The last time I saw Buzzy, there wasn’t much left of the Vienna I’d known as a young boy. And there wasn’t much left of Buzzy.
The small, sleepy Southern town, 15 miles from Washington, was no longer small or sleepy or Southern. A highway ran through it. There was a 7-eleven at one end of town and a 7-eleven at the other, and in between were the usual chains—Safeway, Giant, Bob’s Big Boy, Rite Aid—set back behind vast parking lots filled with late-model SUVs. The old homes once lining the main thoroughfare—still called Maple Avenue, though the towering shade trees had been cut down—were gone. A complex of beige low-rise office buildings occupied the one-acre lot where our house had stood. As I drove along Vienna’s treeless streets, jammed with cars, next to empty sidewalks—not a soul in sight!—I wondered: What does it mean to grow up in a place like this, uprooted from land, locale, and history, a place that could be any place, which is to say no place? Vienna could be proud of itself: It now looked like every other successful mid-sized town in America.
Vienna had grown beyond recognition; Buzzy had shrunk. He was 42 and looked like an old man—a broken-down old man. His once ruddy complexion was sallow, his face drooped, and his muscular arms had turned to flab. I was shocked but not surprised. The drinking had finally caught up with him.
But he still had his sense of humor.
“Look at that, Donnie,” he said as a man in skin-tight cycling gear sped by on a racing bike; we were both old enough to remember a time when only kids rode bikes. “Overloads his legs just to give his ass a ride.”
It was vintage Buzzy. He had a quip for every occasion—even, the story went, one Christmas Eve years ago when he was lying on the ground bleeding, after taking on three cops outside the Vienna Inn. “And what would you like for Christmas, officers?” he said, as they handcuffed him.
We were standing on the corner of Park and Maple, in front of the second-floor apartment above Buddy’s Barber Shop, where he’d lived his whole life and where he now lived alone. His parents had died, and his younger brother Peck, still suffering PTSD from a year in Vietnam with the Marines, had fled town, one step ahead of the law. (On an earlier visit, shortly after Peck had returned from Vietnam, I asked Buzzy about his brother. “He’s in the closet,” he said. In the closet? Was he telling me Peck was gay? I asked him what he meant. “I mean he’s living in the closet,” Buzzy answered.)
“My home is haunted, Donnie,” he said. I had known all the ghosts: his dipsomaniac father and his long-suffering mother, his shy older sister and his broken younger brother. And the oldest ghost of all: his grizzled rail-thin grandfather who’d spent his last years in a rocking chair, chewing tobacco and leaking urine, on the small bare patch of yard behind Buzzy’s building. I never heard him speak; I don’t think he could. All he did, all day, every day, was rock himself, letting loose, every now and then, with a gob of tobacco. We ran back and forth in front of the old man, making a game of it, dodge-the-gob.
When I was six we were inseparable. I lived on Park Street, a block up from Buzzy, in an old white wood-frame house with black shutters and a screened-in back porch on an acre of land where my parents raised chickens and grew lettuce and carrots and corn. My father commuted by train to Washington, to his State Department job, while my mother ran V.A. Ranard’s Vienna Country Kindergarten, out of the house. Buzzy and I spent every free moment together, playing pick-up football games, shooting each other with cap guns, and competing to see who could run faster, spit further, and pee higher.
Then when I turned seven, my father joined the foreign service, and we spent three years in Tokyo. When we returned to Vienna, I began to gravitate toward boys my own age—Buzzy was two years older—and more like me, kids from middle- and upper-middle class homes who were destined for college and careers.
By the time I was a young adult, we were as different as two men in America could be. I had two college degrees, a B.A. in English and an M.S. in linguistics, and had spent half my life overseas—first, as the son of a diplomat and then on my own, as a Chinese language student in Taiwan and a Fulbright English teacher in Laos and Thailand. Buzzy had barely graduated from high school and would work until his body gave out on him, hauling bags of feed at Southern States, across the street from where he lived. All we had in common was the memory of a friendship. Yet it was a memory that would, for reasons I still don’t entirely understand, prompt me to drop by and see him—I would never call first, I would just drop by—when I was home visiting my parents in the house they had built on seven wooded acres in Holly Hills, two miles outside of Vienna. In a progressive, upwardly mobile town of high achievers—of “doctors and lawyers and such”—Buzzy was sui generis, an unreconstructed American original. Maybe that’s what kept me coming back.
I don’t think he’d ever read a book in his life, but he was a born storyteller, and that afternoon he was in fine form, despite his sickly appearance. He had just finished a story about a friend who ran a bodybuilding gym in Arlington (“Red,” Buzzy told his friend, as he watched the grunting, massively muscled bodybuilders work out, “You have built this house of apes and one day they will turn against you”), when a mailman, barely out of his teens, approached at a purposeful clip, looking slightly silly in his summer uniform of short pants and knee socks. He had a determined look: Nothing would stay this postman on his appointed rounds—or perhaps it was the teasing he knew he was in for. Lightly placing his arm on the boy’s shoulder, Buzzy looked him up and down, slowly nodding in mock approval at the summer uniform. “Hmmm,” he said softly, in a tone of mild amusement, “Tommy Rogers, a man of letters.”
