm a fat bastard." A chunk of pepperoni, smothered in tomato sauce, dropped from Johnny's lower lip onto the table. He snatched it up and tossed it back into his very busy mouth. "That's why I'm pigging out so much tonight. After this, it's over. Well, maybe one last visit to the Chicken Shack for some barbeque wings, but then it's quitting time. I mean it, brother."
I had never heard of such a thing as a high intensity weight loss institute, but decided not to pry any further. I did wonder about one thing, though.
"What about work, John? Does Dennis go along with all of this?"
"One-hundred percent. In fact, he's even arranged for me to officially claim it as a medical leave of absence. How about that?" Johnny smiled, brimming with confidence about his approaching conquest of obesity. "All I can say, Mike, is look out ladies! There's a new Johnny McWilliams coming to town."
That was the last I saw of him, for six weeks.
I was quite surprised at how much I had missed my friend. I'm a fairly busy guy most of the time, with the wife and work, but rarely do I go more than a week without touching base with old Johnny Mac. Other friends, or acquaintances, disappear and reappear with regularity, but not Johnny. He was a constant in my world. At least he had been, until recently.
A teenage-like giddiness tickled me, as I pulled into the back parking lot of Johnny's apartment complex. It was a perfect Saturday in May, and I knew the six-pack on the seat beside me would taste great as I caught up with my pal, the Pirates-Dodgers television game providing the suitable backdrop. Johnny had already informed me, over the phone, that beer was now an official no-no in his routine, but not to let that stop me from enjoying a few cool ones. I suddenly felt like we'd felt at seventeen or eighteen, when baseball and beer were a regular tandem in our lives.
I headed for the rear entrance of the building, cradling the six under my left arm while checking my right coat pocket. I felt a tad silly about having purchased a welcome home gift for my friend, but then decided it was an appropriate gesure. What the hell! It was time I replaced that lost Led Zeppelin disc for him, anyway. I smiled as I noticed Johnny's white pick-up, back in it's usual parking spot.
Ascending the stairs toward unit # 12, I tried to imagine what was in store for me. Johnny had been brief on the telephone, regarding details of his weight loss, but had seemed very upbeat. He was anxious for me to hurry over and check it out, though. I reached his doorway and prepared to knock. My knocking hand suddenly became suspended in mid-air, as a strange sound wafted out from within the John McWilliams' residence. A weird, almost alien-sounding techno drone emanated from the apartment of a man who had once expounded, very drunkenly, that Jimmy Page was the 1970's equivalent to Beethoven or Mozart. I figured he must be watching one of those sci-fi pulpers that he seemed secretly hooked on, and completed my knocking motion. Ten seconds passed, followed by the sound of the doorknob, unlocking and turning.
The thing that greeted me at the entrance couldn't possibly be human. My eyesight swam with bizarre and colorful waves of horror, as I stared at a hideous caricature of my dearest, most beloved compeer. I felt the Big Mac (ironically, one of Johnny's old nicknames) that I had consumed half an hour earlier at the drive-thru, do a nauseating backflip in my gut.
"Mikey! It's great to see you, brother."
It hugged me with warm recognition, then pulled me into its lair with surprising physical strength. Good old Johnny Mac had always been a big, strong fellow. However, this was not the Johnny I knew. It couldn't be.
"Well," Mr. McWilliams held out his arms in a beaming display of new-found pride. "Is this incredible or what?"
Incredible would not have been my first choice of words. I was fucking flabbergasted. My clammy mouth and swollen tongue would not allow me to respond.
"C'mon," it said, grabbing my arm again. "Let's get that beer in the fridge."
As it led me to the kitchen, I stared down at an arm that was once a beefy cannon for nailing opposing baserunners. It was now rail-thin with a shiny, waxen skin. Horrific images of Auschwitz survivors immediately filled my brain, as I tried to make sense of what was happening.
"You haven't said anything, Mike," spoke the semi-familiar figure in front of me. "It's extreme, I know. But I've gotta tell you, buddy, I have never felt better."
I had to say something. I pulled it together enough to choke out the words, "What happened?"
John placed my six-pack in the refrigerator as I stared at the skeletal abomination before me. Inconceivable as it seemed, he looked like he had dropped almost two-hundred pounds! Yet, he was vibrant and somehow glowing.
"I'm a new man, my friend. That's what happened."
As he spoke, I wondered if someone might have slipped a tab of acid into my earlier burger. This had to be a hallucination. His face was the same - but different. It was tight and sunken, yet bursting with ruddiness. The eyes burned with insatiable determination.
"What's that?", asked Johnny just then, pointing at the Zeppelin CD that I had now forgotten to bother concealing. My initial state of frozen shock thawed slightly, as I handed it to him with a quivering pass.
"Hey, thanks brother! I haven't listened to this in ages."
I then returned my attention to the oddness of the music in the next room. It seemed this nightmare even had a background score.
"You like that, Mike? It's some new underground band from L.A. My new buddy from the clinic, Hans, introduced me to it. C'mon, let's check it out."
It led me swiftly to the living room. The louder weirdness of the music now combined with the surreal form of my best friend to cause a cold sweat to break out on my forehead. A ringing began in my ears, as I realized I was descending into a state of mild panic.
Johnny McWilliams, still glowing and seemingly oblivious to my level of astonishment, grabbed his stereo remote and pushed the bass channel deeper. Just then, I noticed a whopping plastic container of pills, on top of his coffee table. They were big and yellow.
"Listen, John," I tried to cut through the growing madness of the last two minutes. "Talk to me. What the hell...." A knock on the apartment door jolted me, as Johnny sprang like a cat to answer it.
"That'll be Cheryl," he said excitedly. "I forgot to mention her. She's from the clinic."
The once firm hardwood floor of Johnny McWilliams' living room began to feel like the swaying bottom of an unsteady rowboat, as I stared at the opened door. The creature that stood there was from another planet. It's forty-pound frame sported an oversized biking helmet, atop a face that defied rational description. It was a fucking skull with eyes!
"Mikey, I want you to meet someone very special to me," said the former Johnny McWilliams, pulling his freaky friend in to join us. For the first time in my life, animal instinct ruled me totally, as I bolted for the closing door.
I ran between them, like two human goalposts, and almost took a severe tumble down the stairwell. Crazy images of them floating after me kept my wild legs and feet from barely touching a step.
"Mikey!", echoed in my swirling brain, as I lept into my car and left a long black stink of burning rubber behind.
Three weeks passed, before I spoke with John McWilliams again. He phoned me, from outside Harrisburg, to tell me about his new job at the weight loss institute. He asked if I would do him the honor of coming there in July, to stand up for him at the altar. It seemed that he and Cheryl had decided to tie the knot, and Johnny wanted me as his best man.
I told him, from my bedside phone, that I would try to make it, but made no guarantees. I told him, truthfully, that I hadn't been feeling very well and that I'd been off work on a medical leave. I couldn't seem to keep food down, and had lost nearly twenty pounds.
Always cheery, Johnny McWilliams chuckled. "Not me, brother. I've actually packed on about five or six pounds since I got here. But don't you worry, my friend. I've got it under control."