It’s almost Halloween–my favortie day of the year. Sixteen years ago on Halloween night I lost a young friend. So, in remembrance of him, I wrote this piece. It’s long and it will take several blogs to cover the entire story (at least what I wish to tell of it).
Take a deep breath.
That’s what I tell myself before talking about this–or in this case, writing about it.
Take a deep breath.
No matter how long it’s been it still bugs me, still bothers me. I guess you could say it haunts me a little.
So, I’ll take that deep breath, thank you very much and if I could drink, that breath would be on the rocks with something harder than strawberry Kool-aid. But, I don’t drink and that’s probably a good thing. I’d be one mean as hell drunk.
A few years ago, Meat Loaf sang a song titled Objects In the Rearview Mirror May Appear Closer Than They Are. That’s a long winded title, isn’t it? Just for the record, the song was written by Jim Steinman and released in 1994 off the Bat Out of Hell II: Back Into Hell album. I had to look that last part up for clarity’s sake. The song is kind of ironic in and of itself. The story I’m about to tell you is about a kid who died in 1995, the year after the song was released and the song… the song is so appropriate for such a story as this, where the past seems so much closer than it really is.
I’ve told this story a few times, but it keeps coming back and each time it does, I leave something out. Some of it is probably not important to the reader, but all of it is relevant to me, to those involved.
If you have a few moments, sit back and read on. If you’d like, grab your beverage of choice and come down this memory lane with me. Watch your step, though. The cobblestones are a little loose and there seems to be more dirt on this road than there ever was before.
Catherine and I had been married nearly five years and Chloe, my little girl, was almost two. It was the beginning of February and the world wasn’t as cold outside as it should have been. We had just closed on our house the day before and spent our first night there. Our mattress lay on the floor in the living room, boxes all around us. It felt good to have our own home, but it was exhausting. On that night I slept—and slept well—which was something of a rarity back then.
The phone rang. I opened both eyes and lifted my head. The alarm clock sat on the floor, its bright red digital display telling me it was barely after eight o’clock. I thought the clock was laughing at me. If it weren’t maybe the phone was. Maybe it was all in my head. I didn’t care. All I knew is that the phone was ringing and there was no answering machine set up at the time and there was a one year old that I wanted to keep asleep for a little while longer.
I crawled from the bed—literally–and found the phone. It was a green hand held and it lit up every time it rang. I’m not sure, but I think I gave a weak ‘hello.’
The voice on the other end sounded tired. “Are you awake?” he asked.
It was Chad, a good friend, younger by a few years.
His teenage years weren’t what most folks would care to recall later on in life. Some of it may even have been a haze, brought on by anti-depressants and maybe a substance or two that didn’t quite mesh with those meds. Chad had always been like a little brother to me, one troubled by the world and people around him. But, he was a good person, had a good heart and life had changed for him–in very much a positive way.
“I am now,” I said. I’m sure I didn’t sound like Mary Poppins, all cheerful and singing about Supercalifragi… whatever that song is. I probably sounded more like the Grinch with his heart two sizes too small.
“Sorry, man, but I’ve been up all night.”
“So, you decided to call me and wake me up?”
Understand something: I’ve never been a good sleeper. I considered four hours a good night for me, but often, like 28 out of 30 days, sleep didn’t make it to four hours. I had been sleeping well and I’m somewhat of a bear when I get woke up prematurely.
“You’re the only one I know who can answer my questions,” he said.
Great. A question and answer session. Again, the Grinch in me had come along when I woke.
I sat down in one of the kitchen chairs, pushed aside a few boxes and placed my elbows on the table. I rubbed my eyes with one hand. “What questions, Chad?”
“What happened that night?”
This could have drawn my normal sarcasm. A little more specific please? Are you talking about the night Catherine and I got married? I hope you would know what happened that night. Which night? Last night? We moved into our house. Which night, dude?
No sarcasm came. Just a simple, “When?”
I wasn’t prepared for his answer.
“You know, the night Chris died.”
Talk about a gut shot. If I hadn’t been fully awake before, I was then. Those groggy, sleep induced cobwebs faded quick, as if they were never there to start with. It had been a couple years since I had talked about Chris, about his death. And in that moment it all came rushing back, kind of like those objects in the rearview mirror. Try passing a few cars out on the interstate and then slam on the breaks. Watch how fast those cars catch up to you. That’s what it was like, slamming on the breaks and watching…
[[~There are times I think I see him peeling out of the dark
I think he’s right behind me now and he’s gaining ground~]]
“You know what happened, Chad,” I said. I’m not going to lie. I wanted to avoid the subject.
“Jeff, I was on meds during that time period. Things are fuzzy. I don’t remember a lot of what happened.” He paused, then added, “Did I go to his funeral?”
He had chosen not to go, not to be part of the circus of teens that may or may not have been Chris’s friends. He chose to mourn in his own way, even though Chris had been his friend, even though some others thought he was being selfish.
I heard the deep sigh through the phone.
“Meet me at Denny’s and we’ll talk,” I said.
