I know I'm a bad friend, and that's why I don't let myself have friends.
It was in college that I started really working. I had always been busy, but it was in college that my work came to dominate my life. For those years I worked a hundred or more hours a week, sleeping every other day, sometimes every third day.
And in those years I had a recurring nightmare about the way my life was bent by work. In the dream, a stray cat would adopt me, and I would let it. It would live in my apartment and I would feed it and look after it. And then one day I would come home after having been gone, distracted by work for days on end, and I would find the cat dead in a open drawer, starved to death.
I knew exactly what the dream meant, and I began to be scrupulous in a ham-handed kind of way about the limits of my involvement, attachment, commitment. It was brutal and arrogant and very naive, but I felt I had to make it plain that when push came to shove, there was no one I would not push and shove out of my way. I knew I could not be depended on as a friend, so I was careful to permit no one to think I could.
And I worked unendingly for years, just like that. And I met and fell in love with and married my wife, and agreed to have children, and managed to handle it all very well - in my opinion. My wife's opinion was somewhat at variance, and it took me quite some time to realize that what I thought of as major concessions to her needs were practically invisible to her. But to the extent that I have been successful at having people in my life, it's been as a result of incorporating them into my objectives, rather than turning away, even temporarily, from my goals.
The point is this: I'm a good father. I'm getting better as a husband. But I'm still lousy as a friend, and I know it.
I know it because I found out today that someone to whom I was once a friend had died, died while I was distracted, like that cat in the drawer...
My son, Cameron, and I were getting ready for an adventure in the desert when my mom called with the news, reading from the death notices in our old home-town newspaper. Wendell Erskine died in his parents' home at the age of thirty-five. Of AIDS, although the newspaper did not print that. He will be cremated, with no viewing and no services. A memorial service will be announced at a future date.
And the smell of that was a little tough to take. There are many people grieving Wendell today, but we won't have the opportunity to grieve together. My mother and I talked about it, about the irony of wreaking a vengeance of shame upon the dead - and upon the living. And my wife and I talked about it more after I got off the phone. And as I gathered up Cam to head out, I was in quite a lather about it, another petty injustice to match a too-short lifetime of petty injustices.
But in the car, in the rear-view mirror, I found someone else to blame. And I found that my eyes were welling up again and again, post-dated checks for a friend I hadn't given a dime's worth of time in eighteen years...
We were the brats, the shadow elite of high school. The kids who walk too fast and talk too fast and think too fast for anyone to keep up. We were the Word Gods. The Jocks and Pompettes, the Math Gods and Gear Heads, the Sleepwalkers and Geeks and Mouth Breathers - they were our natural prey. Empty rage and a loaded gun: What better way to have our revenge than with a fusillade of ornate and side-splitting insults?
At this remove I can see that nihilism is a vanity in youth and a conceit in adulthood. But at the time it seemed pretty cool. It camouflaged our powerlessness. It gave us a way of minting our ignorance into a convincing counterfeit of wisdom. It lent us an unearned claim upon cynicism, an adult vice we mistook for a virtue. It gave us the one thing we lacked in abundance - the appearance of age.
Plus it was a boundless source of jokes, which is what really counted.
We were the shadow elite, but we had a confidence lacking in the true elite, the Jocks and Pompettes, the confidence that comes from being armed to the teeth. At our brattiest, we could wither anyone in the high school universe, including the teachers.
And the brattiest among us, the brattiest brat alive, was Wendell Erskine.
Requiem for a smart ass: It's not the comedy, it's the comic. Being funny is more than having funny things to say. It's more than being seventeen and toying with a darkness you've never known. It's diction and inflection and vocabulary and timing. It's a feeling for the moment, for the audience, for the victim. It's a little game of one-on-one in public - pump fake, turn and jam - never letting them know they've been had until they've been had for breakfast. Anyone can disrupt a class. Only a master can take it over, own it whole, then give it back on a silver platter, noblesse oblige.
We were idiots, of course. Everyone else had plans, but I think we thought we could subsist on the dividends of sheer brilliance. We didn't know how little use the world has for being mocked, and how little tolerance. And we certainly didn't bother to compute the odds of our being selected for the few and highly coveted slots as society's pet enfants terrible. To this day I think our victims were too dim to know they had a last laugh coming. But it is funny, so perhaps we can be big enough to laugh for them.
