It was a Friday night in early October. Headlights pulling out of the high school parking lot flooded the darkness of Highway 47 with light. As we started out for home, we wrapped ourselves in our jackets or sweat shirts, the autumn air cool and crisp, still new, still romantic, still a revelation.
Our varsity football team, the Mustangs, had just lost to the Waterford Wolverines, thirteen to six, seriously jeopardizing our chances for a conference championship, but that didn’t seem to matter to any of us in the throng of sophomores and freshmen that had formed and grown during the .game
We’d found each other, like we did at every home game, either in the bleachers or the concession stand or in the crowdof kids walking or hanging out on the asphalt 440 meter track that surrounded the football field. It was the great gathering place for the students who were motivated to attend more by a need for social interaction than an expression of school spirit. That week, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go to the game or not. It’d been only a week since Paul Morris had died. Then I found out that my little sister was going to have some of her junior high friends over, and that tipped the scale in favor of going. I told my mom I was going, and she set 11:00 as my curfew.
When we started the walk home after the game, our ranks had swelled to eight or nine sophomores and a couple of freshmen, none of us with our driver’s license yet. As we walked, one by one, our ranks would diminish as we came to the houses or corners that belonged to those who lived closest to the school. By the time we walked from the school parking lot past Zimmerman’s Ford dealership and crossed the railroad tracks into the brightness of the streetlights and the storefronts of downtown and entered the Town Fryar, four of us; Wes Collinson, Dan Hansen, Jim Bryant, and myself, remained. The neon sign at the bank alternated messages about the upcoming Ladies’ Auxiliary Luncheon with the current time and temperature It was 53 degrees Fahrenheit and ten past ten.
The Town Fryar was the local diner, a greasy spoon that for years was the gathering place for the high school kids who would be loyal clientele for a couple of years until they’d graduate from Pepsi and milkshakes to the beer and whiskey of the three taverns on Main Street. Conversations and gossip that began at the game would continue or be rehashed, and jokes and stories about cars and girls and the events of the past week would be told and discussed.
The place was warm and loud with laughter and buzz, and nearly full with mostly juniors and seniors, 11th and 12 graders, and their dates. The booths were all taken, so we took a table in the front. I sat facing the street. The waitress came and took our orders. I, like I did every time, ordered the cheese burger basket with onion rings and a strawberry shake.
We settled in and started talking about the game when I looked out the big window to the other side of Main Street, to the white building with the sign that read “Sterling Brothers funeral hall,” and it occurred to me that Paul was in there, at that very moment, probably laid out on a table with one of the Sterling Brothers doing whatever a Sterling brother does, prepping Paul for his big day tomorrow. I felt the sudden grip of a hand on my right shoulder, squeezing tight, and I noticed that all the other guys had gone silent, their mouths hanging open, looking at me and whoever, whatever, the hand belonged to, and I could see, reflected in the window, the image of Mrs. Palmer, my freshman English teacher from the year before, standing behind me.
Mrs. Palmer and I always had one thing in common – the fall semester of 1972 was our first year at Orchard Depot High school; she fresh out of college, me out of middle school. That was probably the only thing. She was beautiful, and like just about every other boy in her classroom, English suddenly became my favorite subject. She had blonde hair she wore in a bun, highlighting her perfect cheekbones. She was tall and lean, with smooth and creamy skin, and deep blue eyes and soft cheeks.
“Hello, Tom,” she said.
“Hi, Mrs. Palmer,” I replied, turning around. I recognized our school colors in the red sweater and blue jeans she wore.
‘How are you doing?” she asked.
“I’m doing okay,’ I replied. She was wearing her hair down, and it fell on and around her shoulders. She was perfect.
There was a man standing at the cash register. He looked like a movie star, with short but thick black hair and a Kirk-Douglas-ish chin. He called out, “Ready, Ruthie?” as he stuffed his wallet in the back pocket of his slacks.
“Be right there,” she replied before turning her attention back to me. “If you ever need someone to talk to,” she said, “just stop by my classroom.” Paul and I were students in her vey first class, first period ninth grade English, so she knew how close we were.