A half hour later I sat in a booth across from a very tired looking Chad. His eyes held the type of sadness in them that I remember seeing when he was in his teens. We ordered coffee and some breakfast. I think we downed more coffee than we ate.
“I don’t remember anything,” he said. “What happened?”
Deep breaths. In and out.
I closed my eyes, rubbed the bridge of my nose and looked across the table at him.
Chris and Chad had one thing very much in common. Both of them lived with someone other than their parents, whether by their choice or their parents’ choice doesn’t matter. The fact is, they were kids whose struggles began when the parents didn’t seem to want them.
Chad lived with his grandfather, Chris with his aunt.
They had a bond, though at the time I don’t think either of them realized it.
The difference between the two of them is Chad was more of a loner. He had no issues with being alone and living inside his head. Chad could stand on his own two feet. Chris, on the other hand, wanted to be more popular. I hate saying this, but it’s pretty much the truth: Chris was a follower. Plain and simple. I think that trait, among other things, had a direct link to his death.
[[~The skies were pure and the fields were green,
and the sun was brighter than it’s ever been…~]]
I met Chris at church one Saturday. It was a church workday. Another man, Steve, and I were stripping the carpet off the front porch of the church. It was that indoor/outdoor stuff that so many people put on their porches back in the nineties and it was a real pain to get off. Chris walked up and asked if he could help. He had this goofy smile on his face, his hands tucked into his pockets.
“Sure,” one of us said and a friendship was born. That simple. He helped us that day with quite a few things and then in the coming couple years he constantly hung around, trying to play practical jokes or making smart remarks to us. He always seemed to get the worst end of those jokes.
There was this one time when Chris tried to play a joke on us. He was proud of himself. I don’t remember what the joke was, but Steve and I decided to up the ante a little. We went to a store called Spencers. It sat in the mall and they were one of those novelty type businesses. You know, the ones with the shot glasses, cheesy costumes, sex games and naughty cards and racy t-shirts. They also had gag gifts and we were there for one of those. We purchased a pack of chewing gum that turned your mouth blue.
The next morning, I opened a pack of gum, took out the stick and popped it into my mouth. Carefully, I wrapped a piece of the blue gum in the foil and slid it back into the sleeve the other piece came out of. Chris had a habit of asking me for gum and on that Sunday morning, he did just that. I slid the gag gum out and handed it to him. I also told him not to chew it until after we were done with the choir and ushering. See, I tried to show some sort of responsibility.
The boy didn’t listen all that well sometimes.
He popped that stick in his mouth just before we walked down the center aisle and picked up the offering plates. He chewed it all the way down and through the prayer. Chris looked at me, picked up the offering plate and smiled.
His lips and gums were purple and his teeth were the color of Smurfs.
I turned away from him, doing my best to stifle laughter. When we finished we took the plates into the counting room. He had this confused look on his face.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
He gave a shrug–the way only Chris could–and shook his head slightly. “Several people were laughing out there.”
“Yeah. I wonder what’s so funny.”
I said nothing and walked out of the room, barely containing the giggles. After the service he popped into the bathroom. A scream came from behind the door. When he came out, his face was as dark red as his teeth were blue.
We had a good laugh over that one. Even Chris laughed once he realized what had happened.
“I’ll get you guys for this.”
He tried, but looking back, I don’t think he ever succeeded.
I had to answer Chad’s question, but I wasn’t sure what to say. I simply said in that crass way I’ve been known for, “He died.”
It wasn’t the answer Chad wanted and I could see it on his face; the way he frowned; the way he ran his fork over the tops of his pancakes without so much as actually cutting through them.
“You really want to know what happened?”
[[Sidebar: Why do folks asks that question? Do you really want to know? Yes, people want to know what happened, even if they are only mildly curious. It’s been proven time and time again, especially in this day and age of the internet and all the bagillions of things out there on the World Wide Web (which I think is an appropriate name for it. The internet is like a spider’s web and how often do people get tangled up with misinformation they found on it? Damn spiders…). If you go to Yahoo’s homepage off to the right is the most popular searches and in the center of the page is what’s hot now.
People want to know about the stupidest things. Did you hear about the rabbit that bit the nipple off of a man? No? Look it up on the internet and its all there. You want to know who the losing pitcher was in game two of the World Series of 1922, look it up on the web and you’ll get thousands of responses. (For the record, that was a trick question. Game 2 of the 1922 World Series between the Giants and Yankees was suspended with the score tied at three. Why? Darkness. There was no losing or winning pitcher in that game.)
You get the picture and I have rambled away from my story. I’m sorry. I do that sometimes. End Sidebar]]
Chad simply said, “Yes,” to my question.
I stared at him for a long time as the memories trudged themselves out of the closets and boxes and bags I had stored them away in. A few of them came down from the attic while others hobbled up from the basement, pulling themselves along splintered rails until the reached the top. They dusted themselves off and made their way across the labyrinth that is the warehouse of remembrance inside my head. One by one they appeared, said hey and took a seat in chairs that weren’t there seconds earlier. Each one was there to give their voice to a story I don’t completely know the entire truth to.
“Okay,” I said and so I told the story the best I could.
To be continued…