The first best friend I ever made was in the third grade, a kid named Ryan Michaels. I’d made friends before, playground or at school friends, but never close enough to have them over to my house or to go to their houses. Ryan was a goofy little kid, skinny and pale with thick rimmed glasses that never seemed to sit straight on his nose. In school, he was quiet and reserved. His clothes were always worn and dirty, with holes worn through the knees of his jeans. Ryan had already been to my house a few times and met most of my family by the time I went to his house for the first time.
Ryan lived in an older part of town, in a big, two story house. It was one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, with white paint that was peeling under its peaked eaves and window panes. The gravel driveway came in off of the street and turned left into the parking lot of a big church that stood next door. It was an early autumn afternoon, warm and overcast. Ryan invited me in, and he poured me a glass of milk as I surveyed the surroundings. Unlike the house I lived in, which was a new 60s style ranch, built just three years earlier, Ryan’s house was older and bigger, with cracks in the plaster and late afternoon shadows that cast a dim heaviness to the daylight that streamed through the windows. His dad was home, a big and unshaven man with a big belly that stretched the white t-shirt he was wearing. He walked into the kitchen, crumpling an empty can of Old Milwaukee and throwing it in the trash can before opening the fridge and grabbing another, while Ryan and I stood at the counter, drinking our milk. I remember he looked at us, and didn’t say anything before exiting the kitchen. Then Ryan and I were going outside to play again, only this time we were going out the backdoor. On the way out, we passed through a small room with a couch and a black and white television that was broadcasting “All Star Wrestling” on the Milwaukee UHF station, channel 18. Ryan’s dad was sitting back on the couch, sipping his Old Milwaukee and watching the same show that my older brothers and I watched from time to time, with wrestlers like Da Crusher and Doctor X. We’d watch and laugh at how fake it was and at the people in the audience, a disproportionate number of whom seemed to be elderly women, who thought it was real.
We went back outside and ended up in the turn-around driveway in front of the big old house, playing with matchbox or hot-wheels cars in the gravel. It must have rained sometime in the days before because puddles filled in the potholes in the driveway.
“Yeah, just a few weeks ago, me and my little sister had to get our stomachs pumped,” Ryan said, matter-of-factly.
“You had to get your stomachs pumped?” I’d never heard of such a thing. It sounded painful.
“Yeah,” he said, “we were playing house, and we drank some puddle water.”
“Why would you drink puddle water?” I asked.
“We were pretending it was beer,” he said.
. . .
Not long after that day, Ryan and I began to drift apart. I guess it’s like that when you’re small and you’re learning how to get along with people, when you don’t know yourself let alone anyone else well enough to know if you have anything in common. It’s pot luck, pure random chance that determines who your friends will be. More than anything it’s location, as kids from the same neighborhood, the same block, are more likely to discover each other and remain at least geographically close enough to maintain contact. Ryan and I were from different neighborhoods and lived vastly different lives.
That day in his driveway would turn out to be the only time I “went over” to Ryan’s house. After that day, I am left with only three more vivid memories of Ryan Michaels.
The first was a couple of weeks later, on Halloween. Our teacher, Miss Hoppi, was an elderly substitute who’d been hired for the year to take the place of our assigned teacher, Mrs. Smart, who’d been recently diagnosed with cancer (she would, in fact, die about a year later, after we’d gone on to the fourth grade). Anyway, after our long awaited Halloween party, Ryan and I and a couple of other guys were standing in the hallway talking. I, apparently already the critic, was complaining about the lameness of Miss Hoppi’s party, when Ryan let me have it.
“What are you talking about?” he demanded, his voice getting louder. “It was fun. You just don’t like Miss Hoppi, that’s all.”
. . .
The second memory occurred about two years later, when we were in the fifth grade. Ryan and I had already drifted apart, and were in separate classrooms, so we didn’t see each other much. We’d always say hi when we passed each other in the hallways, so it wasn’t like we were mortal enemies or anything.
One day, while getting ready to go to lunch, my classroom and Ryan’s found ourselves in the hallway at the same time, when I came upon Ryan, who was quite animated in telling a couple of other kids about how he and his dad had gone to an all-star wresting show in Milwaukee the night before. He was showing off the event’s program, which included autographed photos of all the stars, including Ryan’s favorite, the masked Dr. X.
“Ryan,” I said, “don’t you know that’s all fake?”
“It is not!” he said.
“But it is.” I felt embarrassed for my former best friend.
“No, it’s not! My dad says so. He told me!” he said, getting louder and more animated .
“But it’s fake,” I insisted.
“Shut up!” He was screaming now, and crying. “Shut up!” he continued, long after I had done so, screaming louder and crying harder each time.
. . .
The final memory I have of Ryan Michaels was in June of 1977, about a year after we graduated from Union Grove High School. It was a rainy Saturday afternoon. I was in town, driving west on Highway 11, about four blocks east of Main Street, Highway 45, when I saw Ryan, alone, dressed in his white Navy uniform, walking, headed east, soaked through to the bone, with a big grin on his face, raising a Budweiser to his mouth, laughing at something unknown.
I remember thinking to myself that he looked like a ghost.
. . .
Sometime, a year or two later, I can’t remember exactly when or how, I learned that Ryan was dead. I think it was a car accident, but now I’m not sure. It’s been more than thirty five years and my memory isn’t what is used to be.
But the image of Ryan walking down Highway 11 in the rain in his Navy whites is as vivid as those of the other ghosts that haunt my memories. It’s as if they’d all occurred just yesterday, which, I guess, they really did.