A few minutes later, as I was about to leave, Buzzy suddenly turned serious. “Donnie,” he said. “When you went to Japan, you broke my heart.”
I didn’t know what to say. It’s a rarely acknowledged truth that men and boys—fathers and sons, friends and brothers—break each other’s hearts just as regularly as women and girls do. But what man or boy comes out and actually says it? Certainly not the terror of our once-tiny town, a man who had fought three policemen to a near-draw and then, bleeding on the ground, managed to crack a joke. A simple fact about Buzzy, something I’d never really thought about before, sank in: He’d never married, never even had a girlfriend, as far as I knew. I recalled stories of his raging headaches and drunken brawls that had landed him, more than once, in jail.
As I drove away, I remembered something else. It had happened after we returned from Japan, when I was distancing myself from Buzzy and finding other friends. One afternoon, as I was walking to a new friend’s house, in one of the cookie-cutter developments of low-slung ranch homes that had sprung up outside of town, I realized Buzzy was following me. I pretended not to notice, and when I entered the house, he stayed outside, half-hidden behind the property’s lone tree. Who’s that? my friend’s older brother asked me, looking out the picture window. Is he with you? No, I said, not really. The brother went outside and talked to Buzzy. I watched from the window as he slowly walked away.
One winter afternoon, a couple of years after my last visit with Buzzy, I was shoveling snow from my parent’s driveway in Holly Hills, when I heard my name over a loudspeaker: “Donnie Ranard, Donnie Ranard, calling Donnie Ranard!” I looked up to see a Jeep Wrangler, with a snow plow attached, at the top of our driveway. It had to be Buzzy—no one else still used my childhood name.
But it wasn’t Buzzy; it was his brother, Peck. He had an open can of beer in his hand. Next to him, on the passenger seat, were three empties and a six-pack.
When I asked him about his brother, he told me Buzzy didn’t go out much anymore. He spent most of his time alone at home, reading the Bible and drinking beer.
“C’mon and drive around with me, Donnie,” he said.
Some other time, I told him—I had to finish shoveling the driveway.
“That’s a lot of beer you got there, Peck,” I said.
“Only way to go,” he said.
I wish I’d told Buzzy about the time he got me out of a tight spot. And he wasn’t even there.
One summer night, I was hitchhiking on Route 123, near Tysons Corner, a couple of miles outside of Vienna, with Ted, a friend from Seoul American High School in Korea. Today Tysons is a megamall-cum-mini-city, with million-dollar condos for those who want to live where they shop and faceless high-rise office buildings with one-way windows for those who want to work anonymously. But in those days Tyson’s Corner was still a country crossroads, with a grocery store on one side of a two-lane blacktop and a gas station on the other.
A pick-up truck sped by, then swerved off the road onto the shoulder and came to a stop.
Yay, a ride! We trotted toward the truck.
Three guys jumped out and marched toward us with grim expressions on their faces. One of them had a tire iron.
“I don’t think they’re offering us a ride,” Ted said
“Now what do you have to say, you smart-ass motherfuckers?” said the guy with the tire iron.
“Whoa,” I said, holding up my hands. “I don’t know who you’re looking for or what they did, but it’s not us.”
“I’m a friend of Buzzy Ledford’s,” I blurted out.
That stopped them in their tracks. “You know Buzzy?” said Tire Iron. He looked at me skeptically. I didn’t look like someone who would know Buzzy.
“I’ve known him my whole life,” I said. I made a slow sweeping movement with my right hand, palm down. It was Buzzy’s signature gesture. It meant everything’s cool.
After a few more words and a warning, they let us go.
Today no one in Vienna remembers Buzzy, although the oldest waitress at the Vienna Inn, someone who might have known him before he was banned for life from the inn, tells me a story she once heard about two drunks fighting over a frozen turkey in the parking lot on the night before Thanksgiving. Could he have been one of the men? she asks.
Buzzy is gone but the building where he lived—or at least its brick façade—still stands, one of the last old buildings on Maple Avenue. The businesses, of course, have changed; Buddy’s Barber Shop is now Michel Rene Hair Stylist. After lunch at the Vienna Inn, I park across the street in front of what used to be Southern States and is now Noodles & Company. Gazing up at Buzzy’s old apartment, I think of him holed up alone in his haunted home, with his Bible and his beer, in a town he no longer knew and that no longer knew him.
Donald's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, New World Writing Quarterly, The Best Travel Writing, and many other publications. His play, ELBOW. APPLE. CARPET. SADDLE. BUBBLE., was named one of three finalists in Veteran Repertory's 2021 playwriting contest. Based in Arlington, VA, he has lived in 10 countries in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.