“Okay,” I said, then teasingly added, “Ruthie.”
“You’d better watch it, Buster,” she said pointing a finger at me. She glanced to the door, where her husband was standing holding her jacket open for her, when she bent down and gently kissed the top of my head. Her perfume smelled sweet and intimate. Then she was slipping her arms into the jacket, and they left, and the world that had temporarily stopped spinning kicked back into gear.
“Holy, shit!” Wes blurted out, “Makes me wish Paul Morris had been my best friend.”
“Wes!’ Dan said. “Jesus ChIrist”
“What the fuck,.” Jim said “What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“What? I only meant …” Wes’s face turned as red as his hair in acknowledgement of the inappropriateness of his remarks. “Sorry, Tom,” he said.
“That’s okay,” I replied, accepting Wes’s apology. I felt bad about the fact that I’d been kind of sullen all night. I still hadn’t learned how to process grief, and I had no way to articulate how it felt, especially to these guys, who were just classmates, nowhere near as close to me as the one guy who would have understood what I‘d been feeling since I lost my best friend, that being my best friend since fourth grade, Paul Morris.
The attention paid me by Mrs. Palmer took me away, if only for a moment, from what I’d ben obsessing about all week. I’d never seen a dead body before, and tomorrow, at the funeral, Paul would be the first. During the brief hours I slept I was visited by vivid nightmares. In the one I can still remember, our little league team had gathered at the grade school field, and we were waiting for Paul to show up before we stated practice. The sky darkened into deepening black, black clouds that the wind blew across the sky until they blotted out the sun and chilled the air. The wind gusted and blew dead leaves off of the ground and twisted and turned them into a spinning whirlpool rising from the ground in center field. The gust exhausted and the column of leaves died and fell in a heap on the ground, revealing ankles that rose up to legs and then a uniform, splattered with dried and caked on blood. Paul was there, standing alone in centerfield. I got a good look at him, his eyes were dull and empty and colorless with dark circles beneath them, his skin pale and gray. “Paul,” l said, and the sky grew darker, black as night, when he turned to me and said, ”Worms.”
The food came, but for some reason, my appetite, which had being growling during the game, waned. I picked at my order until the others were done.
“‘Are you going to eat that?” Wes asked. Wes was short and pudgy, with a roll of baby fat that extended over his belt. He was well known for his ability to eat, and had already consumed two Fryar dogs and an order of fries before turning his attention to my leftovers.
“No, go ahead,” I said. Wes enthusiastically scraped the contents of my plate onto his while Jim rolled his eyes in disgust. Jim could always barely tolerate Wes and they appeared to be complete opposites, yet they were always together. The only explanation was that they lived on the same street. When you’re a young boy, geography plays as prominent a role in determining friends as anything else.
That’s how Paul and I found each other. In the summer before fourth grade, Paul’s family moved into the ranch style house three ranch style homes down and on the other side of the street from where my family lived, on Vicksburg Avenue on the eastern edge of our town, Orchard Depot, Wisconsin. One bright June day I saw him walking by with the same black and yellow metal carrying case I used for my Hot Wheels collection, and from that point on we were inseparable. We loved sports and rooted for the same teams except in baseball, where we were in that dark period between 1965 and 1969 when Milwaukee lost the Braves and before Bud Selig bought the Seattle Pilots franchise, moved it to Milwaukee and renamed it the Brewers. With the absence of a Milwaukee team to root for, we had to pledge allegiance to someone. Paul chose the Chicago Cubs, the regional favorite at the time, while I chose their bitter rivals and the defending champion St. Lois Cardinals. We settled our differences in countless hours of Strat-O-Matic games played out in my basement. We were little league teammates, and in our last year, when we were twelve, we both made the all-star team, and came one out away from winning the championship series. When summer ended, we played basketball in our driveways, or football in our back yards. We slept out in tents in the summertime, and explored the neighboring woods and farm fields, watching his Springer Spaniel, Dolly, run windshield wiper patterns through open fields of green and gold until finding and pointing out a pheasant and staying on point until Paul gave her the flush command and she’d kick it up for us to shoot with wooden sticks that served as make-believe Browning shotguns. It was no more real hunting than Strat-o-Matic was real major league baseball, but the poetry of Dolly running and staying on point was as pure and real and beautiful as any Frost or Dickinson.
