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Sweet Visions

Last week I posted a haiku writing from a close friend, Preston*, who I’ve known for more than 20 years.  Haiku (or hokku) is a Japanese verse form of poetry that follows a very strict composition of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables and is often a prelude to a longer poem or a story.  The terse nature of haiku verbiage always challenges the writer to capture what is absolutely necessary for that particular moment.  Such brevity is more difficult than most imagine, but just a few carefully chosen words can evoke extraordinary visions in the minds of an audience.

Smiling was easy

When our eyes were bright and clear

We were so naïve.

 

– Preston

 

*Name changed.

Image: Faunaimage

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Closest Confidant – Or 30+ Years of a Schizophrenic Friendship

Ever have one of those curious friendships with someone where primary interaction – besides making dinner or bar-hopping plans – is ladled with trite insults and creative name-calling?  I have just such a relationship with one of my closest friends, Pierce*, whom I’ve known for some 30 years.  People who don’t know us very well often say Pierce and I sound like an old married couple and / or wonder how we could possibly be friends.  The reactions of the unfamiliars is funny in and of itself.

For one thing, Pierce and I are devout movie buffs, each having studied filmmaking in college.  He actually earned a B.A. in film and produced an extraordinary short film for his final thesis.  Sadly, despite many years of hard work and “paying his dues” – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean! – his dreams of building a career in the personally brutal and emotionally unstable film industry disintegrated faster than foreskin-laced pizza rolls at a bar mitzvah.  Feeling somewhat dejected, Pierce returned to Dallas in 1996 and tried getting into the local film and TV business without any luck.  He worked in the marketing field for a bit and now labors over a hot p.c. for a company that’s as equally brutal and emotionally unstable as any cinematic enterprise.  But he also concentrates on his own personal screenplays.  So, like me with my writing, he hasn’t abandoned his dreams altogether!  Dreams, after all, keep you moving forward – especially if you’re trapped in an ergonomically-designed office chair alongside people whose ambitions usually mean just getting from one weekend to another without hurting a constituent or ending up homeless.

We’re both fans of one of the campiest films ever made, “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?”  Starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the 1962 black and white classic was intended to be a psychological drama, but turned out to be a desperate attempt by two aging Hollywood film divas to remain relative in a rapidly-changing American culture.  I place it in the same realm as “Barbarella” (1968) and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975) – it’s so deliciously crass and gut-wrenchingly entertaining.  All three of those movies are hysterically bad and wrong on so many artistic levels that present-day viewers have to wonder how the cast and crew of each production managed to stay focused enough to get through the madness every day.  I’m certain surviving cast members are reluctant to admit their involvement, while remaining perplexed how such crap could metamorphose into cult classic status.  Jane Fonda usually dismisses her title role in “Barbarella” as if she was kidnaped and drugged by communist sympathizers, before being hustled off to Europe; much the same way Linda Marchiano explained her oral escapades in “Deep Throat.”

But they’re just too good to pass up!  I’ve watched them again and again for the same reason I used to watch the “Jerry Springer Show”: they’re brainlessly funny, and you just know that shit’s not real!

When I worked for a bank in downtown Dallas in the 1990s, there were two receptionists in the department whom no one really liked.  One was perpetually constipated, while the other (I’m sure) waited anxiously for the day the “Mother Ship” returned.  The cranky one elicited the most vile reactions from people, especially the women.  I jokingly referred to them as “Blanche” and “Baby Jane”, after the main characters in the aforementioned movie.  Soon, most everyone else in the department began doing the same.  I never thought sweet little me would start such a trend!

But Pierce and I often jokingly refer to each other as “Blanche” and “Baby Jane.”

“I’m like Blanche,” he tells people, “the desperate, victimized and more intelligent sibling.  He’s the tired, washed-up, alcoholic skank!”

“She may be a tired alcoholic,” I say, “but that bitch could belt out a tune like no one’s business!”

And so it goes.  He’s always mocking my appearance, and I’m always making fun of his weight.

“Mexicans who come across the border in the middle of the night, hot, hungry, thirsty and covered with burrs don’t look as half as bad as you do by 5:00 on Fridays!” he once told me.

While standing on a second-story veranda at a bar outside of down Dallas during a Friday happy hour, Pierce asked me to take a photo of him for a dating web site.  “Make me look thin,” he said.

“Oh, well then, let me drive over to Fort Worth (some 50 miles west),” I replied.

After a Friday dinner, we stepped into a curio shop where a display table overrun with stuffed animals sat in the back.  Pierce found a critter that, when wound up, would bounce around to a musical piece.  “Look!” he loudly announced to me.  “This one’s like you!  It does tricks!”  Whereupon he burst into a maniacal bwah-ha-ha type laugh.

I picked up a dachshund replica perched on its hind legs.  “And this one’s like you – it sits up and begs for it!”

Pierce and I attended the same parochial elementary school in Dallas and were altar boys at the accompanying church.  We didn’t know each other back then, but he often would tell people that we were sent there together by our frustrated parents, calling it “Bad Boys Reform School”; where he barely passed with a D-, while I ended up in a sanitarium because of my pornographic writings that involved lesbian nuns and the Mexican mafia.

Over the years I’ve cobbled together a number of the barbs Pierce and I have slung at one another.  On the surface, they may come off as a ‘Jokes for Beginning Comics’ cache.  But I it all makes for the type of goofy friendship that’s often hard to explain to outsiders.

A classic scene from a classic camp fest.

 

Pierce:  You’re so ugly, if you get lost in the woods, they just have to look for the vultures circling overhead.

The Chief: You’re so fat, if you get lost in the woods, they just have to follow the sounds of flatulence.

Pierce:  You’re so ugly grocery stores ban you from the dairy aisle.

The Chief: You’re so fat all-you-can-eat Chinese buffets turn off the ‘Open’ sign when they see you drive up.

Pierce:  You’re so ugly you scared Bigfoot.

