An old lady and her nurse.
“What people call dementia is really just your body’s way of preparing for the next life. If you had to carry suitcases full of everything you’ve ever owned, you would carry baby shoes and a baseball mitt and a wedding ring, but you would also carry pots and pans and sofas and love seats. Every pair of gardening gloves and maybe every shovel! As you got to be 70 or 80 years old, you would have hundreds of bags. You might be able to juggle three or four but you wouldn’t be able to carry 12. While it is very difficult for your family members it’s a simple matter of practicality. Your body simply can’t carry 10 and 12 lifetimes full of memories forward, so it carries what’s important. You don’t remember your daughter’s wedding or her name, but you remember how pretty she looked in her green dress for Christmas when she was five years old. You might try to carry that precious moment forward by repeating it over and over because the name might change, or the dress for sure, but there will be something, a light in the eyes or a feeling when they smile, and you’ll know their soul again. Your body is helping you carry them that way, the right memories. You repeat it over and over, telling her five times on Christmas day, because you suddenly realized it was as precious but you don’t know which day is your last. You can’t see the train in the station but you hear it coming down the track.”
“Survival of the fittest, dear. If you try to carry everything, you’ll certainly drop something you intended to keep. Something you might need, or something very precious that can’t be replaced.”
“I guess so.”
“If you were stranded on the moon and you could have $1 million or a tank of compressed air that you could breathe for two days until a rescue ship arrived, which would you hold onto? So you see how something as common as air becomes extremely important in the right circumstance. It’s just… You can’t always explain that to people. Five hundred years ago it might have been tricky to explain the moon’s atmosphere without being hung as a witch.”
“I had a boyfriend once. In high school. He had the best laugh. It made everyone smile.”
“What happened to him?”
“Oh, I was a freshman. His family moved away.”
“But you would know his laugh if you heard it.”
“Yeah, I would. Funny, I haven’t thought about him in… Maybe 20 years.”
“But you still carry the laugh.”
And so begins the ideas for the crazy train collective. I have more.
When I was a kid in grade school, I lived far away from the school we attended. We rode a bus for what seemed forever every morning and afternoon, so my friends at home were different kids from the ones I played with at school. But at school, there were three of us. Me, John Reilley, and Kevin Rendell. Somewhere along the line early in grade school we became best friends, but basically Kevin and I had John as our best friend. John was a very funny, very original character. He was not much of a student, and as we got further along in grade school that was fine because who cared, but when we got to high school we suddenly weren’t in any of the same classes. As a result, we stopped being friends. That’s just how it is when you’re a dumb kid. You can’t drive and you don’t live near each other, so if you aren’t in the same classes you aren’t friends any more. That’s how it works.
But before that, there was a trio. The Three Musketeers, our moms called us. (Moms aren’t real original at that age.)
I guess you could say we were three friends but two of us definitely liked John best – and more or less tolerated the other one. If John wasn’t at school, I would not necessarily play with Kevin. But if John was at school, Kevin would be with him, and I would be with the two of them. So for the most part we were inseparable – to the extent the kids that age can be.
Kevin was a pretty good-looking guy and he also had a unique sense of humor. I suppose we all did. That would be the pattern I would set up, to surround myself with kids who either appreciated my sense of humor or had a good one of their own, so that I could learn from them and they could learn from me and they could be my test audience. But John was funniest. Kevin was probably second funniest. Okay, not probably. He was.
I… had stuff to learn.
But for the most part we had a club, the three of us, the ARR club. Antiago, Reilley and Rendell. A double R. (Kevin wanted to know why I went first. I thought it sounded better that way, a better cadence to the words. Like one of those law firms on TV.) But RAR didn’t quite catch on the way A double R did, and after a few days that was the permanent name of the club. We wrote our logo on all sorts of stuff. Our notebooks, our desks (in pencil so it washed off with some spit if somebody saw it). Even tattoos we drew on ourselves in blue pen on the side of the school where the older kids went to pretend to smoke during their recess period.
Just dumb kids doing dumb kid stuff.
My school friends.
My home friends were different, and since we went to swim practice practically every night (mom and dad decided my sister was on her way to the Olympics for swimming so the rest of us had to be on swim team because of it) I had swim team friends, too. Three different sets of friends that never intermingled because of logistics.
So it was a bit of a surprise when I rode my bike home one nice summer day after playing outside and exploring the world with my little brother and the kid from next door, that my mom was waiting for me. I probably remember that day almost as much for her waiting for me as for what came next.
She sat me down in the living room – a room we were never allowed in at all unless company came over or it was Christmas, and certainly not if we were all dirty from playing outside all day, which was every day during summer. And it was just me. I wasn’t in there with my usual co-conspirators, my older sister and younger brother. When the three of us got all covered in mud from the creek that one day and missed dinner and swim practice, mom spanked us all the same, right there in the back yard. (Tiffany never got spanked, but she did that day, that’s how big a deal it was.) But this was not that. This was just me.
I was all alone.
I remember it being very quiet, and the sun must have been setting because the room had that twilight feel to it. A pall. Mom sat me down in the living room and explained my friend Kevin had been killed. We were probably… I don’t think we were in fifth grade yet, so probably eight or nine years old. Since it was summer, I hadn’t seen him for a few weeks, maybe two months; I don’t know. It’s not like you spend all day every day in summer thinking about people you only see at school.
