For all the lost boys and Jean Marie,
I didn’t want to cry especially over something as silly as dropping an ice cream cone. Real men don’t blubber like babies because they dropped a dollar and a half’s worth of ice cream on the pavement. It fell in slow-motion. The pale yellow blob of pralines and cream drifted almost delicately toward the stained concrete, flattening itself on contact. I could feel him staring at me–the alarmed parent of the ten year old. He guided his son in a wide arc around me with a gentle hand on his shoulder. I knew what the father was thinking–this guy might just be crazy; or– even my ten year old wouldn’t cry over a dropped ice cream cone.
How could I explain to him what it meant to drop an ice cream cone? How can I explain it to you? I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream. Ice cream is childhood. Ice cream is warm summer days after church, after little league games–after a rough day in the neighborhood playing kick-the-can. A link to a world in which all dreams are possibilities. A world in which you can say “I’m going to be the President when I grow up” and mean it. A world in which a terrible fear–perhaps the worst–is being picked last. A world in which sorrows are commercials–before they become mini-series.
Ice cream’s a happy thing, well, at least it used to be. Ice cream meant Neil. It meant Neil because of the time I ended up wearing John’s ice cream cone in my ear. I had been sufficiently warned. I was told that if I didn’t stop what I was doing–I don’t remember what, that’s not really important–I would get an ice cream cone shoved in my ear. I thought it was a bluff. I mean how could anybody give up their ice cream cone like that? It must have taken a great deal of will. He had to know Mom wouldn’t buy him another as she might if he accidentally dropped it. She had heard the promise–there would be no playing it off as an accident, not this time. It made sense to cry over that ice cream cone even though it wasn’t mine. It was cold. Besides, without a few tears I was at risk. If I could show I had suffered enough, I could escape punishment. I was humiliated and a bit in awe of my older brother John’s strength of will–I couldn’t sacrifice my ice cream–I just wasn’t that strong.
Neil couldn’t help it, he laughed. Even to a nine year old, getting yelled at for laughing at a kid with an ice cream cone sticking out of his ear didn’t seem just. Who wouldn’t laugh? Hell, a few years later we all laughed about it together.
Thinking of Neil didn’t make me sad, it made me think of Pink Floyd. Neil had given me Pink Floyd. I don’t mean he had given me one of their albums, no, that’s not what I mean at all. He gave me the band. We were in his room which he shared with his older brother Scott. I don’t remember what all we talked about but I remember when he asked if I had ever heard The Wall.
We listened to The Wall as Neil explained how Roger Waters’ father had died and what all the songs meant. I listened to the radio a bit and to the few LP’s my mother still had laying around: CCR, Santana, Neil Diamond, Don McClean and a couple of Elvis albums. I never knew until that day in Neil’s room that music could mean something. Sure I knew there were words and sometimes stories, but there was something different about the way we listened to the music that day. It was as if we actually shared something–a moment–with ol’ Roger. If ice cream meant Neil then Neil meant Pink Floyd.
Sometimes I wonder how I would have gotten through my youth without Pink Floyd. Roger’s voice was a comfort–an old friend who could always seem to reach through to me and say “I know exactly how you feel” without ever telling you “cheer up,” or “just get over it.”
I can never tell where thinking of Pink Floyd might bring me. This time it brought me to a rusty old Triumph Spitfire, driving East on Route 64 in that twilight time when everything seems warm and wonderful. Two Suns in the Sunset always seemed to be cued up just for this drive. Maybe it only really happened once but it seems more like it was always. Always, near sunset. duly. Always heading East with the sun in my rear-view just like in the song. I almost expected to see the mushroom cloud and to watch “the windshield melt and my tears evaporate.” Sometimes I wish I had. It used to frighten me and make me sad to think that it was possible for someone to end the human race, but that was before I realized there were far more frightening things than dying with the rest of humanity. The song would end but the human race went on. The reflective mood would seldom last beyond the time I turned the Spitfire into the Cascade entrance.
The Spitfire and the Cascade drive-in double-teamed me. Both meant Jeanie. We had gone there. Her and Ray and I and one of her friends. Jeanie was sweet, Jeanie was cute, Jeanie’s dead. She liked Ray. Ray kept telling me to ask her out and perhaps, if he ever stopped hitting on her for a few seconds I just might have. She seemed happy. I didn’t really think it meant anything that her favorite song was “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” I bought the album after she killed herself.
I can’t help but wonder if Jamie knew Jeanie. They both transferred to Aurora Christian. It’s possible. We had been friends because we were both pudgy and picked on. We always talked about finding a cabin in the woods somewhere and leaving the world to all the assholes who seemed to want it so badly. Grandma always seem to know–always seem to remember. She called me when I was away at school to tell me Jamie had walked into the back room of a bar after closing time and shot himself in the head. I guess he never found that cabin.
Bob used a rope. Tied it to the floor joists in the basement and genuflected for the last time. I still have a picture of Bob somewhere. He and John are standing next to the engine they rebuilt for my Caddy after my accident. I can’t remember if I ever thanked him.