The Chief: The last time you stepped on a scale, it said ‘Oh Jesus Christ!’

Pierce:  You’re so ugly a group of kids saw you sunbathing on the beach and said, “Look!  A dead octopus washed up!”

The Chief: You’re so fat, when you were last on the beach, Green Peace tried to drag you into the water.

Pierce:  You’re so ugly your own hands won’t masturbate you.

The Chief: You’re so fat you need two office chairs – one for your mouth, the other for your ass.

Pierce:  Your own mother denies she was there when you were born.

The Chief: How many times have you walked down the street and people ask, “Have you named the quintuplets yet?”

Pierce:  You walked into a doctor’s office and they said, “The vet’s next door!”

The Chief: People look at you and say, “Global warming is worse than I thought!  There goes Rhode Island!”

Pierce:  People see you and say, “He must have gone through hell surviving that chemical plant fire.”

The Chief: When you visited the zoo, someone announced over the loud speaker: “We found the lost elephant seal!”

Pierce:  When you took your dog to the vet, they tried to neuter YOU.

The Chief: When you ask for a seat belt extension on an airplane, they hand you a 20-foot rope.

Pierce: When you visited a plastic surgeon, they gave you a chain saw and some Super Glue®.

The Chief: Last time the Houston Ship Channel flooded, they paid you to do a cannonball into the west side of the floodwaters and force it all into the Gulf.

Pierce: You wanted to be an organ donor, and they said, “We don’t accept zombies.”

The Chief: Last time you asked someone to have sex, they said, “Great!  An orgy!”

Pierce: When you made funeral plans to be cremated, the funeral home offered you a fruit jar and a box of matches.

The Chief: Instead of a coffin, the funeral home offered you a piano case.

Pierce: You’re so fair-skinned you can’t go shirtless in the gym because people will think they’ve gone blind.

The Chief: Skin from your fat reduction surgery helped 1,000 burn victims.

Pierce: You accidentally fell into the recycle bin, and the city didn’t realize it until after they’d dragged your ass all the way to the dump.

The Chief: When you told some contractors your house had foundation problems, they said, “Move into a concrete bunker.”

Pierce: Every time you walk into a new gym, trainers say, “I don’t deal with abortion refuse.”

The Chief: Jenny Craig took one look at you and said, “Well, you win some; you lose some.”

 

One of my favorite scenes in “Barbarella” – the title character meets the “Black Queen” (Anita Pallenberg):

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Stolen Moments

A friend of mine, Preston*, has recently taken to poetry writing, or more specifically to haiku writing.  Haiku (or hokku) is a Japanese verse form of poetry that follows a very strict composition of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables.  Not popular in Western cultures until about the early 1900s, haiku are often accompanied by an image, or a pair of images, meant to depict the essence of a particular moment in time.  Their brevity is occasionally an introduction to a longer poem or a story, but its central purpose is to focus the reader’s attention on that one single moment that struck the poet’s mind as critical or somehow significant; a moment where everything came into focus; where the complexities of life were abruptly reduced to what is – and what is not – essential.

I trust and admire Preston greatly.  I wrote about him nearly 6 years ago in “One Good Friend.”  He’s truly one of those rare individuals who is focused and level-headed.  For us writers, focus is always a challenge, while level-headedness is sometimes elusive.

Time is a bandit

Reducing our hopes and dreams

To mere memories

 

– Preston

 

*Name changed.

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Dig

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“If this rain keeps up,” said Lydia, “I think the garage roof is going to collapse.”

“What’s that?”  Miranda was leaning forward.

“The garage roof!  It’s sagging in one part.  Every time it rains –”

“No.  What’s that?”  She pointed over the dash board.

Lydia peered through the rain and, between the wiper blades, could see a small figure some distance ahead.

A young female, a teenager perhaps, with shoulder-length blonde hair and a purple tee shirt stood off to the right.  As Lydia’s car approached, the girl waved her arms.

Miranda lowered the window halfway and grabbed her cell phone.  Lydia reached towards her pistol she had tucked into the driver’s side door panel.

“Can you help me?” the girl asked.  She propped her tiny frame atop her toes, stretching so she could be heard through the partially-opened window.

“Of course,” replied Miranda.  “What happened?”

“It’s my friend.  She’s in trouble.”

“What happened?”

“Well…”  She looked behind her for a moment.

“Yes?” prodded Miranda.

“She needs help.”

“Who?  Your friend?”

“She’s buried.”

“Excuse me?”

“She’s buried,” the girl repeated.

“Buried?!” blurted Lydia.  “What do you mean buried?”

“Can you just call the police?”

“Yeah, sure,” Miranda answered and dialed 911.

“Buried?” Lydia muttered.  She took a closer look at the girl.  Her light brown eyes appeared empty, her cheeks sunken.  She’s in shock, thought Lydia.  Buried?

Miranda didn’t tell the 911 operator about anyone being buried.  “I don’t know what’s wrong,” she said.  “But I can tell she needs help.  She’s out here on this road alone in the rain.”

A few minutes later a solitary police officer arrived.  By then the blonde girl had retreated closer to a rut alongside the road.  Lydia had edged her SUV as close to the edge as possible, allowing more room for the handful of other vehicles that passed by.  No one else seemed to notice the girl, Lydia thought, except her and Miranda.  The girl had refused Miranda’s offer to jump into the back of the SUV.

“I don’t know what’s wrong,” Lydia told the police officer, a tall woman with her hair pulled back into corn rows.  “My sister spotted her first – back up the road.”

“What’s her name?” asked the officer.

“I don’t know.”

“I asked her,” said Miranda.  “But she didn’t say anything.  She just moved off to the side there.  And she didn’t want to get in the back.  You know – to get out of the rain.”

“Right.”  She glanced up to the sky.  “I think it’s starting to let up more.  Now what did she say?  Her friend was what?”

“She said her friend was buried,” Lydia answered.  She looked at Miranda.  “Right?”

