Tag Archives: friends

Last Wish

I first posted this essay five years ago and I’m posting it again, as this day marks the 25th anniversary of the death of one my closest friends at the time.  It’s hard to believe so much time has passed – a quarter century.  Now my father is gone, and my mother may not be far behind.  Other people – friends, acquaintances, coworkers, etc. – have come and gone as well.  That’s to be expected from living more than fifty years on Earth.

There are those moments or events that settle into our lives, take root in our minds and never leave.  For me this is one such event.

 

autumn-leaves

September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick.  I lay in bed that night, listless and fatigued, when the phone rang at 10:12 P.M.  Curiously, I hadn’t turned on the answering machine, as I always did before going to bed.  But, I knew who lingered on the other end – even before I answered.  It was Linda*, the mother of one of my best friends, Daniel.

“He’s gone,” she whispered, her voice raspy and quivering.  She’d walked into his bedroom earlier that evening and found him with his eyes half-open.

We talked for quite a while, although I don’t remember all that was said.  But, I do recall telling her, “It’s over.  It’s finally over.”  Then, I went to sleep.  But, I wasn’t sad.  In fact, I was – not happy – but relieved.  Daniel had stopped suffering – and maybe so would his mother.

That night, though, I wondered why I was so sick.  Just allergies, I kept thinking; that’s all it was.  I’d realized years earlier how my allergies usually coincided with the Atlantic / Caribbean hurricane season, becoming most severe in August and September.  In reality, it’s the change from summer to autumn, when mountain cedar and ragweed blossom with impunity.  But, I have this obsession – almost a fetish – with tropical storm systems, so I make that odd comparison.  Yet, that year was different.  The infection seemed to have settled in my stomach, instead of my sinuses.

I’d felt fine the preceding weekend.  I’d visited Daniel and Linda that Monday, Labor Day.  I gave Daniel a much-needed bath and shave, trimmed his nails and put him back to bed.  I also vacuumed and mopped the kitchen floor.  I chatted with Linda for a while.  Her hands trembled, as she sat on a couch; as much from growing arthritis as dealing with Daniel.

“I don’t know how much longer I can go on,” she mumbled, staring at the floor.

“You’ll make it,” I said, trying to reassure her.  What else could I say?

I’d met Daniel at birthday party for a mutual friend four years earlier.  We were two completely different people, but had a few things in common: dogs, cars and rock n’ roll.  Like me, he also had been born and raised in the Dallas area.  He was the third of four children to parents who were mixed Irish and Cherokee Indian extraction.  He didn’t have a happy home life.  When his father wasn’t working, sometimes six days a week, he was drinking booze; occasionally, he’d burst into drunken rages, a stereotypical drunk-ass Irishman or Indian and lash out at anyone nearby.  Linda often bore the brunt of his attacks, until the night her oldest son lunged into his father.  For Linda, that was the proverbial last straw; the catalyst that prompted her to pack up the kids and leave.  By the time I met Daniel, his father had died.

As I’d planned, I took the day after Labor Day off from work.  I visited my gym to lift weights, worked on a short story and partook in a Tae Kwon Do class that evening.  The Tae Kwon Do session exhausted me, even though it wasn’t particularly intense.  I thought nothing of it until the next night, when I returned to the gym and left after less than an hour.  Fatigue settled over me like a ton of hot, wet blankets.

I awoke the next morning feeling awful; body aches and chills and a stomach that was churning like – well – like a hurricane.  My supervisor sent me home just after noon.  I sat near the building, waiting for the bus.  The late summer sun warmed me up, and I stopped shivering.  I felt well enough to stop by a fast food place on the way back to my apartment – and regurgitated the food that night.  I stayed home the next day, but returned to work on Friday.  I spent most of Saturday in bed; no energy, no strength.  Damn allergies, I kept telling myself.

On Sunday, I visited my parents for lunch as usual.  My father grilled steaks – their thick, juicy aromas wafting throughout the house, intermingling with the scent of the butter-saturated mashed potatoes my mother made.  But, I couldn’t eat.  I was still nauseous.  My dad suggested I visit their family doctor, if I didn’t feel better by the next day.  He even offered to pay, since my finances were strained at the time.

I had just purchased my truck six months earlier and was still paying off credit card bills for repairing my previous vehicle.  I had health insurance at work – with a $1,000 deductible.  I told them I’d be fine.  It was just those goddamned allergies.

I had been anticipating that call from Linda for months.  I knew somehow it would come at night.  She called me because I was one of the last friends Daniel had remaining; one who didn’t turn his back on him.  That’s just not my nature.  I didn’t have many friends back then and I still don’t.  But, the people I do consider friends mean a lot to me.

It’s amazing, though, the number of friends people lose when they fall on hard times – even when they become terminally ill.  Some time in the 1970s, my mother’s hair dresser became seriously ill and had to be hospitalized.  When my parents visited him, he mentioned they were among the few who’d made the effort.  All the people who were quick to accept his party invitations where mounds of food and alcohol would be served were curiously absent as he lay in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV.