It seems there must have been a time, a single point in time. A cold razor’s edge moment in which death became real but I can’t find it. Once little Gary told me I “hold onto shit way too long.” maybe he’s right, maybe I do but that’s who I am. Mark’s diiferent. He’s still fresh. Even little Gary couldn’t point his finger at me.
Ghosts are real. They might even clank around in musty attics or howl in moonlit graveyards but those aren’t the ghosts we should fear. Those only show up when we want them to–those are the ghosts we go looking for. The one’s that find their own way, those are the ones.
They’re there. At the funeral home. In the parking lot. In the steps. The foyer. The faint scent of roses mingled with a multitude of different colognes and perfumes. The closed box surrounded by flowers. Who’s in it? For a moment I can’t remember. I glance around. The faces–they’re the same. Not the same. More worn, almost haggard. No longer the faces of children. Mark’s. Mark’s is closed. Had to be. Even a rifle that old– I let that go real quick. I check the pain. Make sure it’s still there. A tongue pressing into the hole in an abscessed molar.
A collage of pictures near the casket. Don’t want to look. Not now. Not just yet. Have to. Lots of Mark. Lots of smiles. Much too happy to be dead. One picture slides across my soul like a razor. A half dozen kids grouped ’round Santa Claus. Mark’s in the front next to Hanko–the other dead kid. One of the others–there’s too many–so many.
There’s bitterness in this photo for me. The red hair, the freckles–a terminally happy Huck Finn and only a seatbelt away from a long life. So close. I wonder if it was meant to be–if it was better this way. I remember that summer–the summer. Only a few years after the Santa picture. Hanko was almost sixteen that entire summer. He was still almost sixteen when he died. I turned 21 that summer and I was everybody’s friend–I couldn’t say no. The parent-free summer. The parties. The pale orange carpet and the second-hand furniture. Hanko passes the bowl. Something different–almost floral. “strange flavor” I say. His sheepish grin. I want to be angry. Forgot. It’s opium. Hanko in his white Corona sleeveless t-shirt–not the tye-dye they buried him in–running. A full case of MGD. Bottles no less. Running from the cops. Not like the last time, this time he gets away. Mill creek right down by the river. Laying on his back with a bottle of Purple Passion balanced on his chest. Asleep? Passed out? Not with that cheshire grin. I shudder. A premonition? I hold my breath for a moment waiting for his.
Flashlights in the trees. Cops!? We just laugh hysterically. We’re busted and too drunk to think it won’t be fun. Just Tanya and Scott and a dozen eggs. Sure it was for breakfast–just forgot the frying pan. Scott’s almost over. We know it but he still doesn’t. Hanko and Tanya should work. They’re friends first. There’s the Clapton show. We’re supposed to go. Hanko and Tanya and Allison and me. I pay for the tickets. It didn’t work. Tanya said it was like kissing her brother. Things turned awkward. I didn’t see him much after school started in the fall. I still remember the last time. It was December. I ran into him at the mall. I still remember the last words I spoke to him–I wish I didn’t. Sometimes, when the darkness is strongest I hear them echo; You got my twenty bucks? Hey, Jeff. Don’t look like you’re gonna get your twenty bucks back from Hanko–he died in a car crash last night. Forget about the money, just stop by sometime.
Poor Dan. Always seemed to be able to find the absolute worst thing to say. He didn’t know–couldn’t have known. Why such long faces? Who died? He wasn’t that perceptive, it was an ill timed joke. It was funny too. I mean, not what Dan said, but how the poor bastard reacted. I never realized a single syllable–a simple name uttered hundreds of times before–could have such force. I could have hit Dan in the gut with a two by four and he might not have flinched as much. Dan didn’t know. He had skipped school to spend time with Brooke. He was happy when he came. Guess he probably wanted us to be happy too. I didn’t. I felt like an asshole for ruining his fun day. Well, no. That’s not quite true. I felt like an asshole when I realized the perverse pleasure I got from ruining his day. I was an animal in pain and I did what animals in pain do–I kicked and I kicked at whatever happened to be closest to me in that moment.
Leaving for the funeral. I backed into Mr. Peterson’s school bus. His wife, Genette–I think that was her name–was strange. After he quit driving the bus, he’d take his old Caddy out about once a week. Never went faster than an idle. She was downright weird. Spooky even–if you never talked to her. Always wearing her housecoat. Even with her Coke-bottle glasses, she didn’t know who she was talking to unless she was about a foot and a half away. Never threw a damn thing away. Bought a ’70 Coupe DeVille from them. Had bundles of ten-year-old newspapers in the trunk. You’d never ‘a guessed she graduated from DePaul. They’re both dead–time caught up with them finally.
At the funeral, there’s something hidden. Something just under the conversations–some of the conversations. Buried under the guilt. Under the trauma and the grief. Below anything that can be voiced in the cold, sober light of day. You can see it in some of the eyes if you know what to look for–if you dare. Something that might come out perhaps a year later, back at Mill Creek, drawn out by half a fifth of Southern Comfort and a torrent of memories. It’s something that needs its own word–and would have if we had the courage. It’s a complicated recipe of mixed emotions which somehow bakes into a cake of “maybe it’s better this way.” I can’t explain. It’s a place you can only find alone.