“Yeah,” replied Miranda.  “That’s what she said.  I asked her what she meant by that, but she didn’t say anything more.  She just said to call the police.  I’m the one who called,” she added, holding up her phone.

“Okay,” muttered the policewoman, peering at the girl from over the SUV’s hood.  “Dispatch mentioned that, but I wanted to make certain.  I’m Officer Robinson.  I’ll talk to her.  Can you two hang out here for a little while?”

“Of course,” said Lydia.

“Sure,” rejoined her sister.  She whipped her head around as the wail of another police siren bellowed from behind them.

Two more police vehicles arrived.  Robinson talked briefly with the two policemen who joined her, before approaching the blonde girl.  “Excuse me,” she said gently.  “What’s your name?”

The girl finally spun around as Robinson got closer.

“I’m Officer Robinson.  What’s your name?”

“Elizabeth,” the girl muttered after a second or so.

“Elizabeth – what’s wrong, dear?”  She took note of the girl’s haggard appearance.  “What happened?”

“It’s my friend.  She’s in trouble.”

“What kind of trouble?”

“She’s buried.  Way back there.”  She gestured towards the heavily-wooded area behind her.

“What do you mean she’s buried?”

One of the male officers approached.

“She’s buried!  Someone tried to kill her.”  Her voice quivered.

“Who?” asked Robinson.  “Who tried to kill your friend?”

“Can you just help me dig her out?!”

“Where exactly?” asked the policeman.

“Back there!” Elizabeth blurted, haphazardly swinging a hand behind her.  “I’ll have to show you.  Can we just go out there?!”

“Yes, of course,” said Robinson.

Miranda had lowered her window again and tried to hear what the two officers were saying to Elizabeth, but commotion from more law enforcement prevented that.  “Buried?” she muttered.

Lydia took in the bevy of police officers descending upon the area.  “Looks like a freakin’ drug bust.”

“Buried,” Miranda repeated, more to herself.

“You can lead us to your friend?” a supervisor named Zerega asked Elizabeth.

“Yes!” she exclaimed.

“Okay,” replied Zerega.  “Take her in your car,” he told Robinson.  He turned to another female officer, Jackson, and ordered her to accompany them.

“Roger that,” said Robinson.  “Come on, honey,” she said to Elizabeth.  “We’ll go in my car.”

Jackson joined Elizabeth in the back seat.  “Which direction?” she asked the girl.

“Just back down this road,” said Elizabeth, leaning forward.  “I’ll show you where to turn off.”

“Okay,” said Robinson.

“What’s your friend’s name?” Jackson asked, but Elizabeth seemed distracted, as she stared out the window.  Jackson took visual note of the girl’s shaggy appearance: damp clothes; messy hair; mud-stained white casual shoes.  She smelled of grass and dirt, and Jackson wondered if the girl had tried to dig her friend out of…wherever she was, before seeking help.  “What’s your friend’s name?” she asked again.

“Coming up here on the right,” Elizabeth blurted out, leaning forward.  “There’s a dirt path.  It’s easy to miss, so slow down.”

“Okay,” answered Robinson.  She knew of a few uncharted paths off this stretch of blacktop that wound through some miscellaneous farmland and woodlands.

They approached a curve in the road, a long line of police vehicles behind them and a helicopter overhead.

Robinson slowed.

“We’re almost there!” Elizabeth exclaimed.  She strained against the seat belt.

Jackson spotted a news van ahead, coming in their direction.  “And there they are,” she murmured.

“Yep,” noted Robinson.

They slowed even more and came upon a nondescript separation in a thick row of trees.

“Right here!” said Elizabeth.

“Okay.”  Robinson realized she would have missed it, if someone hadn’t pointed it out to her.  She thought for a moment, as the vehicle bounced onto the muddy pathway, and wondered why she’d never noticed this particular road before.

“Just keep going.”

“Okay.”

Once more Jackson asked, “What’s your friend’s name?”

“You’ll have to turn off onto another path,” Elizabeth instructed.

“Okay,” said Robinson.  She reached for the air conditioner knob, noticing how cold it had grown inside the car.  But it was set as low as possible, without being turned off.

“Who did this to your friend?” Jackson asked.

“Someone else,” Elizabeth answered after a minute.  “Up here, off to the right.”

“Okay.”  Robinson glanced into the rear view mirror.

The car rocked in every direction, as the path became more irascible.

“Who is that someone else?” Jackson persisted.

Elizabeth remained silent.

“Elizabeth, please tell me.  What happened to your friend?  We need to know, so we can help her.  And you.”

“Some other girls,” Elizabeth finally said.

“Some other friends?”

“Yeah.  It’s coming up – on the right.”

“Okay.”  Robinson was inclined to turn off the air altogether, as the car had grown unbearably cold.  She started to shiver, but maintained her eyes on the bumpy path ahead.

Another virtually hidden opening loomed off to their right.

Robinson almost knew instinctively this was the next turn.

“Yes,” Elizabeth said.

“Yes what?” asked Jackson.

“It’s coming up on the right.  It’s hard to see.”

“I see it now,” said Robinson.  She drove the car through a thicker cluster of trees that blocked out much of the sun that had finally started coming out.

“Down here, off to the left,” said Elizabeth.

“Okay.”  She slowed and maneuvered the car down a rocky embankment.

Heavy tree branches overhead shrouded them in darkness, until they entered another clearing.

“Down here,” Elizabeth said.  “Right up ahead.  She’s buried down here.”

“Alright.”

The sun managed to poke through an opening in the canopy above and highlighted a mass of overgrown shrubbery and a fallen tree.

“She’s under there.”

Robinson slammed on the brakes.  “Stay here,” she ordered Elizabeth, while jumping out of the car.  A battalion of fellow officers swarmed onto the remote locale, as Robinson pointed to the batch of wild vegetation.  “She’s saying right under there!”