I think Daniel had known he was HIV for at least two years, but he didn’t start getting sick until the spring of 1992.  By then, he was unemployed and uninsured; he could no longer afford his suburban Dallas apartment.  In May, I and another friend moved him back into his mother’s home in another Dallas suburb.  Daniel’s health deteriorated throughout that summer, but unexpectedly – almost miraculously – began rejuvenating by fall.  He gained weight and color returned to his face.  He actually looked pretty good when I spent Christmas Day with his family, including his two older siblings; younger sister, Andrea; sister-in-law; and a niece and nephew.  I took a photo of them as they gathered around a couch; one that Linda placed on her refrigerator, beside another picture of her beloved mother.

We all thought – if only for a moment – he would make it.  In less than six months, however, Daniel’s health began crumbling again.  And, one by one, his gallery of friends slipped into anonymity.

I took my father up on his offer.  After a cursory exam, the doctor stepped back into the room and asked, “Have you ever had hepatitis?”

“Hepatitis?  No.”

“Well, I think that’s what you have.”

Hepatitis!  If he had told me I was pregnant, I would have believed him sooner.  Hepatitis!  Wasn’t that an old world disease – like small pox or typhoid?  No one got that shit anymore.  But, that’s what I had – Hepatitis A, the contagious kind, and a particularly vicious strain of it, too.  The doctor hospitalized me – almost against my will.  I stayed there through the following Wednesday – the day they buried Daniel.

“Where’d you go?!” Linda cried that Wednesday night on the phone, a sense of betrayal coating her voice.

I told her what happened.

Her anguish shifted to empathy.  “Why didn’t you call me?!  I would’ve come visit you!”

“But, Daniel had just died, Linda.  And, I was in the hospital.”

“But, you’re my other son!”

I had helped Daniel pick out his burial suit in the spring of 1992.  He hadn’t bought a new suit in years.  He must have scoured through a hundred of them before he latched onto that one.  He zipped it up and stored it in the back of his closet, complete with a matching tie and a new white dress shirt.  He was proud of the ensemble; he wanted to be buried in style.

“You are going to be a pallbearer,” he asked me, “aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I said.  What a silly question.

Watching a loved one die and not being able to do anything about it is the most frustrating emotion anyone can ever experience.  I’d seen cancer consume my Aunt Mariana, my mother’s older sister, a few years earlier.  It just wouldn’t let her go, until one rainy Tuesday morning in June of 1989.  She’d already known tragedy.  Her first husband died in a freak car crash in 1968; practically leaving her to raise their six kids alone.  In January of 1983, one of her daughters took her own life.  Mariana had entered into a brief marriage with a man who – later on, as she fell ill – didn’t seem to understand she was in no mood for sex while undergoing chemotherapy.  What, I beseeched God, did she ever do to deserve all that?

I asked God the same of Daniel and Linda.  What did they ever do to bring this upon themselves?  God remained silent.  He / She always does.  But, it made me angry nonetheless, and I finally just blurted out, “Fuck you, God!,” into my darkened bedroom.

Daniel was especially close to Andrea who’d completed nursing school about two years before he passed away.  She had moved into an apartment complex across the street from him and became involved with a truck driver named Jimmy.  Jimmy was part Cherokee, too, and unfortunately, fed into the stereotype of the same drunk-ass Indian as Daniel’s father.  One night Jimmy returned to the apartment he shared with Andrea and attacked her.  She managed to call Daniel before Jimmy snatched the phone from her.  Daniel had been asleep, but donned a pair of exercise shorts, charged across the street and barreled into his sister’s apartment – where he beat Jimmy into a bloody, shriveling mess.  The police took both of them to jail, but released Daniel almost immediately.

Recollecting what his father did to his mother, Daniel was unrepentant about Jimmy.  “Now, he’s going to have to tell the guys in prison that an AIDS-infected fag beat his ass!”

In November of 1992, I happened upon the obituary for a guy I’d known in grade school.  He was 29 and had died after a “brief illness” – code words, a friend told me, for AIDS.  I revealed the true nature of Daniel’s death to only a select few people.  Even in the early 1990s, the affliction bore a terrifying stigma.   I told most everyone else – my parents, my colleagues – he’d succumbed to cancer.  I just didn’t want my folks to worry anymore about me than necessary.  My workplace, on the other hand, was populated with evangelical homophobes – the kind who preach forgiveness and compassion, but practice hate and bigotry.

Daniel always introduced me as a “true friend” to people he knew.  I was embarrassed, since I felt I was doing nothing extraordinary.  But, to Daniel, I was someone who gave my compassion and generosity, asking for nothing in return except trust and respect.  I promised him I would stay with him through the end.  And, I did – until the night he died.

For anyone who’s ever lost a relative or friend, there’s always something that triggers thoughts of that person; something relatively small and insignificant – a color, a sound…something that literally makes us stop and think about the better times we had together.  In 1992, a group called Snap! came out with a song entitled “Rhythm Is a Dancer.”  Both Daniel and I really liked that tune.  We’d visited a nightclub together in late 1992 where the deejay played it.  I don’t know what it is about that song, but it bridges a connection to Daniel and how good life was for me in the early 1990s.  So, I listen to it now, and all the feelings of  friendship and those carefree days flood my subconscious.  It’s just one of those things that transport me to ‘Way Back When.’

