Standard Disclaimers

This story was originally published on 1 March 2017 and appeared in issue 11 of Masque & Spectacle. Read it here.

The following is probably a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is rendered moot by the author’s egocentrism and faulty memory.

I think I first met John in middle school, but my memories of him are unclear until sometime in high school. Our high school English teacher had us do these creative projects that were supposed to represent who we are or whatever. I rented a video camera–yes, rented, a camcorder–from a local videotape rental store and made some half-assed, incomprehensible short film about a day in my life. It was dumb and clearly had no script or storyboards, and most of my classmates’ projects were also pretty dumb: angsty, melodramatic poems or pretentious self portraits. It’s possible the point of the project was to validate our adolescent narcissism by encouraging us to talk about ourselves even more.

Remember video rental stores? My formative education in slasher films came from the little mom-and-pop video store down the street. The psychic damage all that blood ‘n’ boobs must’ve inflicted on all of us in the 80s. How are we not all sex-crazed killers utilizing hooks or hatchets or specialized power tool implements?

John’s project was a playlist. On cassette. I don’t think he was even a musician, but his project was a cassette tape full of songs by other people that somehow represented him. I remember sitting in class as he played us a few of the songs–Nine Inch Nails and Faith No More, I think–that he felt spoke to his identity. I liked the same bands, and back then that was tribalism so we became friends.

I think I learned at some point that he was a genius. Maybe that was afterwards. I remember he got some sort of scholarship for his SAT score. He and some other girl I forget were in the top one percent in the nation. I remember this because I wrote an article about the two of them for our high school newspaper. What was public school like for someone so smart? I felt like I might as well have been Mensa material surrounded by such dumb fuckwits every day, and my scores were always pretty mediocre.

I think I once watched him snort cocaine from the dashboard of an old beaten-up pickup truck in the parking lot of a shitty dance club we were too young to get into. This would’ve been sometime after high school. Maybe I was home from college. Maybe he was on leave from the military. Maybe it wasn’t John at all. I had a friend in college whose name I forget but who had the same flaming red hair and freckles and who also eventually killed himself. I wonder if I’ve conflated the two. This other guy could do a split while balanced on two chairs like some sort of kung fu master. Did he have the nickname “Irish” because of the red hair or was that John who had it?

I introduced John to a new girlfriend one time when I ran into him at the mall. We were still in high school at the time, but my girlfriend went to a different school. I remember he was shy and formal. He shook her hand. I said enchante, and everyone laughed.

Remember malls? They’re now wastelands preserved for late-night haunted house exploration, like old abandoned prisons or hospitals for the criminally insane. When I was a teenager, you went to the mall to be seen and to pick up girls from other schools. There were race riots once at my local mall. I stood in a chain record store holding the latest Bad Religion album and watched white and black kids running around and trashing everything but had no idea what was happening until my parents read about it in the newspaper the next day and told me about it.

I think John went into the Marines when we graduated. Did he pass up that scholarship to go into the military? He wasn’t a hardass or someone you’d associate with the Marines. Was he overcompensating or was he trying to reinvent himself or unlock something previously unexplored? What would his military years playlist had consisted of? Hypermasculine FM classic rock? Banal, patriotic country?

Did I actually see him after high school? Have I imagined we were really friends and not just begrudging high school coworkers?

I was sort of drifting in life when I heard John was dead. I found out through an ex-girlfriend who did a better job of staying in touch with high school people than I did. She told me John had committed suicide and that the calling hours would be later that week. I don’t know if she ever told me the method. Why did that matter to me? Why did I think so much about whether he’d shot himself or taken some sort of lethal dose of something or committed an act outside my limited imaginings.

I had my mom keep the obituary from the newspaper so I could read it on my next visit. John was married with three kids. Three daughters. He was some kind of engineer and still in the Army or Marines or whatever.

At the funeral, I saw high school friends I’d lost touch with. We hugged, which was definitely not something we’d done back when we were friends. We went out for beers afterwards and drunkenly reminisced. We meant it at the time when we said we’d keep in touch and not wait until another death to see each other again.

John’s mother approached me at the calling hours. I’m not sure I’d ever met her before, but she seemed to consider me one of John’s good friends and asked questions just general enough to make it seem as though we’d always known each other. She walked me over to the coffin, and we stood looking down at John’s body. I didn’t notice any visible bullet holes in his head and wondered whether the exit wound was in the back or whether the make-up artists were skilled enough to remove all the evidence of death except the body itself.

Remember coffins? I’m joking. Of course, there are still coffins.

