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by dirk cotton

The first time I ever saw Pat was in the fall of 1965. She was standing in the middle of McCullum Avenue on roller skates, the kind with steel wheels that attached to your street shoes with a skate key and were immortalized by Melanie in the song Brand New Key, as she occasionally bit into one of those giant SweeTARTS that used to cost a nickel. She was all legs and blond curls, the short shorts and the additional height of the skates making her legs look even longer, and she stood a few feet away from her friend and neighbor, Elaine.

"Is your name Dirk Cotton?" she asked as I approached.

Herky, Hart and I often delivered handbills door-to-door for the furniture store where our friend Linda's father worked. I approached Pat with a smile and a large white canvas bag, intended for newspaper deliveries but at the time full of furniture ads, slung over my left shoulder.

She took another tiny bite of the giant SweeTART, held securely in her right hand in its half-opened cellophane wrapper, puckered a bit, and stood there with with her left hand on her hip and her elbow spread out like a wing. She fidgeted a bit to stay balanced on the skates.

"Yeah," I replied. "That's me."

"I think you're in my sister's class. She's Carol. I'm Pat."

I was impressed by her smile and the self-confidence she showed for a fifth grader. Looking back, I'm not sure I can remember when I met any other friend for the very first time, though Pat was three years younger than me and we wouldn't really become friends for a few more years, "buds", as Pat called us, long before it was in vogue to have a best friend of the opposite sex.

"Hi," I offered. "Yeah, Carol and I are in the same class." We chatted for a few minutes more and then I rejoined Hart and Herky wedging handbills in storm doors.

After my family left E-town and I left for college, I spent a lot of time at Pat's house, frequently hanging out with Carol and her boyfriend, my best friend Steve, and Pat and I became close friends. They were my second family. I had a job at Junior Thompson's Sunoco station across the street from the Burger Chef and sometimes I had to make wrecker runs to tow in disabled cars, sometimes in the dead of winter and the middle of the night. During more reasonable hours, I'd call Pat and ask her if she wanted to come along. She always did.

I'd pick her up on the way and she'd sit in the cab of that tow truck while we went on mini-adventures, frequently down one of the parkways, to help stranded drivers. She'd watch as I hooked up the cars and we'd talk all the way there, then all the way back with a car in tow and the yellow roof lights flashing.

Sometimes we'd need to make room for the car's driver in the cab and Pat would have to sit in the middle of the bench seat next to the enormous manual gearshift on the floor. It wasn't a comfortable ride. There was no radio, no seat belts. Just climbing up into the cab was an effort for her. Maybe this passed for excitement in a small town back then.

At the end of my first semester at UK, I needed to drive from E-town to Lexington and back to pick up my grades. Pat offered to come along, two hours of driving just to listen to 8-track tapes and talk. Pat and I wrote to each other while she was still in high school and I was in Lexington. I'd visit her family's home when I was in E-town. They loved to have me over for chili. They ate it so spicy that it fried my taste buds and made my eyes water and they found that hilarious, especially Pat.

I was upset with her boyfriend for breaking up with Pat once, which was both stupid and shortsighted. Stupid because it was none of my business, though she didn't really seem to mind, and shortsighted because, since neither of us was dating anyone, I would get to spend a lot more time with Pat until they got back together.

Our friendship was easy. Maybe that was the best part. The kind of easy where not even silence is awkward. None of the sexual tension of dating and none of the strutting and posturing that goes on when guys hang out and carefully hide their vulnerabilities.

Pat would visit her sister, Carol, at UK and the first thing she would do when she reached Lexington would be to call me and invite me over to the Complex to have dinner with them. I was in Holmes Hall on the other side of campus. One evening she called as I was just returning from the cafeteria. "Have you eaten?" she asked. "Nope," I lied, and I hurried over to the Complex to eat a second dinner.

Blinded by proverbial male relationship cluelessness, I didn't see our friendship sneaking up on me. One day, Pat was my best friend's little sister and then she was someone very important in my life and I have no idea how one became the other. I do know that our friendship was unique in my experience and that it has made my life richer.

She had a fabulous voice. Not high and crystal clear like most girls, but slightly deeper with more texture. More burgundy than chablis; more Joni Mitchell than Joan Baez. I can close my eyes and hear her even now.

After I left college and moved to Washington, I would call Carol to let her know when I was driving through E-town and we would meet at Cracker Barrel near the interstate for breakfast. Carol and I have been BFF's for about 40 years now and we try to see each other at least once a year. Pat and Chris, their mom, would join us more often than not. We'd have breakfast and I would have trouble tearing myself away from the three of them to get back on the road.

Forty years and Pat and I still found it exciting to discover things we had in common. We both had wonderful children. We both drove SUVs. We both liked the blackberry pancakes best.

The last time I saw Pat was in the summer of 2000. We had met for breakfast again. It was just Pat and Carol this time; I had gone to their mother's funeral a few years earlier. I waved to her and to Carol as I drove away with my family in our minivan that day.

We all walked out to my car and Pat hugged my neck. But this time, she didn't let go for a long time. We both chuckled. We said goodbye and she walked several steps away, toward Carol, and then stopped and pivoted back on her heel abruptly, as if she'd forgotten something. She started to laugh and ran back and hugged me for another very long time.

I didn't want to let go, either.

We were buds.


Dirk Cotton is a retired executive of a Fortune 500 Internet company who loves to spend time with his family, fly fish, shoot sporting clays, attend college baseball games, sail, follow the Wildcats, and write. Everything else he does is just for fun. A computer programmer-cum-marketing executive-cum-financial planner who now wants to be a writer, he apparently can't decide what he wants to be when he grows up. He and his family moved to The Southern Part of Heaven in 2005 and couldn't be happier with that decision.

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