Daniel had two dogs when he returned to his mother’s home – a male named Alan and a female named Veronica, both Lhasa Apsos.  The male was fiercely protective of him.  The female was spoiled; Daniel had the habit of carrying her wherever they went, instead of letting her walk.  As Daniel’s health waned in the summer of 1993, he and his mother made the painful decision to turn them over to the local animal shelter.  Two years after Daniel died I seriously thought of purchasing a dog and just happened to peruse the ads of the local newspaper for animals, when I saw a blurb about an “adorable white Lhasa Apso named Alan.”  I almost fell off my easy chair.  Is it…no, it couldn’t be!  Surely, it’s not… I didn’t know what to think.  I realized, though, that I couldn’t afford a dog at the time.  I could only hope some good families adopted Alan and Veronica.

We measure the important events of our lives in the increments of time we know: one week, one year, five years, ten years.  Seven weeks after Daniel died I turned 30.  My colleagues at the bank bought me an ivy plant – which I still have – and treated me to lunch.  They also bought me a mechanical red crab emblazoned with the words ‘30 AND STILL CRABBY.’  You wind it up and it marches along the surface in the standard sideways crab walk.  I still have that crab, too, buried among my slew of possessions.  In seven weeks I’ll turn 50.  Life keeps moving, no matter who lives or dies.

I’ve always wondered why I never dreamed of Daniel.  I didn’t expect his ghostly apparition to appear before me one dark and stormy night – albeit something like that wouldn’t have frightened me.  But, I kept thinking he should at least visit me in a dream to tell me he’s alright.  Or, I hoped he would – just for my own peace.  Is he mad at me?  Did he think that I’d abandoned him at the last moment?  But then, I realized I’d never dreamed of my Aunt Mariana either.  And, we were family.  When I was a child, she’d sit me down at her dining room table and feed me.  Was she mad at me, too?

No – of course not.  I finally understood that I’ve never dreamed of them because they didn’t need me anymore; me or anyone else.  They’ve gone on to another and hopefully better life.  My job was done, as far as they’re concerned.

I did for Daniel what few people – friends or relatives – would do: I took care of him at the worst possible moments of his life.  I bathed him, I fed him, I took him shopping for that suit, I gave him all the undivided love and attention I could muster.  I even cared for his mother because her own body – racked with arthritis and emphysema – allowed her to do only so much.  Some people do good just to send a get-well card.

September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick.  I couldn’t do anything about it then and I can’t do anything about it now.  I did what I could for my friend – the first friend I’ve ever had who died.  My last wish for him and everyone else who has gone before me is to know that they’re safe and happy.

I’ve finally convinced myself they are.

*All names have been changed.

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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

blonde-forest-girl-green-hair-favim-com-356114

“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.

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© 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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Raymond

Man-glass-window-back-silhouette-900x1600

This is based on a true story.  In September of 1997, a close friend of mine was shot six times in an attempted robbery / carjacking – and survived.  He’s still alive, albeit with a tiny bullet fragment lodged in his body.  I’ve changed the names of everyone involved, along with a handful of other personal facts.

You know how they say you’ll always make one really stupid mistake in life that you’ll regret forever?  Well, mine had to do with my driver’s license.  I know those things are important.  But, at three in the morning?

I didn’t think twice about it after getting home from work.  I’d walked into my apartment, pulled off my work shirt and started settling in for the night, when I realized my license was missing.  I dropped my wallet onto the dresser and it fell open.  My old license was there – I could see it through the plastic sheath or thing or whatever you call it – but the new one was gone.

I looked all over the damn place for it.  I couldn’t make too much noise.  My roommate, Jake, was asleep and waking him up was like waking up a grizzly bear.  I mean, he would literally get that mad!  I kept telling him he just needed to get laid.  That sort of pissed him off even more.

But, I started to worry that I’d lost the new license.  I had just turned 35 and drove around for a month with an expired license.  It was a grocery store clerk who reminded me it was expired.

Damn!  Now, it was gone.  I stood in the middle of the front room, scratching my head.  It was almost 3:00 A.M.  Then, I thought it’s probably somewhere in my truck.  So, I made my way back down to it, making sure I locked the door behind me.  The neighborhood was starting to go to hell.  It seemed fights were breaking out every weekend.  People had been throwing shit into the bed of my truck.  I caught one guy doing that and jumped his ass.  I actually grabbed him by his little finger and walked the bitch back to my truck.  I made him crawl into the bed, pick up the soda can and toss it into a trash can that sat just a few feet away.

“My truck ain’t your fucking trash can!” I yelled at him.  “There’s this fucking trash can over here!  Are you too fucking lazy to walk over here?”

He and his two buddies walked away, making racist comments: ‘White bitch,’ ‘White boy,’ ‘honkee.’

‘Honkee?!’  I hadn’t heard that since I was in grade school!  Didn’t that word go out of style with bell bottoms?  I guess I should’ve pointed out that I’m Hispanic, but I was tired that night.  I’d argued with more than a few people in that dump and didn’t want to get into it with three teenaged assholes who were probably too stupid to read their own fucking names.

But, that’s the kind of shit we had to deal with, almost every day.  The lease was up for renewal in three months, and I’d already told Jake I needed to move.  I couldn’t stand the place anymore.  He wasn’t too happy about that, but I didn’t care.

So, there I was, sitting in the passenger side of my truck; looking through a large brown envelope for my fucking license at three in the morning.  I’d already searched the glove compartment and under both seats.  I remember stopping for a minute, wondering why the place was so quiet.  Usually there were a group of guys on the other side of the parking lot, drinking beer and staying stupid shit to every female who walked by.

