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When the levee breaks

An account of my high school years would be a short story, not book-length, largely because I didn’t enjoy the experience. But like anyone who feels the same way, certain events are painted permanently in my brain. A night from the fall of 1971, the fall of my senior year, is one of them.

It was mid-evening, 9 or 10 o’clock, and I was with two friends—call them H and T. We were just walking around, and they were singing Don McLean’s “American Pie,” which was a huge hit at the time.

Bye, bye Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry

I didn’t know the song, probably because I didn’t listen to the radio, preferring to shut the door to my bedroom at home and crank out Zappa, Tull, Jefferson Airplane, Cream. H and T kept singing.

And them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye
Singin’ this’ll be the day that I die
This’ll be the day that I die

Later, we were walking on the main street of town, talking about a particularly attractive girl in our class. T began to make jokes about her using terms from geometry class: She wanted to remain a vertex until she got married. He kept riffing nonstop for three or four minutes, and I was laughing so hard I could barely walk. T had a tremendous imagination. In typing class, our timed writings involved short essays from a textbook that we had to retype. One of them started out, “So fish day and night is what we thought we would do” and continued with a hum-drum account of a camping trip. But T went off script, writing instead about how “an empty milk of magnesia bottle washed up on the shore, its label riddled with ringworm.” T was like that: borderline surreal.

I lost all contact with him after high school until many years later when a mutual friend, M, told me T had been dealing with some mental health problems. Serious ones, the kind that aren’t treated easily, quickly or completely. My friend T, a seriously talented horn player, a guy who could drive a car so close to the edge of losing control that I wouldn’t ride with him, was no longer the person I had known. He was drastically changed. But I never saw him, so I didn’t know just how bad it was.

That is, until one day when I was riding my bicycle on a trail that runs beside the river that passes through our town. As I approached, I didn’t recognize him. As I passed him, I thought he looked shell-shocked, like someone who had survived the voyage with the Ancient Mariner. And when I was 20 or 30 yards past him, it suddenly registered:


I stopped, looked back and called out his name. He stopped. I rode up to him and, with a huge and genuine smile, said, “How have you been? I haven’t seen you in years!” His end of the talk couldn’t have been smaller. He clearly was uncomfortable, and there was no connection between us. None. Sensing his discomfort, and remembering what I had heard about him, I said goodbye and rode away. His face had heart-punched me. My friend had turned into a heartbreaking, hollowed-out version of himself. I felt an urge to cry, an urge to stop my bicycle and bang my head against a tree out of grief.

It would be the last time I would see him.

Not much later—maybe months, maybe a year—I learned he had died. I called a former colleague at the newspaper where I had worked. Suicide, he said. A knife. A bathtub.

That Saturday afternoon, the pews in the front half of a church were filled with family, friends of his family, and many of his classmates from high school, some of whom came from places hours away, like Chicago and New York. His sister delivered a beautiful eulogy. I had to take deep breaths several times to keep from crying. On the way out of the church, I passed an old classmate who was sitting at the end of a pew. We hadn’t always gotten along; we ran in different crowds. Our eyes made contact, and we shook hands. We both knew our past differences didn’t mean a thing anymore. We had suddenly learned just how big life is, how it is filled with both joy and sorrow.

Outside the church, I finally broke down and had to leave. A little later, I went to a small reception the family had scheduled and stayed long enough to tell T’s sister what a touching eulogy she had given. But I was numb and left before long.

Later, I learned that one of T’s high school girlfriends had said that even back then, he was starting to hear voices. I’m not sure who among us knew. I didn’t. All I knew was that I was glad to call him a friend, because he was the funniest, most creative and most talented person I knew. I will always be haunted by the memory of seeing him on the river trail. I wish that face wasn’t the first thing that comes to mind when something reminds me of him.


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 28th, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC)
T touched our lives
My wife asked if I wanted a good cry, she then told me to read this piece. I think the day of T's funeral was a turning point in many of his friend's lives, a wake up if you will. They say there is a fine line between genius and insanity, T brought that home to me vividly that day. My job now involves working with people with a diverse range of mental health issues and it is heart rending to see people who at one time showed typical behavior and but for an event, a switch in brain chemistry or for whatever reason they are unable to continue to be what we once knew. It is hard to accept who they have become, but all the more necessary to try to include and empower them. My heart is breaking as I read and respond, so I will try to remember him in a happier time, like stuffing 24 empty beer bottles in H's next door neighbor's mailbox, a female classmate P lived there. Rest well my friend, may you only hear the voices of angels.
May. 29th, 2011 02:49 am (UTC)
Re: T touched our lives
"May you only hear the voices of angels." I wish I had written that.
May. 30th, 2011 08:56 pm (UTC)
That was heart-breaking and beautiful. "We suddenly learned how big life is, how it is filled with joy and sorrow." Wow. That is so heavy, but true.
May. 30th, 2011 10:09 pm (UTC)
Thanks for reading and commenting, Brett. That post has been inside me for a long time.
Jun. 3rd, 2011 01:43 am (UTC)
I see I've got some catching up to do. Damn LJ for not sending the requested email notifications of your posts.

What a haunting and beautiful story. I love the line that lancaster1250 mentions, too.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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