John’s mom said she didn’t like the way they styled his hair, but it was exactly the way I remember him looking when I knew him in high school. She said is hair was normally more like mine, which I think was spiky and, at the time, very trendy. I had long mutton chop sideburns. I wondered whether the funeral home people had shaved him too. Is there a taboo about being too in vogue in death?

John’s wife and kids sat in chairs not far from the coffin. They looked stoic. I don’t think I introduced myself to them. I felt too much like an intruder.

John and I had a common friend named Jeff whose sister died in a car accident while we were still in school. The car had flipped and ended up in a creek that ran behind the high school. I think there were four people in the car and two survived. Another was killed instantly. Jeff’s sister’s body washed away after the car plunged into the creek. It was a few days later that her body washed up a few miles away, not far from the baseball field where I’d played little league.

A kid John and I talked to in art class died not long after we graduated from inhaling chemicals. Was it called huffing? The kid was younger than us and still in school. I don’t remember his name.

A girl we graduated with was murdered by her husband who then killed himself. Was that before or after John? I honestly can’t remember.

I’m sure there were some car accidents. Another guy died suddenly of a heart attack, but I think we were all pushing 40 by then.

Those were people who died, died. Those were people who… Had that song been on John’s playlist? Was there a suicide playlist somewhere full of dirges and wistful power ballads?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m just retroactively assigning the significance of John’s death to my life? Am I constructing a false memory of an epiphany where attending John’s calling hours gave me the kick in the ass I needed to go back to college and finish my degree and stop working menial dead-end jobs? Does the timeline of that even work? Or is it just a device in the narrative of my own life to imagine that John’s death prevented me from blowing my own brains out?

Sometimes I wonder if John and I were really friends. Would he have come to my calling hours and humored my mother, whom he’d never met, and made my death a pivotal event in the narrative of his life? Would he have remembered my name and my high school English project?

The following bears only a tangential relation to persons living or dead. Anything more would require the author to have developed an understanding of the inner lives of other people.

I’m not sure I ever talked to Peggy’s daughter. Maybe I did. I must’ve seen her sometimes around the office, but I don’t even remember her name. I think I remember her smile though and a moment, once, where…I don’t know. Maybe there was something there.

She would’ve been a little younger than me, but Peggy was old enough to be my mom. We were coworkers, but Peggy was nearing the end of her career while I’d finally gotten my shit together and was beginning mine.

The daughter would sometimes hang out at the office doing little tasks. I think she was a paid or unpaid intern. She had a great smile, and, again, I think there was a moment. Hard to say. I imagined moments with everyone back then.

I didn’t know Peggy all that well. For whatever reason, Peggy and some other woman at work who looked completely different were the same person in my mind. I’d completely conflated them, and a few colleagues would laugh about the fact that I could never keep these two very different women separate in my mind.

I’ve always done this, always conflated people. I’ve always filled the narrative of my life with composite characters consisting of conflated real people. I think I had sex with one woman throughout my college years over and over, but of course it would’ve been many women reduced to one in my mind. Why is that?

I do remember an actual moment, I think. It’s possible I’ve completely invented it or at least taken it from a different part of my life and modified the setting and characters and repurposed it here with me and Peggy’s daughter. Why would I do this? Why am I searching for significance with someone whose name I can’t even recall?

We had visiting clients from the Middle East or maybe Southeast Asia in town. Part of my job involved meeting these guys at the airport when they came, getting them settled into their hotels and taking them out on the town to show them around. My skill set consisted of being fun and unscrupulous.

I think I was sitting in the office while Peggy’s daughter was printing registrations or whatever for our guests while I waited to leave for the airport. It was late at night, and no one else was in the office. No, this isn’t some story of seduction and surreptitious workplace sex. That I hope I would remember. We probably just sat and talked pleasantly while she worked and I worked up the nerve to be sociable for our foreign visitors. It’s mainly her smile I can picture, but I’m sure we talked and hit it off.

Was she actually beautiful or have I just assigned this detail to my memory to make the story more profound?

It must not have been long after this that she killed herself. I was waiting at the airport for a man from Saudi Arabia when I heard. Another coworker called in tears and told me. I heard the story and accepted it as tragic, but I didn’t make the connection of who we were talking about. I remember thinking that I barely knew Peggy and wasn’t sure why her daughter’s death was something I needed to be informed about. I was told that the girl was an intern with us, but we had a lot of interns so it didn’t mean much to me.