But, it was quiet, really quiet that night.  And, just when I turned back to the envelope, I heard a noise.  I looked up and saw the black barrel of a gun pointing at from between the truck and the door frame.

“Don’t move, muthafucka!” said the guy.

I could tell he was Black, before I noticed another Black guy standing directly in front of the truck; that one had his hands on the hood.  And, I had just realized he didn’t have on gloves, when I bolted towards the rear of the truck.  I really didn’t think about it.  I just started running.

And, the guy with the gun started shooting.  I could hear those tiny pops.  You know how they say gunshots actually sound like firecrackers?  Well, that’s exactly what they sound like.  There was no booming sound.  Just those tiny pops – ten of them, I found out later.

Six of them found me; two in my back, one in my left leg; two in my right leg; and one in my right shoulder.

I felt them, but then again, I didn’t really feel them.  Does that make sense?  I don’t know why, but I didn’t realize I’d been shot that many times until later that day.  Or, maybe the next.

I don’t know how, but I managed to make it back to the apartment.  For some reason, I thought I’d dropped my keys and began banging on the door; shouting for Jake to let me in.

When he finally came to the door, he was – well, pissed.

But, I don’t really remember what he said to me, except something like, “Goddamnit!”

It wasn’t until I got into the apartment that I realized I had my keys in my left hand.

I think Jake asked me what happened, and I just said something like, “I’ve been shot!”

When the paramedics hauled me out of the place, I noticed lights on in almost every unit around there.  And, there was all this noise.  I guess people talking.  I heard a couple of dogs barking, too.

That’s all I remember before everything blurred.  And, I felt for a minute like everything and everyone was in black and white.  That’s how they looked; everyone in black and white.

Then, I heard a swishing sound, and everything was solid white.  That hurt my eyes.  But, it was the light coming from the hospital room window to my right.  I didn’t know what hospital.  Everything finally darkened a little, but it was blurred.  Something was stuck in my nose.  I felt like I was handcuffed – no, strapped.  My whole body hurt.  Something told me my moustache and goatee were missing.

A large object leaned over me; a big darkness – with gold, wire-rimmed glasses.  How the hell did I notice that?

“Well, you’re awake.”

I opened my mouth – at least that’s what I thought I was doing – but I felt like someone had poured sand down my throat.

“My name is Therese.”

Therese?  I don’t know any Therese.  Who the hell are you?!  Damn that fucking sand!

“Don’t try to talk.  Just rest, love.  You’ve been through a bad situation.”

She sounded funny.  Everything was already blurry.  But, it got blurrier.  And then, it darkened.

I heard that swishing sound again.  My throat still felt like it was filled with sand.  I could focus a little more.  The room was still bright, but I could make out more details.  Where was I?

Then, I heard a shuffling sound, like someone walking; someone trying to creep up on me.

“Hello.”

It was that same voice – the funny-sounding one.  Accented, really.

I rolled my head to the left.

“You feeling any better?”

I guess.  Damn sand!

“Just nod your head,” she said.  It was Therese.

How did I remember her name?

“You have a tube down your throat.”  She was a big woman; a big Black woman with gold, wire-rimmed glasses.  Jamaican?  Haitian?

I couldn’t tell.  Then, she smiled.  The prettiest smile I think I’ve ever seen.

Things got blurry again.  I think I started to cry.

“You’ve been through a lot, love.”

I felt a slight tap on my left hand – and I realized she was caressing it.

I’m not the emotional type.  I’m really not.  But, for some reason, Therese brought out the sensitive side in me.  She was from Nigeria, she told me later.  She’d been here for a few years.

Where am I?

“Parkland,” said Therese.  “You’re in ICU right now.”

I couldn’t hear myself talk.  What happened?  I felt warm and started to tremble.

“I really can’t say, love.”  Then, she seemed to disappear, and I guess I fell asleep again.

But, she came back and smiled so pretty again.  She removed the tube from my throat.  “You’ll be alright,” she said, caressing my hand.  “You’re already getting better.”  Then, she was gone again – and I really felt scared.  I didn’t pay much attention to the other nurses.  I’m sure they were nice, too.  I just don’t remember them.

I took back everything bad I’d ever said about Black people.

A doctor came in around that same time – I think – to talk to me.

But, even with that tube removed – and after several cups of water – I really couldn’t say anything.  What happened, I mouthed.

“I really can’t say,” the doctor told me.  She was a skinny, blonde who looked sexually anemic.  “I think the police will try to come by later – now that you’re awake.  But, you’ll be fine.”

Gosh, thanks.  That means a lot.  I didn’t hear or see her leave.  I just noticed after a moment – or maybe a hundred moments – that she was gone.  So was Therese.  I missed her.

The light from the window had gone away.  It was so much darker now.  Evening had settled in.

I could still tell my facial hair was gone.

“Raymond?”

“Yea.”  I looked up.

It was Jake.  He had a strange look on his face – one I’d never seen before.  He looked – scared.  This from a guy who’s mastered the bar fight and liked to drive his Harley in the triple digit speeds.

“I came by earlier,” he said.  “But, you were asleep.”  He cleared his throat.

“Okay.”  I felt warm.

“You’ll be alright, man.”

“What the fuck happened?”

“I think someone tried to steal your truck.  They shot you six fucking times, man!”