Several men and women rushed forward and began yanking away the branches, gloved hands frantically tossing the mess forward.  Seconds later they reached a mound of dirt and began clawing at it with the same hurried enthusiasm.  Zerega had ordered no one to use a shovel, for fear of hurting the victim, if she wasn’t interred too deep.

Jackson finally stepped out of the car.  “God, I hope she’s still alive.”

“No telling,” said Robinson, still watching the orderly mayhem.

“We have something!” a female voice shouted from a depression in the ground.  “I think this is her!”

“Jesus,” muttered Jackson.  She looked at Elizabeth who remained unmoved; merely staring ahead.  She started to think that Elizabeth might be involved in this, given her reticence about details.  She turned back to the activity several feet ahead.

The other officers had managed to clear away the dirt.

And the horror became clear.

They found a petite female laying on her back, hands crossed over her stomach.  A small girl with shoulder-length blonde hair.

“Ask her to come over here!” Zerega told Jackson.  “She has to identify her!”

Both Robinson and Jackson turned back to the car.

That was empty.

“Where’d she go?!” hollered Robinson.

“I don’t know!” said Jackson.  “She was just here!”  She darted around to the other side and yanked open the door.

No one.

She looked to the floorboard.  It was covered with streaks of dirt and leaves.  The car smelled of mud.  “What the fuck?!  Where is she?!”

“What do you mean where is she?!” yelled Zerega.

“She’s not here!” said Jackson.

Robinson joined her on that same side.  “Where did she go?”

“I don’t know!  She was just here!”

Robinson looked up to see a few police officers approach.

“Where did she go?” one of them asked.

“I don’t know,” answered Robinson.  “I told her to stay here.”

“She was here!” Jackson insisted.

Everyone began scanning the area.  But Elizabeth was nowhere.

“What did she say that girl looked like?” Zerega asked.

Robinson and Jackson fumbled for words.  “I don’t know,” Robinson finally said.  “She didn’t say much.”

“I couldn’t get her to say anything,” Jackson stated.  She was beginning to hyperventilate.  “She just said some friends of theirs did this.  She wouldn’t even tell me the girl’s name!”

The entire group had grown frantic.  Zerega ordered some other officers to begin searching for Elizabeth.  “She couldn’t have gone far!” he said.

Robinson charged forward.  She had to see the dead girl for herself.  “This is too fucking weird,” she said to no one in particular.

Jackson followed her.

They stared into the shallow pit.

And took note of the girl.

With shoulder-length blonde hair.

Wearing a purple tee shirt and blue jeans.

And mud-covered white shoes.

The sun retreated.

everyone-needs-a-stick-pile-photoc2a9liesl-clark

© 2016

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Old (Dead) Friends

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Shortly before Thanksgiving 1992 I happened upon the obituary of a young man I’d known in grade school. He was 29 and had died after a “brief illness.” Another friend who’d, ironically, attended the same grade school (although we didn’t know each other back then) told me that term – “brief illness” – was code for AIDS. Well…sometimes, yes. Then again, it’s really no one’s business what takes the life of a person. Still, it bothered me back then. I had just turned 29 and, for the first time in my life, contemplated my own mortality more seriously than ever before. As someone who suffered from severe childhood depression, coupled with schoolyard bullying and alcoholism, I had thought about death a lot; a hell of a lot more than any kid normally would. But, when I saw that obituary, I thought about death and what legacy I might leave on Earth with a greater sense of intensity.

When my father’s family had its usual Christmas Eve gathering at his mother’s house that year, I asked a cousin who’d also attended that same grade school, if she remembered that young man. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “He died.”

Oh, yeah. And it’s cold out there. Rather matter-of-fact. The full scope of life’s brevity didn’t really hit until the following year, when a close friend, Daniel*, died of AIDS at his mother’s house. For the first time in my nearly three decades, someone close to me – other than a relative – had died.

In the ensuing years, I’ve lost a few more friends and acquaintances. I believe, when you reach the half century mark, life takes on all sorts of different meanings. Things that are, or are not important switch places.

About a month ago I decided to conduct a more intensive search on an old friend, Heath*, who I’d met in 1997. Normally people of my generation who want to find out what happened to old friends would either have to break out a Ouija board or scour a police report. But I did it the new-fashioned way: the Internet. No candles needed.

Heath was a quirky little character; all of 5’5” with bad teeth and a penchant for all things western. He also had a fascination with the Titanic. After James Cameron’s 1997 version of one of the 20th century’s worst man-made calamities, Heath became obsessed with the story. He saw Cameron’s movie more than a few times. Then again, I’ve seen “The Poseidon Adventure” no less than 50 times. I guess we both relished in nautical tragedies. We also shared a love for muscle cars and travel to exotic places. He’d actually managed to do the latter more than me; several more times, but I never held that against him.

I think I last saw Heath sometime in the summer of 2001, after I’d been laid off from the bank and had some free time to enjoy. It was the summer before the great 9/11 horror; the last bit of a romantic hangover from the spectacular late 1990s. Being that contemplative, soul-searching type that most writers are, I reacted like most people during the aftermath and began pondering the whereabouts of old friends. It’s what prompted me to reach out to another friend, Tom*, someone I hadn’t heard from in months. I’d eventually make contact with Tom, which culminated in a brief roommate situation the following spring, which turned out to be a disaster, but still had a positive ending because I ended up with his puppy who I renamed Wolfgang. In the midst of all that, Heath occasionally hopped into my mind. But, with my new job at an engineering firm, traveling and such, while still getting used to having a dog in the house, I had to make him hop back out.

He wasn’t the only one, of course. Plenty of folks from my past kept trying to work their way back into my conscious mind and very busy life. The health of both my parents became tenuous; I tried to get my novel published; my job started requiring me to travel; I resumed my pursuit of a college degree; I bought a new truck; I had foot surgery; my father got sick twice within one year; I got laid off from the engineering company.