I think I might have been luckier than most, because I really did hate where we grew up; it wasn't just chatter or a matter of calling sweet grapes sour. And I really did get out, the day after commencement. Some stayed without a twitch. Some got out eventually. Some left then wandered back. And a few managed to move a short distance away, where they seem to orbit around the awful place we all once called home. But no one hated that place more than Wendell did, and yet he never managed to go in a way that said "gone".
And that was one of the things I was thinking about as Cameron and I hiked through the Usery Mountains. I am apt to moan about how slowly we seem to be accumulating wealth. But the truth is, I'm rich beyond my wildest dreams. Surely I don't have any money to speak of, no real estate or non-depreciating assets or financial instruments to write home about. But I live where I want, doing what I want to do. I have a wife I love passionately and two children I adore and who are profoundly adorable. I have everything in life that matters, and enough money to buy me the peace of mind to realize it.
It was the contrast that brought me to tears. Not that Wendell had known none of the riches of the examined life; I know he had. But simply that he'd had to die where he'd never felt free to live. That he'd had to die as he'd been born, wholly dependent on his parents, owning nothing that was his beyond contest or doubt. That he'd had to surrender his dignity before he could be robbed of his life...
My mother is a better friend to my friends than I've ever been. We stayed with her for two days when we moved from New England to Arizona last Spring, and she arranged a get-together for we brats, all of us now stumbling with more girth than mirth into middle-age.
Wendell was one of the guests. It was the first time I'd seen him in more than ten years. His skin was dark, a khaki green, and his eyes were sunk deep. I didn't need to ask what his story was, but in a private moment I did, anyway. He told me that he'd contracted tuberculosis. The brat I was in high school would not have let that slide, but age has given me tact if not wisdom.
It was a nice party, and I don't think it was too much disrupted by the unacknowledged death sentence Wendell faced. As we talked, I remembered what I'd loved about him in high school, what I loved about him still. He had photos and stories about all of our old crew, up to the minute details about people I barely remember. He reminded me of what it means to have a friend, even if I've forgotten how to be one.
I hugged him as he left, and I knew I'd never see him again. There's an irony in that, too. We nihilistic jokesters had pulled a fine prank on the void by refusing to see it. We'd all seen darkness by then, some much more than others, and we knew it was no toy. I know what it had cost him to come to that party, not just his health but his pride. And I know what he got from it. I'm proud to have given him what little I could, but I know that the true wealth came from my mother, from Annie, my wife, and from my daughter, Meredith. Wendell had spent the first days of his adulthood ridiculing everything about normality, but it was normality that he needed most in his last days. The women of my life, so much more human than I, gave him what he came to find, I think.
I wrote him a little postcard a week or two later, returning some photos he'd lent us. Then nothing. We exchanged Christmas cards this year, but Annie handled that. She sent a nice picture of the kids, but there was nothing from me in the envelope. I neglected Wendell for eighteen years as he arrived at death's door, then, but for a few brief episodes, neglected him as he passed through it. Some friend I turned out to be...
The kids and I enjoy naming things. Other people's names for things are meaningless and forgettable, but they remember names when they participate in picking them. The triple butte at the East end of the San Tan Mountains is Daddy's Mountain. Usery Mountain is Mommy's Mountain. Desert palm trees are called N'uka N'uka trees, and a nearby bank building that is surrounded by them is The N'uka N'uka Building. The spot where Cam and I were hiking produces Cholla cacti in absurd abundance, so we call it The Spinely National Forest.
Today on the way home, we re-named Red Mountain, calling it Wendell's Mountain. It has a greater concentration of iron than its neighbors, which makes it stand out, proud and resolute. And there's a building near The Phoenix Zoo that I intend to name Wendell's Building. It's an intensely vertical structure in the vast horizontal spaces of the desert, deep brown against a sea of greens and grays. It has wide, cantilevered balconies to drink in the sun and mirrored glass walls to repel the heat. It's as arrogant as a withering insult, as elegant as a half-smile.
And, again, it's ironic that I should strive to keep Wendell Erskine alive in my memory now that he's dead, when I couldn't spare a thought for him while he still lived.
And yet so much of him lingers. He was so rude and yet so courtly. So tragic and yet so unbearably funny. Such a masterful enemy to those he hated, but such a magnificent friend to those he loved.
He deserved better than this from life.
He deserved better than this from death.
He deserved better than this from me...