Goddamn!  I spent four years in the Army and saw a little bit of action – nothing to get me invited to the White House.  And, I get shot six times as a fucking civilian?

“But, you’ll be alright,” said Jake.

“I guess.”

“No, I mean it.  You’ll be alright.  They’ll find out who did this.”

“Yea.”

“I called your mom and told her what happened.”

“Okay.”

“She’s trying to get a flight down here.”

“She – she’s never been to Texas.”  I’d been back to Montana a few times.  But, no one in my family had been down here.

“She has my cell number and my work number.  I told her to call me when she gets in.  I’ll go pick her up at the airport.”

“Okay – yea.”  It hurt just to take one measly breath.  “She’s never been down here.”

“Well – I need to go.”

“Alright.”

He left.  Funny, though – how he looked.  Like he was really concerned.

I noticed a phone on the table to my left.  I guess I should call my own mother.  Or, maybe my brother, Alan.  Or, my sister, Amanda.  Or, James.  Or, Diana.  Or, Michael.  Or, maybe they should just stay up there in Montana and not worry about me.  It was so goddamn long before any of them called me once I moved to Texas.  Alan actually tracked me down about ten years ago.  Dad wanted to make amends, he said.

“For what?” I asked.

“For everything,” said Alan.  “Things are different now.  They’ve kind of softened up a little.”

“Define ‘softened up’.”

“Come on, man!  Don’t be such a hard ass.  Things really are different now.”

I could hear him thinking.

“We miss you man.”

That shocked me.  I mean, literally!  No one in my family had ever missed me.  Not when I joined the Army and wrote all of two times during that four-year hitch.  Not when I took off for Yellowstone after getting out and was gone for almost two weeks.  (Nothing can settle your troubled mind like Yellowstone!)  None of them seemed to miss me, when that teenage girl ran a red light and slammed into my car.  I was 17 and was in the hospital for a day, before anyone came out to see me.  That one incident is why I joined the Army on my 18th birthday.  And, no one gave a shit when I left Montana…what – fourteen years ago?  Something like that.  I guess being the youngest of six has its down side.

Dad wanted to make amends?  Okay.  I’ll bite.  Amanda sent me an airline ticket for Christmas that same year.  Okay, I’ll see how it goes.  It actually went pretty well.  But, I still didn’t feel ‘missed.’

Now, Dad was gone.

I picked up the phone – and called one of my closest buddies, Lance.

“I was running for my life,” I told him.  He later said I was breathing hard – like I was at an obscene phone caller’s convention.

“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he said.  “Just hang tight, bro!”

I looked at the tubes.  Yea, I think I’ll just hang out here for a while.

I didn’t hear Lance come into the room.  “What day is it?”

“Saturday,” he answered.

The window was dark.

“Let me close these,” he said, walking around to the draw the drapes.  “Have you talked to your mom or anyone back home?”

“No, not yet.  Jake said he called my mother.”  It still hurt to breathe.  “She’s never been down here.  None of them have.”

Lance is one of the few really good friends I have have – a true friend; the type who comes around even when all sorts of shit lands in your face.  We’re about the same age, but from two totally different backgrounds.  He’s a native Texan and has only one sibling: an older brother.  He’s really close to his family.  And, so am I.  They’re the best people you could ever know.  I don’t know what time he left, but he vowed to be back the next day.

He kept his promise – like he always did – but, that next day is when my mother finally showed up.  I’d never called her.  She hadn’t called me.  Jake escorted her into my room.

“Oh, my God!” she hollered.  I forgot how loud she could be.  “What happened?!”

“Hell if I know,” I said.  I can tell you why the sky is blue, but I can’t tell you why some dumb fuck decided to shoot my ass!

I think I can honestly vouch for most men and say that a hospital is the last place you want your mother to see you.  But, here was mine – looking as disorganized as I felt.  I was more lucid by then, so I could counteract anything embarrassing she said about me.  But, she didn’t say anything that made me cringe – except that she wanted to return home.

I guess Jake and I thought she would just go back to the apartment with him.  But, she didn’t want that.  She was too scared.  And, the hospital wouldn’t let her stay in the room with me.  It was ICU – even if it did have a window – and they had to keep the room clear.  The head nurse – who looked like a gym teacher gone wrong – told us so.

“Just take me back to the airport,” my mother told Jake.

“Oh, Jesus,” I remember saying.  I was so warm and almost nauseous.

“That’s probably the morphine,” Lance told me.

“I don’t need this right now.”

The gym nurse told my mother that she could spend the night in the waiting room; security patrolled the area hourly.  She, Jake and Lance checked it out and returned to my room.

“I’m not staying there!” my mother announced.  “Just take me back to the airport.”

Then, Lance said something that surprised even me.  “Why don’t you come home with me?  It’s Sunday, so I can just bring you back here on my way to work in the morning.”

My mother looked at him kind of strangely; wondering, I guess, if he was sincere.  Jake looked at him funny, too.

I finally spoke up.  “I know him!  I trust him.  He has a spare bedroom; he has food; you’ll be safe there.”

“Okay,” she said.  She relented.

They all left at 9:00 P.M.

Lance brought my mother back down, as promised, the following morning and then headed on to work.  At some point, before that, though, I managed to call my boss, David.

“What the fuck?!” he said.  The ‘f’ word was one of his favorites.  What do you expect from someone who’s worked his entire life at a muffler plant?

