Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Blue Shirt

(Author's Note: This story first appeared in on 10/19/01.  I've since realized that seems to be turning up page captures of certain old stories from that publication, but not sure how.  This is how I stumbled over this one again.  It's worth re-telling here.)

I couldn't stop staring at Lee's peach-fuzz mustache. Laid out in his coffin, he was wearing a dress shirt, hands folded over chest. It was my second wake, as my grandmother had died two years earlier, so I knew how to act. Stand over the coffin for a few minutes, contemplate the corpse, then move on for the next in line. I felt insincere and self conscious, but hadn't yet realized these were standard feelings in the presence of a corpse.

Lee threw me with that mustache. It was so cheesy looking, not like him at all. We had fallen out of touch in the latter half of our senior year of high school when he started dating a girl in that obsessive way teenagers and stalkers have in common. I hadn't seen him in the eight months since we graduated high school. The mustache looked fake. I wanted to reach down and tear it off, miraculously yanking him back to life and out of this charade. But I knew it wouldn't budge. Maybe it's one of those things, I thought, that hair and nails keep growing even after a person dies. But if that were the case, wouldn't Lee have a five o'clock shadow? The rest of his face was as clean and ashen as a tombstone. Even his acne had disappeared.

Of course, the real reason I focused on his mustache was to deny the horror of one of my friends dying at eighteen. According to the article in the local paper, his grandfather had found him in his mother's garage "working on his car with the motor running." This was in February, two days after Valentine's Day. The article vaguely stated there was "no foul play" in his death. But it didn't state that if he were working on the car, he would be doing so because it wasn't capable of running. If it was, he'd be tinkering with the engine, not spending the hours it would take for carbon monoxide poisoning. Lee was an intelligent kid, in no way stupid, which he would have had to been to work on a car in a closed garage. I had heard he had been drinking a lot around that time, so it's possible he could have gotten drunk, went out to the garage, started the car and passed out. But I knew that dead was dead, and it made no difference, at least to me. He had turned the key and faded himself out of this world.

I don't believe in ghosts, but I've been feeling haunted by Lee lately. I hadn't thought seriously about him for years, then a few weeks ago, I spent days dwelling on his death, to the point of tears I never bothered to shed back then. I keep picturing him, fading in and out of consciousness behind the wheel of that car, only instead of driving down a placid country lane at night, he's staring through the gloom at a cinderblock wall with tools hanging on it.

If there's one thing I've realized as I've grown older, it's that the mind plays tricks on us, especially with memories. I paged through my Class of '82 yearbook recently, and the first big picture is of the entire class gathered in a field behind our ugly pillbox high school. We're all decked out in red and blue, the school colors, kids grouped together in various social castes, cheerleader girlfriends perched on jock boyfriends' shoulders, stoners slouched over and completely ignoring the camera, the great middle class of kids in between saying cheese.

The legend of this picture is my friend Schwamy standing next to me. His shirt is an other-worldly, phosphorescent blue with what looks like a fingerprint on his left shoulder. His shirt was white that day. The photographer took six different pictures. In each one, Schwamy's whipping a bone at the camera, the middle finger of his right hand plainly visible on his left shoulder. I was doing the same, smirking the whole time, only I had my arms folded, with my hands wresting on my biceps, which ended up hidden behind the bodies in front of me. Schwamy had the shit luck of having his middle finger exposed every time. He had the fear of God put into him by the powers that be and was forced to pay for the amateurish alteration to the final picture. In that picture, my friend Tony is on my other side, smiling like a dork, and Lee's on the other side of Tony, grinning placidly.

It is now virtually impossible to see that picture without dwelling on Schwamy's bold statement, as all the other memories around that day simply involve getting out of class and standing in a field for half an hour. Some of what we did back then has become legend, retold in tall tales over the years, in bars and living rooms, relating to a time in our lives that our minds try to tell us was free and easy, but I can usually recall as being wrought with teenage insecurities. With Lee, it bothers me that I can hardly remember a thing about him, and we were good friends for six years. All I can think about is Lee dying the way he did, although random memories of him, like his trademark cackle, surface now and then like passing shadows. I recognize these as glimpses of what it will mean to be truly old.

There was a strong case for suicide. How many people accidentally die in closed garages with a running car? Lee's family had been plagued by bad luck. His parents split when he was a kid, with his father moving his medical practice out of town. He had two older brothers and an older sister. One of the brothers was a smart, well-adjusted kid who went on to become a doctor. The other died in a car crash when Lee was 12; my mother can still recall him crying hysterically at the funeral as Lee had idolized him. A few years later, his sister's boyfriend shot himself in the head in the driveway of his mother's house. All this transpired before Lee fell in love for the first time in our senior year. As with most kids at that time, he had no idea what he was in for. The girl was pretty -- a junior with a reputation for being clean-cut and intelligent. All the guys in our social circle, including Lee, were dicks with women, either being too shy to make anything happen, or so desperate that we smothered any potential relationship. Maybe it was supposed to be that way. The guys who did go steady came off as either lecherous perverts hiding their true selves from their girlfriends, or already docile husbands being dragged around by the balls.

