Memories are funny things. Sometimes they are as crisp and clear as yesterday. Sometimes they are hazy, like a foggy morning in the mountains. I think this one is somewhere in between. (These memories are completely unedited. They are written in one sitting and I feel if I go back and edit them, my mind will tell me something is wrong and want to make changes. )
My grandparents lived in the mill hill in West Columbia, not more than a couple hundred yards from the Congaree River. My brother and I spent a lot of time at the river, more times than not getting soaked because we were either stupid, daring or both. We skipped rocks, broke bottles (yeah, with rocks), and even got in trouble one time when the pretty little girl who lived on Alexander Road stepped on some of the glass we had shattered with a bunch of rocks we couldn’t skip (we caught hell for it and had to go down to her house and apologize for being idiots—that’s what my uncle called us).
We walked those streets like we owned them, even though we knew if we did something wrong, our grandparents would know before we got back to their house.
There were few kids in the neighborhood, most of them like us who were only around when they visited their grandparents. There was Wayne and David—popular names back then, apparently, and I knew three sets of brothers with those names. There was another Wayne and David who were not brothers (they were cousins) who visited from time to time. Bryce lived on the corner of Sortwell Street for a while and Susan visited her grandmother from time to time (whew, she was a sight for young boy eyes and the only girl on the street). There were the Burnette Brothers whose names I can’t recall now to save my life—they became the models for the bullies in Cory’s Way. They were the local bullies, mean as hell, ugly as hell. Then there was Tony C., not to be confused with my buddy Tony M., who I often called T.
Tony C. was not much to look at as far as boys went in the late seventies and eighties. I can’t really say I was either, but I think I grew up and became better looking with age. His face was loaded with freckles, his hair was dark brown, skin fair. He was thin and his voice was kind of higher in pitch. He was a part time friend who always tried to intimidate the rest of us. We tolerated him because sometimes there was no one else around to hang out with. We played marbles in my grandparent’s front yard; played cops and robbers at his grandmother’s house two blocks down. We got in more fights when he was around than when he wasn’t. I don’t think we ever truly became friends.
There was this one time … I think it was the only time any of us really showed some sort of compassion for each other. I was walking down the street by myself. I don’t recall why my brother wasn’t with me, but he wasn’t. I was, maybe nine, maybe ten—memories don’t always recall time too well. I passed Tony’s grandmother’s house to see him sitting on the porch, his knees pulled up to his chin and his arms wrapped around them. His back was against one of the porch pillars. He was wearing bluejeans—he always wore bluejeans—and a T-shirt that I think was white, but I honestly can’t remember.
I asked him if he was okay. He looked up. He had a shiner that would get worse before it got better. He had been jumped by the Brothers and the fight didn’t last long. I remember thinking he had probably ran his mouth at them and his face paid the price. Maybe that was true. Maybe it wasn’t. It didn’t matter. I opened the gate and entered his grandmother’s yard. I went up the steps and sat beside him. I have no clue how long I sat beside him, but neither of us spoke for the longest time. His sniffles dwindled and he wiped his nose.
His grandmother came to the door and said it was time to eat. We looked at each other and stood. I shrugged my bony shoulders as if I didn’t know what to say, and I didn’t. He wiped his nose again, then Tony C. went inside and closed the door.
That was the last time I saw him.
Fast forward many, many years later and my baby brother and I stopped one day in the parking lot of a Bi-Lo’s. We got out and walked. We talked about life and other stuff, but mostly life. We made our way to my old stomping grounds and I took that stroll down Memory Lane. I pointed out things, like where the German Shepard had chased me and my older brother and where some of my friends lived and where the old park used to be and the house where another pretty, but older girl lived and would wash her car in a bikini during the summer—yeah, us boys spent some quality gawking time at that park during the summer.
We passed by Tony’s grandmother’s house and a man was out in the yard. I stopped and asked about the lady who lived there once upon a time. I also asked about Tony. Turned out, he was Tony’s cousin.
“How’s he doing?” I asked.
“Tony’s dead,” he said.
I was stunned at this matter of fact statement. The story went like this: Tony had been in all sorts of legal troubles during his life. He had spent time in prison, and as was his life, he got into some more trouble. Instead of going back to prison—which he surely would have, even though his cousin said Tony didn’t do anything wrong—he committed suicide. We talked a little while longer, then said our ‘goodbyes.’
I often think about Tony C., and our tolerating relationship. I also think about the last time I saw him. It was an unspoken understanding we had that day. He needed comfort and I provided it, though I didn’t realize it then. I’ve often wondered if I would have done something different, said something, tried to make him feel better, something other than just sitting there with my elbows on my knees looking out at the street in front of us. I don’t think I would have. I think that understanding: ‘I know you’re hurt and I won’t say anything,’ from me and a simple, ‘Thanks for that,’ from him was the only thing we ever shared that wasn’t argumentative or spiteful. I think it’s the only good way to have ended a friendship that never really was.