I stayed in the hospital four more days.  My mother stayed at my apartment, sleeping in my bed.  She stayed two more days after I got out.  Jake drove us to the airport to see her off.  For the first time in I don’t know how long, I missed having her around.

“Are you alright?” Jake asked me on the way back to the apartment.

“Yea.”

It was a while before I could return to work.  Building mufflers is tougher than it sounds.  But, working around a bunch of guys who railed my ass about getting shot made up for it.  Even Lance joked – in front of mother, no less – that the gunman should’ve aimed for my head.  “That way the bullets would have just bounced off!”

hands-silhouette-behind-the-window-photography-hd-wallpaper-1920x1200-3468

I regrew my goatee right away, which I hoped – like working again – would bring some type of normalcy back to my life.  Even if I had a memento from the shooting: a tiny bullet fragment in my shoulder.

And, that’s when things started to happen very fast.  I moved out of the apartment with Jake and into the home of another buddy whose girlfriend suddenly decided she wanted to be single again.  That arrangement lasted for all of three months.

Then, I found a place closer to North Dallas, but further away from work.  When I heard a popping sound late one night, I left that joint – even when I found out the popping sound was a guy beating up his girlfriend in the parking lot.

I found another place closer to work.  That seemed okay for a couple of months – until the couple upstairs started a screaming match at five almost every morning.

“Why don’t you just move back up here?” Alan asked me one Saturday night.

I was already drunk on Coors.  “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

I couldn’t say.  “Well – I can’t afford it right now.  Not all the way up there.”

He grumbled.

I just couldn’t bring myself to say I didn’t want to be so close to them.  When I joined the Army, I vowed never to return.  I did, of course, but for all of four months.  My dad still wasn’t satisfied with me.  I could never please that man.  I don’t know why.  That youngest child thing, I guess.

But, I really couldn’t afford to pack up and move.  I was tied down to that apartment – and those screamers – for eighteen months.  When that ended, I moved yet again; this time just south of Dallas.  It was actually a nice little one-bedroom apartment.  And, the area was quiet.

It was amidst that quiet when I first gave serious thought to that tiny bullet fragment.  By the time I’d moved to Southern Dallas it had migrated down to my elbow, just above it actually.  If I pressed down on the area, I could feel it.  If I drank enough Coors, I couldn’t even tell it was there.  In fact, I forgot about it.  Then, I’d forget about the license – and the truck – and the gun – and the firecracker sounds.

It’s so nice to forget those things.  It really is.  It means everything in the world to me.  Just forgetting.

I still don’t know who shot me.  The police dusted my entire truck for fingerprints.  There was so much fucking fingerprint dust it almost looked black instead of blue.  I don’t remember talking to the police in the hospital.  But, I remember saying bye to Therese the day I left.  She had the prettiest smile.

I’ve lost touch with Jake, but I hear from Lance all the time.  Lance is one of the few friends who actually remembers what happened – but doesn’t hassle me about it.  He just has a different way of asking.

If I stand naked in front of the mirror, I’m glad all those fucking surgical scars have disappeared.  I’m not conceited.  I just didn’t like looking as if I was a rag doll patched together and sold at the Salvation Army.

So, I look at my new truck and the now ten-year-old license and try not to drink too many Coors – even if it means I’ll feel that bullet fragment.  Even if it means I’ll sit up at three in the morning and see the barrel of that gun.  Even if it means – even if it means I finally understand I’m not stupid.

It means there’s a lot more to me than just that once incident.

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Last Wish

autumn-leaves

September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick.  I lay in bed that night, listless and fatigued, when the phone rang at 10:12 P.M.  Curiously, I hadn’t turned on the answering machine, as I always did before going to bed.  But, I knew who lingered on the other end – even before I answered.  It was Linda*, the mother of one of my best friends, Daniel.

“He’s gone,” she whispered, her voice raspy and quivering.  She’d walked into his bedroom earlier that evening and found him with his eyes half-open.

We talked for quite a while, although I don’t remember all that was said.  But, I do recall telling her, “It’s over.  It’s finally over.”  Then, I went to sleep.  But, I wasn’t sad.  In fact, I was – not happy – but relieved.  Daniel had stopped suffering – and maybe so would his mother.

That night, though, I wondered why I was so sick.  Just allergies, I kept thinking; that’s all it was.  I’d realized years earlier how my allergies usually coincided with the Atlantic / Caribbean hurricane season, becoming most severe in August and September.  In reality, it’s the change from summer to autumn, when mountain cedar and ragweed blossom with impunity.  But, I have this obsession – almost a fetish – with tropical storm systems, so I make that odd comparison.  Yet, that year was different.  The infection seemed to have settled in my stomach, instead of my sinuses.

I’d felt fine the preceding weekend.  I’d visited Daniel and Linda that Monday, Labor Day.  I gave Daniel a much-needed bath and shave, trimmed his nails and put him back to bed.  I also vacuumed and mopped the kitchen floor.  I chatted with Linda for a while.  Her hands trembled, as she sat on a couch; as much from growing arthritis as dealing with Daniel.

“I don’t know how much longer I can go on,” she mumbled, staring at the floor.

“You’ll make it,” I said, trying to reassure her.  What else could I say?