Whatever Lee was with his girl, I had no idea, as they both floated into that stormy, elusive world of teenage love. Couples like this dotted the hallways between classes, necking openly and leaning as far into open lockers as they could to avoid teachers, the guy holding his arm around the girl's neck in a way that suggested a minute mood swing could find him strangling her. Most of them were doomed and blissfully unaware of it. When the inevitable break-ups occurred, stories circulated of vicious fights and occasional physical threats. That, or the wounded boy would do something melodramatic, like call the girl at 11:00 on a school night and play "Telephone Line" by the Electric Light Orchestra into the mouth piece.

It was routine behavior for a guy in love to become estranged from his friends, and Lee was no different. This coincided with our graduation, so that I completely lost touch with him. I went off to a local branch of Penn State, and Lee, like a lot of kids who didn't enter college or the armed forces, had no idea what to do with his life. All I knew is that he was living at home, with a minor reputation for drinking, and that he had broken up with his girlfriend -- hardly an uncommon scenario at the time. Whatever transpired between them, I had no idea, save that it was over. The next time I saw him was in a funeral casket.

A strange thing happened about six years after that. I had moved to New York and was in that annoying mid-20s phase that can only be described as counterfeit middle-age. I still hear it now with twentysomethings complaining about how they feel so old -- a concept laughable to anyone old enough to know better. What they're really trying to say is that they're clinging to a teenage sense of time -- and they are old by this pitiful standard -- but haven't yet adapted to the reality of time, that it keeps moving no matter how one perceives it. They're longing for a world that no longer exists for them. Couple this with the first few tastes of a real job with no end in sight, and it's easy to feel ancient at twenty-six.

I did what most people do in this condition: drink too much, thinking it somehow romanticized my plight. I wasn't alone -- the city was crawling with dimestore Bukowskis. We all had treasured stories of waking up on the sidewalk next to a puddle of vomit, or realizing the redhead at the bar we had thought was a dead ringer for Nicole Kidman more strongly resembled Carrot Top in the morning light.

It was in this state that I took the bus home one holiday season and went out drinking Christmas night with a few friends. Most of the bars were closed, but we found one open, a real dive we usually never went to, but had no choice. This bar had a back room with a pool table.

We went back there, and sitting in the shadows was Lee's old girlfriend. She had on a spandex leopard-skin top and a tight pair of jeans. Smoking. Still pretty, but harder around the eyes. It was a look I normally associated with older people who had been through the ringer a few times. She had road miles on her face. There was another woman with her with that same slightly used-car look.

At first, we kept our distance, but after a few rounds, we found our way into a booth and started talking about legendary teachers and their quirky habits. She had the accent: that thick Coal Region brogue of northeast Pennsylvania, a hybrid of guttural Eastern European and elongated Irish. That accent, to me, was someone's way of saying they were always going to live there, a sort of unconscious, working-class dedication to home, even if it meant scuffling for low-paying jobs in a place left devastated when the coal boom ended decades before we were born.

We were all flirting. The thought of scoring with Lee's old girlfriend intrigued me, although I knew there was nothing romantic about a drunken romp, no matter what the personal history. As we kept drinking, it became obvious that no one would be getting laid that night. And when that bridge was silently crossed, Lee's old girlfriend looked straight at me and said, "You were one of Lee's friends, weren't you?"

I could tell by the way she said it that she'd been sitting on that one all night, waiting for the right time to bring it out. We had gotten paired off at one end of the booth, and no one else could hear us. It wasn't an accusation, just an honest question. I said yes. The hardness drained from her face, and she told me as much as she was willing to tell. They were in love, things had gone wrong, and they simply had lost control of the situation. Nobody's fault, just the way things played out. She didn't say when they had broken up, or what the final blow was. Her accent fell away when she spoke about this, and I could see the studious girl she had been in school lurking just beneath the surface.

The worst thing she told me, and she wouldn't be specific, was that some people close to Lee had blamed her for his death. This had wounded her deeply, that her first love would always have this ugly coda. Her confession happened in the span of a Def Leppard song on the jukebox. At the end of it, she got up and went to the ladies room, and I just sat there staring at my bottle of Yuengling. She came back a few minutes later, and I could tell that she had been crying. No one mentioned Lee again, and the night played out in that hazy, late-night drunk manner of nostalgia and small talk.