We exited the Town Friar with the bank telling us it was 10:45. I had fifteen minutes to make the curfew mom and dad had set for me. It’d be close, but I figured they’d cut me about five minutes of slack. Dan and I said goodbye to Jim and Wes, who lived on the other side of Main Street, and Dan and I crossed Main Street and headed east towards our homes. Dan lived on Fredrickson Avenue, only about a block from Main Street. I’d drop him off and finish walking to Vicksburg alone. I ‘d been dreading those last four blocks without Paul all week, but before we went there, I had to deal with the Sterling brothers and their stupid funeral hall.
I had no idea what the Sterling brothers looked like. I imagined they’d look something like Nosferatu, who I’d seen in a silent movie on Channel 11 sometime before. It was more than the knowledge that Paul was in there that creeped me out. I was always creeped out by the place, by the presence of the dead. A few years later I’d learn that the older of the two Sterling brothers had died years before; they didn’t change the name because by that time there were four other Sterling brothers funeral homes scattered through the state, so they couldn’t change the name, it’d become a franchise, like McDonalds, prompting the idea of drive-thru service lanes, one for drop-offs and one for pick-ups, to take root in my brain. I also wondered when the older Sterling brother died, did the younger one prep him? Did he cut his brother down his back, open him up and pump him full of embalming fluid?.
“You okay?” Dan asked as we walked by the funeral home.
“Yeah,” I replied. “these places have always given me the creeps.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Plus, the fact that Paul’s in there.”
“I hadn’t thought about that,” Dan said. Dan was tall, taller than me, one of the tallest guys in our class, but he was gangly and still growing into his height. He’d join us in the epic pickup basketball games that frequently materialized in Water Tower park, but he wasn’t very good. He was, none the less, a good guy, well liked and respected by all.
“Are you going tomorrow?’ I asked him as we crossed State Street on 14th Avenue.
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“Have you ever been to one before?”
“Yeah, my grandpa’s, He died a couple of years ago. You?”
“I’ve never been to one.”
“They’re okay. Gets boring after a while.”
“I’ve never seen a dead person before. What’s that like?”
“it’s kind of weird. You have to stand in line to go and look at it when you first get there. The body is laying there in an open coffin, and I was real nervous about it before hand, but once I got up there, it was just my grandpa, and he looked like he was sleeping. It looked like he was sleeping, except you could tell, just by looking at him, that he was never going to wake up again.”
We came to the corner of Fredericksburg Avenue and 14th street.
“Well, maybe I’ll see you at the funeral tomorrow,” Dan said.
Then Dan was gone. I watched him walk away from the glow of the corner street light until he was consumed by the darkness, and I was reminded that despite the bright glow of the streetlights that lit up 14th street, it was still night, and I was passing through it, through the secrets and mysteries it concealed. A gust of cold blew in from the north. I turned the collar of my jacket up and started for home. I was alone. As I walked, I started rehashing the events of the past week in my head.
The previous Saturday morning, I went with my mom to the library. As we backed out of the driveway, we both noticed the police car with its lights flashing parked in Paul’s driveway. Neither one of us knew why it was there, and we didn’t speculate.
When we got to the library, the librarian, the one named Connie, older, short gray hair, glasses, looked just like a librarian was supposed to look, saw us come in and called mom over to her desk. They started whispering to each other, when my mom suddenly and loudly gasped, putting her hand to her mouth, and I knew something, something bad and big, had happened to Paul, and that was why cops were at his house. It took a while for all the details to weave into a coherent story, but we knew right from the start, from the sketchy and incomplete details Connie gave us was that there was a car accident and that Paul was dead.