I guess Peggy’s daughter had suffered from depression and mental illness for years. From what I was told, Peggy got her the job to help her after a previous suicide attempt. I think she was trying to be a really supportive mom.

Peggy was traveling for work when her daughter died. I think she was in Marrakech at the time. The daughter was lying in bed listening to music with a pistol nearby. I’m sure she was upset, but I have no idea what about. She picked up the gun, held it to her chest and fired. Apparently she didn’t die right away. She shot herself two more times in the chest and once in the head before she finally died. I could be wrong about those numbers, but it was clear she never changed her mind about wanting to die. Is there comfort in that?

I didn’t go to the funeral. I didn’t know who she was. I signed a card, I’m sure, expressing my condolences. The office was somber, but, for my job, I had to continue to be upbeat and outgoing for our clients. I’ve always been able to compartmentalize anyway.

Years before, I’d attended the funeral of a coworker’s boyfriend, who was a police officer and had been killed in the line of duty. The boyfriend had been checking out a used car lot where there’d been an attempted break-in. While he was walking around with his flashlight, the officer was shot and killed by the burglar, who was hiding in the shadows. He and my coworker were both very young, and the funeral was a mess of raw emotion. I remember someone wailing loudly. The father maybe. I was young and aloof, so I approached my grieving coworker and told her how outraged I was over what had happened. She was gracious, but I’m sure I must’ve been irritating.

At another job, a coworker’s son died of a head injury in a freak accident. He’d been showing off his new motorcycle to some friends in his driveway when he wrecked it at a slow speed and hit his head on the cement. No helmet. He sat up at the time and was talking with his friends, laughing and telling them he was fine, until his brain swelled up and killed him. I remember a line at the calling hours that seemingly stretched for miles. Was that the most tragic death of them all?

It was weeks after Peggy’s daughter’s death that I thought of the girl with the smile that I’d talked to that one night in the office. I wasn’t sure whether or not this was the daughter, but even now I can’t imagine who else it would’ve been. Is it possible I’ve conflated her with another intern, another possibly beautiful girl with such a memorable smile?

Clearly, I had no connection with Peggy or with her daughter. Why have I taken this story, this family’s very real tragedy, and bastardized it into an anecdote from my own life? Why have I invented a fleeting interaction that probably never occurred with a girl I most likely never met and who certainly never knew me? What’s the implication here? That she could’ve been the one? That she was the one who got away? That I could’ve saved her and she could’ve saved me? And, what, that I was heartsick, damaged goods from then on?

The following indicates that the author is completely full of shit. Any relation to anything beyond the author’s insular ramblings is irrelevant.

Adam and I met in college through a mutual friend. He lived near campus, and we all used to go and hang out at his house and get stoned. He lived with a bunch of guys his age and younger. The place was usually a mess with old food lying out and clutter everywhere. I assumed they were fraternity brothers or something, but someone told me that this was his actual family’s house and that these people were all actually his brothers. Foster brothers maybe? They were like lost boys.

There were rarely women at the house, but once or twice Adam’s girlfriend would be there. I don’t remember her name, but she had a big, perfectly styled helmet of hair like some 1980s soap opera sex symbol.

Was there just the one girl or were there many during that period? There had to be more than one. Adam was tall, blonde and extremely handsome. He worked out all the time and looked like a professional male model. He’d been prom king or homecoming king or class president or valedictorian at his high school. He told me once, but I can’t remember which one it was.

Adam and his brothers had a collection of vintage video game consoles, all still completely operational. I was never all that great at video games, but I would I often sit and giggle through my high while other guys challenged each other on Atari or NES classics. Sometimes we’d watch old B movies from the 1950s and 60s on video cassette and laugh while we passed around assorted pipes and bongs. He had a huge collection of movies like The Mole People or Manos: The Hands of Fate. How did Adam acquire all these trivial relics?

Adam almost never went out to bars or showed up at campus parties, but I always knew I could stop over after all the clubs closed and find him and his brothers wide awake and active. How many times did I see him outside of that house? Did he ever attend classes?

For a while, they had some sort of underground fighting ring in the house. I would show up, and he and his brothers would be beating the living shit out of each other in the living room. They’d be bloody and laughing with the detritus of their fight club strewn about the house. I had less aptitude in fighting than in video games, so I always opted out to watch and marvel at the otherworldliness of this house and this life.

I heard at some point that Adam’s mother lived in the house too, and that she was a nurse who worked overnights and slept during the day and had long given up on keeping the house operational for her feral brood. I don’t think I ever met her.