Old friends? I just didn’t have much time for them anymore. I needed to start shoving useless crap out of my brain to make room for more important stuff. I know the human mind is supposed to be infinite, like star systems and Thanksgiving turkey. But there’s only so much I want to have inside of me.

So everything stopped for me, literally ground to a halt, when I found out Heath died back in March. He’d hopped back into my mind again, actually he’d been hopping into my mind for the past several months; as if really hoping to get my attention. He kept jumping up and down, almost yelling, ‘Goddamnit, man! I need to tell you something!’

Okay, okay! Damn! Some people just don’t know when to quit. But Heath wasn’t that intrusive type. It was kind odd that he’d kept coming at me so much over so short a period of time. That new-fashioned way of finding people you knew way back when doesn’t salve the pain of finding out they expired; it just delivers the shock more quickly than waiting on a phone call or the mail.

Heath had died back in March – no, found dead – in his North Dallas apartment. Found dead?! What the fuck?! I continually re-read the online obituary, hoping the digital verbiage would buckle from my shocked, angry glares and reveal more.

Who found him? What made them go over there? Apartment in North Dallas? The same one off Greenville Avenue where I’d hang out with him and other friends; talking about cars, listening to rock music and playing with his two small dogs?

The words on the screen could say no more. The photo of Heath posted alongside the obituary made him look almost menacing; it was unlike any expression I’d seen from him before. In fact, he was almost unrecognizable. That’s really why I couldn’t (wouldn’t) believe it.

That’s not him! That’s some other 5’5” guy with a natty ball cap covering his receding hairline who lived in an apartment in North Dallas and had a replica of the Titanic in his living room.

No, it’s not. It was Heath. No one else I know would have built a replica of the Titanic and keep it in his living room. The post said little else: he lived alone; he hadn’t been ill, so nobody knew what caused his death; friends had to pool together money for his funeral; no relatives could be found.

Is there a proper way to respond to something like that? If there’s a book on Amazon, or some kind of web site where I can find out, please let me know in the comments section below. Your consideration will be highly appreciated.

A few years ago I chunked my four high school annuals into the recycle bin. In the fall of 1978, I had been so eager to get the hell out of that parochial grade school near downtown Dallas and begin a new life at a new school with new people. By the time I graduated in June of 1982, I was filled with the same kind of excitement. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. I hated high school even more than grade school; more than looking at myself naked in the mirror and realizing how ugly I am; more than going to a German wedding and finding out the open bar ran out of beer before the reception. But, in the intervening years, I did wonder what happened to the four or five friends I had in high school. I found one on Facebook. I’m sure many others just don’t care to bridge that gap between snail-mail letters and social networks that plagues people of my generation. Others may be in the grave, and I just haven’t found out yet.

Death figures prominently in my novel. I really don’t have a fascination with it. I just accepted long ago that it was another chapter in life. And I realized – after watching my parents cringe at the sight of old friends in the obituaries – that you don’t get up there in years without going through some bumps and bruises. Some of those bumps are learning an old friend died, and – like a job offer that went into your spam queue two weeks ago – goddamn if you knew about it until now.

My father got emotional a few months ago, when I culled the obituaries of the local paper and found someone who’d attended the same East Dallas high school he did, around the same time as him. In my father’s youth, it seems all the Mexican-American folks knew one another; lived in the same neighborhoods; and went to the same schools. They had to in those days, when people were placed into boxes according to race and gender.

That’s one thing I remember fondly about Heath: neither one of us liked to be defined by other people’s expectations. We didn’t fit into predefined categories that made others happy, content and satisfied the world around them functioned the way they thought it should. His other friends couldn’t figure me out and, aside from a fascination with muscle cars and sea-bound disasters, didn’t know what we had in common. That’s okay. I didn’t care for all of his friends. I’m sure he wouldn’t have cared for some of mine. I didn’t have nearly as many friends as he did, though. He obviously had enough to collect money to cover funeral expenses. Unless my parents were here, I don’t know if any of my friends would do the same. I don’t socialize with people much.

But I’m faithful to the few friends I do have. That’s why, for example, when my friend Alan* – married with 3 kids – tells me he needs to talk about stuff over lunch on a Saturday, I’m there. When my friend Raymond*, who I wrote about a while back, calls to say life has become unbearable for him, I try to get back to him quickly. Alan once had a bout with cancer, and Raymond still carries a bullet fragment from an attempted robbery. If I lost either of them now, I can’t just go out and get a new friend, like some people get a new computer.

I’ve gotten over Heath’s unexpected death, and he’s no longer bouncing around in my mind. He got my attention. That’s the thing about old friends. Eventually they become dead friends. There’s no other alternative. I wouldn’t want one.

*Name changed.

Image courtesy: 4-Designer.

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Frat Crap

skull-shaped-beer-pitcher

Thirty years ago this month I made one of the worst decisions of my entire life: I joined a fraternity. In August of 1984, I was a shy, naïve 20-year-old; the kind of person college social groups eat up and spit out. When I started classes at what was then North Texas State University (now, the University of North Texas), I hoped to complete my education within two years and begin a career in computers – anything to do with computers – like my parents had planned for me. I also hoped to break out of my shell of insecurity, make plenty of friends and find my future wife – after losing my virginity first. I ended up suspended from school for the fall 1985 semester, addicted to alcohol, maniacally depressed – and still a virgin.

Then, as now, I blame that fucking fraternity. I know the status of “Victim” has been a coveted one in America since the 1980s. But, hear me out on this mess.

I’ll say flat out that social Greek-letter organizations serve absolutely no purpose. They have only one function: party, which means getting drunk and having sex. Yes, they toss in the occasional charity function bullshit just to look good. For example, in November 1984, the frat I joined teamed up with the county to drive people to voting stations. In another self-righteous instance, we participated in a campus blood drive; where the director (a pre-med professor) walked around in a stupid vampire outfit. (Get it? Blood drive? Vampire?) Anne Rice probably would have killed him on the spot. Other than those two saccharine-laced, cringe-worthy exceptions, we just got drunk (they called it “enjoying alcohol – immensely”); tried to seduce as many unwary females as possible; engaged in quasi-macho antics; and partied at an aging two-story house on the edge of campus.