The last thing I remember was stumbling to the car with my friends, looking over my shoulder and seeing her at the door of the bar at closing time. She waved at me and smiled. It was one of those frigid clear winter nights with no snow on the ground. I had long given up on church, much less the midnight mass my family would go to for Christmas. But there was something in her smile and the wave of her hand that made me think of those nights. It was tradition at those masses for the priest to hand out small boxes of chocolates to the children on the steps of the church as we exited. Now that I was so old, I was getting a hangover and mixed emotions instead.

At our 10th year class reunion, Lee, and a few other people from our class who had died young, were the objects of a fairly bizarre tribute. I went to the reunion over Thanksgiving weekend at a catering hall back home. Twenty-eight years old -- no longer "middle-aged," but closing in on the brick wall of thirty. This had the potential for a terrible time, but I ended up having a ball. It was great to meet old friends again, and a pleasant surprise to find that life had beaten us all down enough that even former enemies could sit down and commiserate over a few drinks.

But off in the corner was a table with four lit candles on it to commemorate those classmates who couldn't be with us that night. Never mind that only 60 people showed up from a class of over 200. There were plenty of living classmates who couldn't be with us that night because they hated high school and thought the reunion would be complete bullshit.

Lee was the second candle. The first was a kid named Kyle, one of Lee's friends, who had shot himself in the head at a bush party two months before graduation, inexplicably blurting out the word "cheeseballs" before pulling the trigger. The third was a girl named Carol who had a congenital heart problem all through high school and watched her days fall in numbers even then. The fourth was Danny, who was drunk driving home from a block party when he veered into the wrong lane, hit another car head on at top speed, and took two other people with him to the other side.

Some shit-assed DJs had been hired for the night, leisure-suited morning zoo types, and it was easy to ignore them so long as they kept a steady flow of Billy Squier, Styx and Journey. Near the end of the party, they started pulling out all the stops nostalgia-wise, and I could see they were going to close out the same way every high-school dance ended in 1982: Skynyrd and Zeppelin, baby, "Freebird" and "Stairway to Heaven." "Freebird" came first, and it got the dance floor crowded with nearly everyone, even when the song sped up and made the guys do more than slow dance.

 The song was met with a huge round of applause. From the stage, one of the DJs directed our attention to the table with the four candles, stating that this last song was for those of us who couldn't be here tonight, yes, the special ones who had left us early. I was sitting at a back table having a beer with an old friend when the gentle opening strains of "Stairway to Heaven" echoed through the hall. What happened next was a mass exodus from the dance floor. I could hear people muttering "fuck this" and "this is sick" as they passed on the way to the bar. The DJs had hit a raw nerve with the crowd, who didn't want to see these deaths exploited. The dance floor was empty before Robert Plant spouted his first line of lame hippie swill.

I hadn't seen that one coming, nor had the DJs, who snuck behind curtains and speakers when the song ended. There were scattered boos. Most people were milling around the back of the hall, men and women alike toting beers in both hands before the bar closed and muttering about the DJs' tastelessness. Ten minutes later, it was old news. I never liked that song. If people were going to be this offended, I reasoned, the DJs should have gone for broke, dedicated "Highway to Hell" to Danny at ear-splitting volume and beat ass out of there before they got ran out on a rail.

I hadn't been aware of it, but Lee is buried in the small Protestant cemetery on the hill in my hometown. He lived in another small town with its own cemetery a good 10 miles away, so this was a bit of a shock to me. In our town's cemetery, there used to be a wooden rail fence dividing the Protestant and Catholic sides. We used to love dangling upside down from it by the backs of our knees, even if it meant getting splinters. The fence is gone, but I gather that sense of separation is still there, embedded in family plots that will take years to fill out.

When we were kids, that cemetery represented life more than death to us. It was a great place to sleigh ride in the winter, careening our Flexible Flyers around the tombstones on daredevil runs to the bottom of the hill. There was a wide open patch on the Protestant side that served as a good football field. Summer nights found us playing jailbreak (a derivative of hide-and-seek brought to us by my Point Pleasant, NJ cousins) or telling ghost stories by those spooky graves with lit candles on them. I tried in vain to walk off my first drunk on the Catholic side late one night, shamefully vomiting next to my grandmother's grave and wiping the sweat from my brow with my grandfather's Memorial Day American flag.

People came there on Sundays and major holidays to pay their respects. This looked like hell to me. Distracted parents and their ungrateful kids badgering the shit out of each other. Older people weeping by their loved ones' tombstones, planting flowers and kneeling on the grass with dazed looks on their faces. Yapping dogs on leashes marking their territories on tombstone corners.

All they were trying to do was remember, and there's nothing wrong with that. I can see that to do so with honesty and clarity is the best tribute to someone who is gone. A subtle form of hell may be the inability to remember at all, as it leaves a sort of emptiness easily mistaken for freedom. I think of Schwamy's shirt and recognize that my memory has been like that bad touch-up job, substituting an unreal shade of blue for pure white, all to avoid that unacceptable middle finger of our youth.