Adam drove this giant boat of a car, which he’d painted bright orange. A old Buick maybe or an Oldsmobile. I rarely saw him actually drive it anywhere, but it sat parked behind his house. On the car’s hood, roof and doors, there were deep gouges everywhere where his brothers had all used car keys to carve messages into the car. Most of it was just their names or the names of their girlfriends. Some of it was nostalgic slogans or vulgar messages or crudely drawn ejaculating penises.

Looking back, I wonder how much of this I’ve exaggerated in my recollections. Was this all as chaotic as I remember or is this something I’ve added to the story over the years for comedic effect? I remember that some of my childhood friends came from pretty messed up families, and I visited a few houses as a kid that no doubt should’ve been raided by child protective services. I remember houses full of exotic animals and firearms and casual domestic violence. There were rumors in my neighborhood that one of the families was some sort of religious fundamentalist incestuous pedophile sex cult. Maybe Children of God or some other group I’m unfamiliar with. The family was full of eerily blonde daughters of all ages.

When it comes to long, forgotten strangers, does it really matter what’s real or what’s fodder for great anecdotes?

One time, I sat in a pub with Adam and his girlfriend and the girl I was seeing at the time. It’s one of the few times I remember socializing with him outside of his house. We were drinking a lot of beer and listening to a guy we knew play guitar and sing at the bar. Drunkenly, Adam spilled his dark, black porter onto the table towards me, and drunkenly I sat and watched it pour into my lap, staining my clothes. The two girls jumped up from their seats and shrieked with laughter at us. In trying to clean up the mess, Adam spilled a second pint of porter which also flowed towards me and off the table into my lap. Feeling guilty, he removed his white t-shirt and began soaking up the spilled beer as I sat and passively watched. I was confused and too drunk to piece together the chain of events that led to me discolored and soaked with the beer and Adam shivering shirtless.

The final time I saw Adam was years later. We’d lost touch after I finished college and started working. By this point, I was married and gainfully employed or whatever and had started taking a few night classes at the college towards my master’s degree. I was on my way to class and stopped by one of the restaurants on campus to buy a drink and saw Adam sitting alone at the table. He’d shaved his head, but was every bit as fit and good looking as I remembered. I asked what he was up to, and he told me he was still living in the same house and said that I should stop by. He said he was finally finishing up the degree he’d abandoned about a decade earlier.

Before I ran off to class, we exchanged email addresses and said we’d have to get together. Not long after, he started sending me links to videos he’d begun making of his brothers and him performing dangerous jackass stunts and doing comedy skits. They were funny, and I had a good time watching him act like a fool and reliving some of those surreal nights getting stoned at his house. What had those intervening years been like for Adam and his brothers?

Not long ago, I was on one of those ubiquitous social networks we use to mediate all our communication now. Remember social networks? Of course. Remember a time without them? Anyway, as I scrolled through people’s trivial announcements about their purchases and workout regimens, I saw a reference to Adam’s funeral that had been posted by an old friend from college. Adam had died two months before, and the friend had just heard so now I’d just heard too. I made some calls but couldn’t find out many details about what Adam’s life had been like recently or about the cause of death. No one knew, but, then again, we all knew. I knew. Of course I knew.

We now live in a time where we learn of death through our social networks. A former coworker died of cancer a few years back. I’d never known she was sick until I read about her death on a mutual friend’s post. A childhood friend and his wife were killed in a rollover accident not far from where we grew up. Someone else contracted a horrible disease that liquified him from the inside out. That last one’s not true, but that’s irrelevant. Would this be my legacy too to be eulogized amid reshares of political memes and recipes for gluten free pizza crust?

I had drinks not long after Adam’s death with the friend that introduced us. We reminisced about some of the more bizarre details about Adam’s homelife and his eccentricities. What was most interesting was how often our memories diverged. He told a specific story and thought to myself, “That’s not how it happened, and you weren’t even there. You heard this story secondhand from me.” Sometimes I told a story and he said that he remembered it differently and thought maybe I was exaggerating or being dramatic. I probably was.

I’ve heard that death makes us question our own mortality. Maybe it also makes us question the link between memory and reality. Maybe we’re all egomaniacs who filter other people’s lives and deaths through our own perspectives, indifferent to the actual truth of any of the stories we tell and remember. Maybe the dead live on through us and our memories. But maybe we’re solipsists, and the dead are reduced to contextuality and character development, anecdotal backstories in the far more important narrative of our own lives. And maybe those memories and stories have little relation to the people we’ve known. Maybe we’re all just unreliable narrators telling stories where any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s