On my first day in the dorm, I saw a flyer advertising a party for the frat, which I’ll call Alpha Omega Dipshit (AOD). After I settled in – living away from home for the first time in my life, along with a flamboyantly gay roommate – I looked again at that ad for AOD and thought it must be great way to make new friends. I was desperate to meet new people. This wasn’t high school, which I hated. Life at a community college the preceding two academic years had been nice. But, I didn’t spend a lot of time with people. My social life during the my first two years out of high school revolved around whatever plans my parents had and my German shepherd. My dating life revolved around my hands and a bottle of baby oil. Things would be better now, I assured myself. North Texas was different. I wasn’t dealing with kids anymore. I was dealing men and women. I thought.

On a whim, I followed a guy I’d met and quickly befriended in the dorm to the AOD party, where beer flowed like the testosterone through my body. There were lots of beautiful people, and I tried making friends with every one of them. I really wanted people to like me. Being shy hurt and I had to break free of it.

In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a federal law requiring states to raise their minimum legal alcohol consumption age to 21; otherwise, they’d lose highway funding. The law was a response to the growing anti-drunk driving movement. Before the 1980s, drunk driving was viewed with an almost humorously dismissive attitude. Despite fatal accidents involving alcohol, intoxicated driving still wasn’t considered nearly as egregious as interracial marriage or homosexuality. That all changed after the young daughter of Candy Lightner, a California woman, was struck and killed by a habitual drunk driver. She made it a national issue. Hence, the 1984 federal law.

But, then-Texas Governor Mark White essentially told Reagan to go to hell when he mandated the legal alcohol consumption rate wouldn’t be raised to 21 in the Lone Star State until 1985. Texas had enough money to fund its own highways without some former B-movie actor telling us what to do. (That anti-Washington sentiment has always sort of been part of the Texas identity. White, I might add, was a Democrat.) It really didn’t matter to me, though. I didn’t drink that much alcohol anyway at the time.

Three years earlier, 18-year-old seniors at my high school were upset because Texas planned to raise the minimum alcohol-drinking age to 19.

“They can give you a right,” one girl told me at the start of an English class, “but they can’t take it away.”

How profound. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get the fuck out of that high school.

But, when I stepped into the back yard of the AOD house, I followed the crowd to the beer kegs and started partaking of Coors Light. Even now, the mere smell of Coors Light incurs bitter images of college boys behaving stupidly. I had one plastic cup of beer. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another. And then, another.

And, that’s where it began.

I wanted so much to Belong. My lifelong shyness had stunted my personal growth. Aside from my dog, I felt no one liked me. But, in pursuing that friendship goal – paying money along the way – I became a punching bag for most of those guys. More importantly, my entire academic regimen collapsed, and the university placed me on academic probation for the spring 1985 semester. That prevented me from becoming a full, active member of AOD. I still had to pay monthly dues, of course. But, I remained in the netherworld of pledgeship. That’s something like a glorified time out. Can you feel the hopelessness?

Things got worst that year. We had to put our dog to sleep in April, and then, the university suspended me for the rest of 1985. My parents were outraged, and I became suicidal. I felt I’d lost everything. My dog was dead; I didn’t have any new friends; and my future looked bleak. And, I was still a virgin.

My life reached a new low that October when I got arrested for drunk driving. I showed up to my waiter job at a country club already intoxicated one weekday evening. Carl*, my openly-gay supervisor, wouldn’t let me work, even though the gaggle of mostly-Jewish members wouldn’t have given me a second look anyway. Instead, Carl made me sit in the back office where I ate a meal he had one of the cooks prepare for me and admitted he had the hots for me. Great, I thought. After all my efforts at chic one-liners and coy humor, the only person interested in me was a middle-aged man with a beer gut. After I sobered up a little, he told me to go home. But, I didn’t. I felt I had nothing to live for at the time. So, I got into my little Ford Escort and went bar-hopping. Coming off Dallas’ Greenville Avenue, I stumbled into a police trap and then into a police car. I had never felt as much humiliation as the moment I called my parents from Lew Sterrett Jail in downtown Dallas. They bailed me out early the next morning. Fortunately, my blood-alcohol level tested below what was then the legal limit of .10.

I returned to North Texas for the spring 1986 semester and then again for the ensuing academic year. I left for good a year later; vowing to return and complete my education. I never went back. But, I finally did earn a college degree – 20 years later.

I made only two really good friends during my tenure at North Texas. One, Dean*, I had met through AOD. He was a tall, skinny guy with tousled brown hair and a penchant for short girls. We became close – like brothers. Not frat brothers. Real brothers. As an only child, that meant everything in the world to me. He became the kind of friend I’d always wanted. He was upset that I didn’t become a full member of the frat, yet he didn’t let that bother him.

But, AOD did get in the way of our friendship. In September 1986, after I’d settled in once more at North Texas, I ran into Dean in a parking lot, while headed to class. We hadn’t seen each other in over a year. We traded phone numbers, and later, he invited me to drop by an AOD rush party. Against my better judgment, I took him up on his offer. I went with a guy named James* who’d just graduated from high school and who I’d met at my new job a few months earlier. There, I ran into many of the people I’d known before. It felt so strange – being in that house – with those familiar faces – and the smell of Coors Light. But, nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.

At some point, I got into a heated discussion with a guy named Kyle*. He’d been part of the same pledge class as me and Dean and now, two years later, was AOD’s president. Kyle was already kind of a strange character; someone who did a great Keith Richards impersonation, but was probably the same type to walk into his workplace with a shotgun. I didn’t realize he could be such an asshole, though. I don’t know what prompted the argument, but a short while later, Dean asked me to leave. Actually, he had been told to ask me to leave. He was the frat’s “Sergeant-at-Arms” – a glorified Boy Scout-type role – and apparently, since we’d been such good friends, he’d been given the task to let me know I was no longer welcome. Fine. I didn’t need them. So, I calmly departed with James in tow; acting is if nothing was wrong.