I’d met Daniel at birthday party for a mutual friend four years earlier.  We were two completely different people, but had a few things in common: dogs, cars and rock n’ roll.  Like me, he also had been born and raised in the Dallas area.  He was the third of four children to parents who were mixed Irish and Cherokee Indian extraction.  He didn’t have a happy home life.  When his father wasn’t working, sometimes six days a week, he was drinking booze; occasionally, he’d burst into drunken rages, a stereotypical drunk-ass Irishman or Indian and lash out at anyone nearby.  Linda often bore the brunt of his attacks, until the night her oldest son lunged into his father.  For Linda, that was the proverbial last straw; the catalyst that prompted her to pack up the kids and leave.  By the time I met Daniel, his father had died.

As I’d planned, I took the day after Labor Day off from work.  I visited my gym to lift weights, worked on a short story and partook in a Tae Kwon Do class that evening.  The Tae Kwon Do session exhausted me, even though it wasn’t particularly intense.  I thought nothing of it until the next night, when I returned to the gym and left after less than an hour.  Fatigue settled over me like a ton of hot, wet blankets.

I awoke the next morning feeling awful; body aches and chills and a stomach that was churning like – well – like a hurricane.  My supervisor sent me home just after noon.  I sat near the building, waiting for the bus.  The late summer sun warmed me up, and I stopped shivering.  I felt well enough to stop by a fast food place on the way back to my apartment – and regurgitated the food that night.  I stayed home the next day, but returned to work on Friday.  I spent most of Saturday in bed; no energy, no strength.  Damn allergies, I kept telling myself.

On Sunday, I visited my parents for lunch as usual.  My father grilled steaks – their thick, juicy aromas wafting throughout the house, intermingling with the scent of the butter-saturated mashed potatoes my mother made.  But, I couldn’t eat.  I was still nauseous.  My dad suggested I visit their family doctor, if I didn’t feel better by the next day.  He even offered to pay, since my finances were strained at the time.

I had just purchased my truck six months earlier and was still paying off credit card bills for repairing my previous vehicle.  I had health insurance at work – with a $1,000 deductible.  I told them I’d be fine.  It was just those goddamned allergies.

I had been anticipating that call from Linda for months.  I knew somehow it would come at night.  She called me because I was one of the last friends Daniel had remaining; one who didn’t turn his back on him.  That’s just not my nature.  I didn’t have many friends back then and I still don’t.  But, the people I do consider friends mean a lot to me.

It’s amazing, though, the number of friends people lose when they fall on hard times – even when they become terminally ill.  Some time in the 1970s, my mother’s hair dresser became seriously ill and had to be hospitalized.  When my parents visited him, he mentioned they were among the few who’d made the effort.  All the people who were quick to accept his party invitations where mounds of food and alcohol would be served were curiously absent as he lay in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV.

I think Daniel had known he was HIV for at least two years, but he didn’t start getting sick until the spring of 1992.  By then, he was unemployed and uninsured; he could no longer afford his suburban Dallas apartment.  In May, I and another friend moved him back into his mother’s home in another Dallas suburb.  Daniel’s health deteriorated throughout that summer, but unexpectedly – almost miraculously – began rejuvenating by fall.  He gained weight and color returned to his face.  He actually looked pretty good when I spent Christmas Day with his family, including his two older siblings; younger sister, Andrea; sister-in-law; and a niece and nephew.  I took a photo of them as they gathered around a couch; one that Linda placed on her refrigerator, beside another picture of her beloved mother.

We all thought – if only for a moment – he would make it.  In less than six months, however, Daniel’s health began crumbling again.  And, one by one, his gallery of friends slipped into anonymity.

I took my father up on his offer.  After a cursory exam, the doctor stepped back into the room and asked, “Have you ever had hepatitis?”

“Hepatitis?  No.”

“Well, I think that’s what you have.”

Hepatitis!  If he had told me I was pregnant, I would have believed him sooner.  Hepatitis!  Wasn’t that an old world disease – like small pox or typhoid?  No one got that shit anymore.  But, that’s what I had – Hepatitis A, the contagious kind, and a particularly vicious strain of it, too.  The doctor hospitalized me – almost against my will.  I stayed there through the following Wednesday – the day they buried Daniel.

“Where’d you go?!” Linda cried that Wednesday night on the phone, a sense of betrayal coating her voice.

I told her what happened.

Her anguish shifted to empathy.  “Why didn’t you call me?!  I would’ve come visit you!”

“But, Daniel had just died, Linda.  And, I was in the hospital.”

“But, you’re my other son!”

I had helped Daniel pick out his burial suit in the spring of 1992.  He hadn’t bought a new suit in years.  He must have scoured through a hundred of them before he latched onto that one.  He zipped it up and stored it in the back of his closet, complete with a matching tie and a new white dress shirt.  He was proud of the ensemble; he wanted to be buried in style.

“You are going to be a pallbearer,” he asked me, “aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I said.  What a silly question.

Watching a loved one die and not being able to do anything about it is the most frustrating emotion anyone can ever experience.  I’d seen cancer consume my Aunt Mariana, my mother’s older sister, a few years earlier.  It just wouldn’t let her go, until one rainy Tuesday morning in June of 1989.  She’d already known tragedy.  Her first husband died in a freak car crash in 1968; practically leaving her to raise their six kids alone.  In January of 1983, one of her daughters took her own life.  Mariana had entered into a brief marriage with a man who – later on, as she fell ill – didn’t seem to understand she was in no mood for sex while undergoing chemotherapy.  What, I beseeched God, did she ever do to deserve all that?

