The Truth Was in the Title All Along

January 17, 2012 § 5 Comments

I was a sixth-grader at a birthday party at a roller rink when my best friend at the time, Maureen, came up to me and whispered, “Bill died. That’s why he hasn’t been in class.”

Bill was the new kid in school.
He’d taken the empty seat in front of me in reading.
We’d been paired up to work together on our King Lexicon reading dictionaries.
He hadn’t been in class all week.
Every day I’d look up at Mr. C., note Bill’s absence with a nod of my head, and give him a “What should I do?” shrug. He’d shrug me off and I’d work alone, bored.
Honestly, I barely knew him, aside from spending an hour a day with him for a few weeks, but I knew he was diabetic.
He got to have orange juice whenever he wanted.
I had a little crush on Bill.
He looked like an older Atreyu from The Neverending Story.

I don’t know the details, but there were complications from his diabetes, and he passed away over the previous weekend, which is why he wasn’t in class. Mr. C. must have known and never said a word. Most kids must have just assumed he had moved on, but Maureen’s mom was a nurse, so we knew.

I spent the rest of the party in the bathroom.
Not crying, just stunned.
Died? What does that even mean?
To a sixth-grader, not a whole lot.

At the agreed-upon time, my Dad picked me up. I sat up front, while my older brother Mike and his best friend Jamie sat in the back. They were sophomores in high school. They must’ve been really bored. It was Saturday night; we’d always listen to “Saturday Night at the Oldies” on the local radio station. The song “American Pie” came on; my Dad, Mike, and Jamie screamed the words at the top of their lungs. To this day, I have an absolute aversion to that song. I hate it because it reminds me of death.

It would get worse.

***

A few things happened that summer. I set off fireworks in the street outside my house with Mike and Jamie and twin boys who went to the rival Catholic high school. I forget their names but I believe they were very cute. I remember having so much fun that I turned to Mike and burst out with, “Mike, I love you!” and he looked at me in the strangest way, and sort of scoffed and gave me a hug with his arm hooked around my neck. He was in high school, for Pete’s sake. You can’t go around saying “I love you” to your little sister when you’ve also got your driver’s license, but I knew it.

Later that summer we went to a concert! My first concert: Billy Joel, Storm Front, at Hershey Park. My Dad went, and my Mom, and Mike, and my best friend at the time, Nicole. My Dad let Nicole and I wander through the crowd by ourselves, but I realized later he was watching us with his binoculars the whole time, because when a rough-looking biker started giving us a hard time, he was by our side in about 5 seconds.

I bought a Storm Front t-shirt. The one with the big red flag. So did Nicole. My brother got a different one, “Only the Good Die Young,” with a big circle and a cross and a rose and a whiskey bottle. It looked very Catholic and very scandalous at the same time.

***

Two years later, eighth grade for me. I was thinking about trying out for the volleyball team when I entered high school the following year, so my Dad was going to take me to a game to see what it was all about. Mike was a big-shot senior at this point, getting ready for his final wrestling season. He was good.

We were just getting ready to go the volleyball game when Mark, who happened to be my best friend at the time Katie’s older brother, ran up to our front porch. Mark and Katie lived two towns over, so it was odd that he was on foot. Mark and my brother weren’t especially close, so this was even more odd. Mark was drenched with sweat and crying, so it was triply odd.

“Jamie died,” Mark gasped when we opened the front door.
My Dad and I just stared at him.
JamiediedisMikehome?” Mark repeated.
My Dad made him come inside and sit down.
My brother came downstairs; he had probably just gotten home from wrestling practice.
He had on his “Only the Good Die Young” shirt.
Of course he did; he wore it all the time even though it was fading and ripped.
My Dad and Mom and Mark and Mike went to the hospital.
I went to my room and did homework.
And then I probably read a Babysitter’s Club book.

The next day, it was all true. Jamie had had an aneurysm. He’d been out hunting, up in his tree stand, and felt something. And just like that, he was gone. He and Mike had just been elected co-captains of the wrestling squad. They would each keep that title through the season.

The local paper ran an article about his death, about the shirt my brother was wearing at the hospital, about the heartbreak. My high school would create a memorial award in Jamie’s name. My brother was the first recipient. Last year, as a senior, his son Nick received it.

I have no idea what kind of heartbreak my brother felt, losing his best friend.
We never talked about it, and I am not even sure I can imagine it.
I’m sure he thinks of him.

For Mike, and my Mom, and my Dad, “Only the Good Die Young” never plays too far past the opening bars. It’s too painful. I don’t disagree. But I have that same reaction to “American Pie,” too. It comes on, I turn it off. I didn’t know Jamie well but I can remember him clearly in that moment, singing happily, driving home after learning of Bill’s death. The two are intertwined in sadness in my memory, and it does seem equal parts maudlin and portent: The truth was in the title all along.

***

(This melancholy post was inspired by Will Stegemann’s project, A Year of Billy Joel, which made these long-buried memories pop back up in my brain. You should be reading it.)

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