Deep down inside, however, I felt completely dejected. I had wanted so badly to be a part of that group. The next night I scampered about the campus, ripping down flyers advertising AOD. I guess I showed them! Regardless, Dean and I stayed in touch throughout the remainder of the academic year. We just didn’t talk about the frat.

The other friend, Robert*, had actually attended the same grade school as me. We knew each other only sparingly back then. But, on my first day in the dorm in August 1984, Robert stepped into my open doorway and introduced himself; he was in the room just across the hall. He startled me at first, but I was glad people were so friendly. Or, at least he was. After another moment, though, I thought I remembered him. It’s one thing to reconnect with people from high school. But, grade school?!

Ironically, he joined AOD – at my urging – and did well with it. He wasn’t there the night Dean asked me to leave. But, Robert has remained one of my best friends ever since. He’s tolerated my moodiness over the years. For example, I had an alcohol blackout one night in the early 1990s and unwittingly called him to tell him “this was it.” I was determined to kill myself. (I seriously don’t remember the incident, but I trust he’s telling me the truth.) Being the good real estate salesman he is, Robert stayed calm and managed to talk me into exhaustion.

When he revealed that to me a few years ago, I apologized to him for making such a scene and taking up so much of his time. It’s not his fault I couldn’t get my stuff together and heal myself from depression and alcoholism. Which I eventually did. Several years later.

Over the past two decades, I’ve been dumbfounded – angered, actually – to learn of incidents involving social Greek-letter outfits on college campuses. They almost always feature severe alcohol abuse, hazing and, quite often, sexual assault. How is it, I ask, that colleges allow these groups to exist? I guess the frat culture is embedded that strongly in the realm of America’s higher education. What a waste.

In the summer of 2003, my employer hired three young female temporaries to assist with an ongoing project. One had just graduated from high school and planned to attend a major Texas university that fall. Shortly before she resigned her position, I warned her to stay away from social fraternities – and sororities. “They’re just no good,” I told her.

I last saw Dean on South Padre Island during spring break 1987. I’ve retained my friendship with Robert, but I still often think of Dean. Not long after he had ordered me to leave the AOD house in 1986, Robert told me Dean had gone on a drinking binge. He felt he’d turned on a friend, Robert said, and couldn’t handle it. I never knew that. I can only hope Dean didn’t descend into a decades-long battle with alcohol like I did. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

It wouldn’t be fair, if I said that Dean and Robert were the only decent guys in that fraternity. In fact, most of them were great guys. It was the handful of assholes who ruined it for everybody else. Isn’t that the way it often works?

Yet, I wonder – where is Dean now? Is he okay? Did he succeed in life? I felt, if anyone deserved it, he did. I’m not so arrogant to wonder if he thinks of me, though. But, we had the kind of friendship that should have lasted a lifetime. If that damn fraternity just hadn’t thrown so much crap all over us.

*Name changed.

Image.

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Years of New Year’s

Welcoming the 1980s – from right to left, my father, my mother’s younger sister and my mother.  One of my aunt’s daughters is at far left.

Welcoming the 1980s – from right to left, my father, my mother’s younger sister and my mother. One of my aunt’s daughters is at far left.

On December 31, 2010, I decided spontaneously to go out for New Year’s Eve.  I had been laid off nearly three months earlier from an engineering company and wondered when things would improve.  I visited my favorite bar just north of downtown Dallas and was glad to encounter a few friends and acquaintances.  As I stood near the DJ booth, surveying the eclectic crowd, I suddenly recollected the very first New Year’s party my parents had decided to throw – 1973.

We had moved into our new house in suburban Dallas a year earlier.  My parents had already made friends with several neighbors; their ebullient personalities attracting even the most staid of individuals.  As the clock struck midnight, and we welcomed 1974, I pulled back the heavy drapes against the patio door to look for my then 7-month-old German shepherd, Joshua.  His ears already beginning to triangulate, he glanced at me and jumped up.  I went outside to pet him and wish him a happy New Year.

By the time I rang in 2011, Joshua had been dead for a quarter century, and my parents had long ceased their partying ways.  Last night, I sat with some wine coolers and watched television.  My parents and my dog, Wolfgang, all had retired for the night.  I’m so glad to see 2013 go, happier than I was three years earlier.  In fact, I haven’t been this thrilled to let go of a year since 1985 – the year we put Joshua to sleep; a year I’ve always considered the single worst of my entire life.

New Year’s is my favorite holiday.  It’s not just the feverish atmosphere surrounding a fresh start.  For me, it’s always been associated with the gathering of family and friends; people who occupy our lives and make it good.  Besides, most everyone feels giddy on New Year’s Eve.  Why not celebrate?

My parents threw a number of New Year’s parties.  Ours was the fun house on the block.  It was during those raucous indoor festivals when I learned how to spin records (on a turntable), mix drinks, and show people how good I could dance.  I can still bump and grind with the best of them, but usually the lights have to be dim.

Two of our perennial guests were among my parents’ closest friends: a young couple who lived next door and were among the first people we befriended in the neighborhood.  They were both exceptionally tall.  They got me addicted to “National Geographic” by purchasing us a gift subscription in 1976.  And, they offered my parents and me one of the best bits of advice anyone could hear: always hang around people who know more than you do.

At one particular late 1970s New Year’s gathering, a neighbor got so drunk we escorted him into my parents’ bedroom to lie down for a while.  My dad took Polaroids of many of us – including the man’s wife – encircling him on the bed.  It was a while before he returned to our house for another New Year’s party.  When he did, his wife became so intoxicated she had to spend the night in my bedroom; her husband returned home (I think) alone.  I slept on the living room couch.