He was one of my school friends. Now I’d have one less.
There was a funeral scheduled and a visitation. It was awful. I mean, everybody did what they were supposed to do, but… It was respectful, but terrible. See, little kids aren’t supposed to be dead and surrounded by a bunch of crying classmates. That’s not what’s supposed to happen. Little kids are supposed to play and dig in the dirt and roll Matchbox cars under an overpass the made out of a tree root on the far side or the playground. Not wear a brand new suit and lie still in a box.
Some older kids had been working on a car and they took it out for a ride. They’d been working on the motor and had taken the hood off the car off to do it. 15 and 16-year-old kids. Just regular dumb kids doing regular dumb kid stuff. But when they took the car out for a drive, they didn’t attach the hood back on properly first. It didn’t latch. So when they drove past Kevin and his older brother going the other way, the wind just lifted the hood right off. It sailed over the painted stripes on the asphalt road and through the windshield of Kevin’ brother’s car, catching Kevin in the head as he rode in the passenger seat, and killing him.
At the visitation, he did not look like him. He did not look like the kid that I knew. He looked like Jesus – the bad, scary way Jesus is portrayed on the shroud of Turin. Wider, flatter and less – much less – alive. Not resembling the good-looking Jesus in all the other pictures you see of him, but one with no expression on his face that kind of leaves a sad, stretched out non-smile, and eyes that are shut but not asleep. And not going to wake.
Kids who work on cars and change oil and spark plugs and stuff, they always have grease under the fingernails. Their hands are never 100% clean. Partly because that stuff is hard to get off and partly because kids don’t try that hard to get that crap off.
The kids who worked on their car, the kids who killed my friend, they were just dumb kids. I don’t say that in a derogatory manner. They were just kids. Dumb like all kids dumb. Hurrying to get to the next thing so they could take the car out for a drive, not realizing that by not taking the time to put all the screws back in properly to latch the hood, it would change their lives forever and kill my friend.
But I don’t pretend this was my best friend. John was. And John was Kevin’s best friend. That’s just how it was. We were kids.
The songs that they played at my friend’s funeral are songs I never, ever want to hear when they come on the radio. They were just regular songs meant to give some softer meaning to a terrible event. An event that, on another day, would have had those kids laughing at how their hood came off and sailed harmlessly into the grass. Meaningless.
But they are now songs that take me back in time whenever I hear them, and make me deal with the horrible reality of my friend not being alive anymore. And so I hate those songs. James Taylor wrote one of them. You’ve Got A Friend. I cannot hear it and not think of my friend even all these years later. I didn’t have that friend anymore. I know it was supposed to mean we still have him in our hearts or something. It doesn’t work. He can’t come running whenever I call, like the song says.
At the visitation, Kevin’s head was bandaged and I didn’t think he looked like him. He did not look like the kid I knew. If you had asked me if that was my friend I would have said no. In his hand was an old watch like a train conductor’s watch. It was his grandfather’s but it was one of his favorite possessions and his mom wanted him buried with it. Maybe she couldn’t bear the thought of looking at it anymore. I can understand that. Kevin held it in his unmoving hand, resting on the side of his nice suit, not far enough away from that awful, stretched-out nonsmile.
Because I was a dumb kid, I asked her if the time on the watch was the time he died. She hadn’t thought of that. She said they just wound it up and that’s probably just when it ran out.
That’s what happen to my friend. He was given a certain amount of time and it just ran out.
John and I were still close the next year and for a while after that. We never talked of Kevin. I don’t think we ever brought his name up after the funeral. A double R kind of faded away, like any club would after a whole summer of not playing it.
At that age, we had girls that we liked. Of course, we didn’t tell them. Probably, they liked us, too. Now that I am the father of a six-year-old, I know for damn sure that by the time she’s eight or nine she’ll have decided several times on which boy in her class she’s going to marry. Sometimes several different ones in a year and occasionally two or three at the same time, but she’s a kid.
I know for a fact that there were girls in our class that I liked.
And I think it’s safe to assume there were girls in our class that Kevin liked.
And some of them liked us, although we never knew. Girls will tell every girlfriend they have about the boy they like, but rarely do they share that information with the young man in question. Little boys just walked around clueless, digging in the dirt and playing kickball, completely unaware that little girl eyes are watching, and little girl brains are arranging our weddings.
So it’s safe to say that somewhere along the line when my friend’s time ran out, some girl who thought she loved him was suddenly without him.
And if two souls are destined to meet, maybe it’s because he was needed elsewhere to start his time over so he could catch up with her – the right her, whoever she was this time. Or maybe she was the one, but destiny was playing its odd game, and this was not their time.
Some girl loved him and had to do without him for the rest of her life because of what some stupid kids didn’t do on the hood of their car one day. But maybe she never forgot him. Songs on the oldies station can bring stuff back whether you want it to or not. It didn’t mean she didn’t love her husband. Maybe she always felt she’d see… him again.
Maybe she dreams of him on occasion. A good dream, about a kid playing in the sun on the far side of the playground. A kid with a good smile and honest eyes.
Maybe when she dropped her granddaughter off at school and headed to her doctor’s appointment, passing that run-down car with the strap across the hood, it was a sign that destiny was ready to crack open the door once more.
See where we’re going with this “Crazy Train” yet? I’m very excited, as you can probably tell.