It happened a couple of miles out of town, out on county Highway J, where Paul, a passenger in Corey Wilson’s dad’s 1969 Fort LTD, was killed when a 60 year old farmer named Willoughby ran his Buick through a stop sign and t-boned Paul and Corey, collapsing the frame into the car’s passenger side and crushing Paul. The farmer was dead, too, while Corey suffered only a broken right hand. The ironic thing was that although Corey had only gotten his license a month before, and that Willoughby had 45 years of a perfect driving record, without even a parking ticket, he was found 100 percent at fault, and that the only thing Paul and Corey were guilty of was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I made my way to the corner of Wilderness Avenue, and 14th Street, just a block away from Vicksburg Avenue. The city planner who, in the early 1950s, before the post-World War Two boom reached Orchard Depot, when the roads on the east side of State Street were still farm fields, designed the development of the neighborhoods that by 1973 were already ten to fifteen years old, was a big civil war history buff. To pay tribute, he deemed that all of the north / south roads, all of the avenues, would be named after Civil War battles, while the streets would conform to the same numbering system the rest of Orchard Depot used. Vicksburg Avenue ran between thirteenth and fourteenth streets. Our address was 1314 Vicksburg Avenue and Paul’s was 1307 Vicksburg Avenue.
As I walked on, I wondered again, why I hadn’t cried more. Aside from a couple of tears when mom first told me what the librarian told her, that Paul was dead, I hadn’t’ cried all week. Other kids at school openly wept when they found out. I, his best friend for so long, couldn’t bring myself to cry, even though I thought about him constantly, even as the world went on without him. All I could muster was a couple of nightmares and some teen-aged angst about having to see a dead body for the first time.
The truth was that Paul and I were growing apart. It wasn’t any one big thing, nothing that anybody could touch that came between us. We were growing apart because we were growing up, time and experience and fate shaping us, sculpting us into the men we’d later become. When the summer of 73 began, Paul and I started hanging out, like we did every day of the previous six summers, but for some reason, it was strangely unsatisfying. Fun wasn’t found as easily as it was in summers past, even though we looked for it in all the old familiar places –in our driveways, in the woods and fields, or on our bikes. We were just beginning to shed off of our childhood skin, and all of those childhood things and places were in the puberty fueled process of being replaced by less innocent pursuits like driver’s licenses, weed, and girls. By mid-July, we were hanging out a couple of times a week, and by the end of August, we hadn’t seen each other for weeks.
Then school stared, and we walked together, and we rebooted our friendship, not to the level it was before, but it was getting stronger again, until Paul got into Corey Wilson’s dad’s car last Saturday morning. It struck me that the funeral tomorrow would be to mourn the loss of the man Paul will never be as much as it was for the child that he and everybody else once was, that he will always remain.
I finally arrived at the corner of 14th and Vicksburg. As I walked toward our house, I looked and saw that its windows were dark, and my mom and dad had left the yard light on for me. I smiled. One of my favorite things in the world was coming home to a lit up yard light. Nothing felt as warm and inviting as its yellow glow, and it represented trust and acceptance, that no matter what time you get home, we’ll be here, home.
I walked up the driveway and entered our house. I shut the front door behind me.
“Is that you, Tom?” Mom’s voice asked from her darkened room.
“Yes,“ I said, looking at the clock in the kitchen. It was 11:10. I was ten minutes late.
“I made some brownies if you’re hungry,” Mom said, above dad’s snoring.
Yes! I thought to myself. I was starving ever since we left the Town Fryar, since I’d let Wes Collinson eat half of my order. I found the cake pan on the kitchen counter top. Brownies with fudge frosting. She must have made them for my sister’s party. I was in Heaven. I poured myself a glass of milk and cut a row of Brownies out of the pan, and when that was gone, I had another glass of milk and a second row.
Finally, with my gut full and my head empty, I went to the front door and locked it and shut the yard light off. I was exhausted. Before I went to bed, I looked through the narrow window in the front door out to Paul’s house. His yard light was on, too and I felt a heaviness in my heart and tears rushing to my eyes. They burst through, I couldn’t contain them. I just stood there, crying uncontrollably. It seemed like I’d never stop and now, nearly fifty years later, on some level, I never have.