Some other neighbors, a couple whose kids attended the same high school I did, were also frequent visitors.  The man would often bring his guitar and sing along with his wife.  And, they really could sing.  As newlyweds in their native New México, they once entered an amateur singing contest, but lost out because the judges said they sounded too much like professionals.  That didn’t matter to us so many years later, though, as they strummed out tunes from José Feliciano and even The Doors’ “Light My Fire.”

That was quite a different reaction from that of another neighbor, a housewife who lived up the street with her stony husband and three unruly children.  At one New Year’s party, she imbibed in too many of the margaritas I’d whipped up and haphazardly commented that she liked to sing.  Seeing a chance to humiliate a fat, drunk stay-at-home mom who sold decorative glassware on the side and considered herself a devout Christian, two other friends – a neighbor and a man my parents had known for several years – began escorting her around the house; telling certain individuals, ‘You gotta hear this!’  And, as the woman started to croon, sounding much like a Hereford cow going into labor, the two men merely stepped away.  They’d return a minute later to set her upon another unsuspecting partier.

My favorite New Year’s gathering took place at my parents’ home in 1979.  I was excited to bring in not just a new year, but a new decade.  If you’re old enough to recall the fashions and hair styles of the 1970s, surely you can identify with my elation in sending that decade into the history books.  It was a unique affair in that we invited both family and friends – and they all showed up!  We didn’t think this house could hold that many people and not incite calls to the police.  Even my grandmother was there – and, aside from midnight mass on Christmas Eve at her local Catholic church, she was almost never up past 9 P.M.  Above the fireplace I hung a large piece of blue poster board with the term “The ‘80s” on it.  I had spent days cutting up sheets of colored paper into tiny squares to make confetti.  I stuffed it all into a large brown paper sack and hurtled the pieces into the air at the stroke of midnight.  As we cleaned up later, my mother commented that “we’ll be picking up confetti for a year.”  And, sure enough, exactly one year later – after another New Year’s blowout – I found a single piece of confetti buried beneath a couch.

Another New Year’s party, with my mother clowning alongside the friends who often entertained us with a guitar and a song.  My mother just turned 81, but the couple left us more than three years ago.

Another New Year’s party, with my mother clowning alongside the friends who often entertained us with a guitar and a song. My mother just turned 81, but the couple left us more than three years ago.

Of course, we attended New Year’s parties at the homes of other friends and neighbors.  Whether at my parents’ house or somewhere else, I always made it a point to have a good time – and not just because alcohol and food were plentiful, although that adds to the fervor.  I just really enjoy New Year’s celebrations.  Regardless, there’s something unique about ringing in a new year with the people closest to you.

On New Year’s Eve 1988, I was at the apartment of a friend, working on a stage play.  Along with some other friends, her and I were trying to launch our own theatrical group and had scheduled a handful of gigs for the spring.  It was almost half past midnight before we realized it was 1989.  We hugged and clinked wine cooler bottles, then got back to work.  I did make it a point, though, to call my parents from there and wish them a Happy New Year.  I was surprised to find out they were already in bed.  “I was just thinking about all the New Year’s parties we used to throw,” my dad told me, sounding rather sad.

A year later a friend and I decided to usher in the 1990s at Dick’s Last Resort in Dallas’ West End.  For a $20 cover, we could have all the food we wanted and a variety of drink specials.  But, my friend was coming down with a cold and, around 10 P.M., asked me to take him back to his apartment.  So much for that $20!  But, I decided to join another friend at a warehouse party just south of downtown.  He was both surprised and glad to see me.  Standing 6’7”, he was almost a whole foot taller and considered me his adopted little brother.  His older brother had died of cancer shortly before Christmas 1978.  Even though a fight broke out between two guys – one who showed up high on something – I had more fun than I probably would have at the other place.

I spent New Year’s Eve 1990 with a friend, Daniel, who I wrote about recently.  He was sad because he’d just learned his former long-time boyfriend had died of AIDS a month earlier.  As we sat listening to a jazz version of “Auld Lang Syne” on a local radio station, his two Lhasa Apsos resting near the fireplace, we heard what we thought were firecrackers.  When I looked out the patio door of his second-story apartment, I realized the popping sounds were coming from a burning car on the opposite side of the highway.  “I hope they weren’t on their way to a New Year’s party,” I said.

I peruse the bevy of old photos from our various New Year’s gatherings and wonder about some of the people in them.  The tall couple eventually sold their house and moved to El Paso, Texas before I graduated from high school.  They promised to stay in touch, which they did – for a little while.  But, we haven’t seen or heard from them in over two decades.  The drunken neighbor moved away a few years ago – not long after his wife succumbed to cancer.  The guitar-playing couple died within two months of each other in the summer of 2010.  The would-be songstress and her husband also vacated the neighborhood long ago.  Strangely, I ran into their daughter in the summer of 1985 at the country club where we both worked.  My friend Daniel died in 1993, and I eventually lost touch with those other three friends.

My grandmother passed away in 2001, and most of my cousins have married and had kids of their own.  We’ve all gone on to lead our own lives, but I’ve managed to stay in touch with a few.  It’s still fun, though, as I recollect the good times and gaze at the scores of glossy photos that captured those moments.  Yes, that’s happening with greater frequency as I get older.  But, life isn’t worth the trouble if you can’t have fun with family and friends and then, remember it all.

I commandeered the bar at the home of some long-time family friends on New Year’s Eve 1983.  My jacket was faux leather, but the hair was real!  When the hostess asked what speed she should set the blender to mix margaritas, ‘whip’ or ‘puree,’ I said, “Drunk.”

I commandeered the bar at the home of some long-time family friends on New Year’s Eve 1983. My jacket was faux leather, but the hair was real! When the hostess asked what speed she should set the blender to mix margaritas, ‘whip’ or ‘puree,’ I said, “Drunk.”

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