I asked God the same of Daniel and Linda.  What did they ever do to bring this upon themselves?  God remained silent.  He / She always does.  But, it made me angry nonetheless, and I finally just blurted out, “Fuck you, God!,” into my darkened bedroom.

Daniel was especially close to Andrea who’d completed nursing school about two years before he passed away.  She had moved into an apartment complex across the street from him and became involved with a truck driver named Jimmy.  Jimmy was part Cherokee, too, and unfortunately, fed into the stereotype of the same drunk-ass Indian as Daniel’s father.  One night Jimmy returned to the apartment he shared with Andrea and attacked her.  She managed to call Daniel before Jimmy snatched the phone from her.  Daniel had been asleep, but donned a pair of exercise shorts, charged across the street and barreled into his sister’s apartment – where he beat Jimmy into a bloody, shriveling mess.  The police took both of them to jail, but released Daniel almost immediately.

Recollecting what his father did to his mother, Daniel was unrepentant about Jimmy.  “Now, he’s going to have to tell the guys in prison that an AIDS-infected fag beat his ass!”

In November of 1992, I happened upon the obituary for a guy I’d known in grade school.  He was 29 and had died after a “brief illness” – code words, a friend told me, for AIDS.  I revealed the true nature of Daniel’s death to only a select few people.  Even in the early 1990s, the affliction bore a terrifying stigma.   I told most everyone else – my parents, my colleagues – he’d succumbed to cancer.  I just didn’t want my folks to worry anymore about me than necessary.  My workplace, on the other hand, was populated with evangelical homophobes – the kind who preach forgiveness and compassion, but practice hate and bigotry.

Daniel always introduced me as a “true friend” to people he knew.  I was embarrassed, since I felt I was doing nothing extraordinary.  But, to Daniel, I was someone who gave my compassion and generosity, asking for nothing in return except trust and respect.  I promised him I would stay with him through the end.  And, I did – until the night he died.

For anyone who’s ever lost a relative or friend, there’s always something that triggers thoughts of that person; something relatively small and insignificant – a color, a sound…something that literally makes us stop and think about the better times we had together.  In 1992, a group called Snap! came out with a song entitled “Rhythm Is a Dancer.”  Both Daniel and I really liked that tune.  We’d visited a nightclub together in late 1992 where the deejay played it.  I don’t know what it is about that song, but it bridges a connection to Daniel and how good life was for me in the early 1990s.  So, I listen to it now, and all the feelings of  friendship and those carefree days flood my subconscious.  It’s just one of those things that transport me to ‘Way Back When.’

Daniel had two dogs when he returned to his mother’s home – a male named Alan and a female named Veronica, both Lhasa Apsos.  The male was fiercely protective of him.  The female was spoiled; Daniel had the habit of carrying her wherever they went, instead of letting her walk.  As Daniel’s health waned in the summer of 1993, he and his mother made the painful decision to turn them over to the local animal shelter.  Two years after Daniel died I seriously thought of purchasing a dog and just happened to peruse the ads of the local newspaper for animals, when I saw a blurb about an “adorable white Lhasa Apso named Alan.”  I almost fell off my easy chair.  Is it…no, it couldn’t be!  Surely, it’s not… I didn’t know what to think.  I realized, though, that I couldn’t afford a dog at the time.  I could only hope some good families adopted Alan and Veronica.

We measure the important events of our lives in the increments of time we know: one week, one year, five years, ten years.  Seven weeks after Daniel died I turned 30.  My colleagues at the bank bought me an ivy plant – which I still have – and treated me to lunch.  They also bought me a mechanical red crab emblazoned with the words ‘30 AND STILL CRABBY.’  You wind it up and it marches along the surface in the standard sideways crab walk.  I still have that crab, too, buried among my slew of possessions.  In seven weeks I’ll turn 50.  Life keeps moving, no matter who lives or dies.

I’ve always wondered why I never dreamed of Daniel.  I didn’t expect his ghostly apparition to appear before me one dark and stormy night – albeit something like that wouldn’t have frightened me.  But, I kept thinking he should at least visit me in a dream to tell me he’s alright.  Or, I hoped he would – just for my own peace.  Is he mad at me?  Did he think that I’d abandoned him at the last moment?  But then, I realized I’d never dreamed of my Aunt Mariana either.  And, we were family.  When I was a child, she’d sit me down at her dining room table and feed me.  Was she mad at me, too?

No – of course not.  I finally understood that I’ve never dreamed of them because they didn’t need me anymore; me or anyone else.  They’ve gone on to another and hopefully better life.  My job was done, as far as they’re concerned.

I did for Daniel what few people – friends or relatives – would do: I took care of him at the worst possible moments of his life.  I bathed him, I fed him, I took him shopping for that suit, I gave him all the undivided love and attention I could muster.  I even cared for his mother because her own body – racked with arthritis and emphysema – allowed her to do only so much.  Some people do good just to send a get-well card.

September 12th fell on a Sunday in 1993, and I was sick.  I couldn’t do anything about it then and I can’t do anything about it now.  I did what I could for my friend – the first friend I’ve ever had who died.  My last wish for him and everyone else who has gone before me is to know that they’re safe and happy.

I’ve finally convinced myself they are.

*All names have been changed.

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