The First Of Us
The new kid comes flailing out at me on the blacktop playground, blue eyes glinting a challenge, but not without some humor. He’s got all the Kwai Chang Caine moves down from the television show “Kung Fu,” hands up near his face and subtly forked, he leaps a telegraphed kick my way; I give him full out Bruce Lee five-fingers-of-death eyes and spin adroitly past him, ready for the next round.
A hundred screaming Catholic kids out here for recess and he’s singled me out; a brand new arrival to our sixth grade class, this strange kid with the blue eyes– Mike; I’m the first friend he makes here, and this is how it’s done. We take the brunt of some actual hits, no harm done, and then it’s on to kickball with the rest of the boys…
He’s one of these kids bedeviled with the need to pry open appliances just to see their inner workings– it pays off years later when he’s able to fix everything from radios to blow dryers, but for now he’s his mother’s only child and a terror to all things electronic.
He draws well, too; he and I are the kids most often enlisted for posters and signage at school; his signature is obnoxiously prominent and we tell him so– me and my tight group of friends. Of the bunch, only Danny and I consider Mike an actual friend of ours; the rest adopt a wait-and-see attitude that persists for the remainder of their acquaintance with him, but they benefit from Mike’s innovations: nunchucks– deadly little clubs he’s hand-crafted from bamboo and joined with his mom’s clothesline rope; school supply boxes with pencil launchers he’s designed and built into them, complete with false bottoms and hidden compartments for contraband firecrackers and cigarettes. All kinds of stuff like that, and to everyone’s benefit, but only Danny and I trust him like a friend; treat him like a friend…
Years later when we’re in high school, Mike’s the first of us to have moved out of his parent’s house; his interests are focused on music, and he’s a talented guitarist. He and I have a disagreement over a girl– a girl who’s completely in love with him, and a close friend of mine. It’s a serious disagreement, and we drift apart after that, surprised to see each other occasionally as the years go by; bumping into each other once at an electronics store downtown where he works for awhile.
He turns up again in 2003 when I’m working full-time and only home for a couple of hours a day. My feeling is that, when I’m not at work making money, I’m at home working on my art, and when there’s any time left, I’m trying to schedule it with the people who are currently in my life… I make it clear that I don’t even have time for a conversation with him right now; we shake hands and he walks away.
I get the news from my old friend Danny, whom I haven’t seen in more than twenty years. I’m out walking last Sunday, wearing a hat and sunglasses, and Danny recognizes me from half a block away by the way that I walk– because the friends we make before we lose our innocence know us for the rest of our lives in ways that will always be surprising.
We sit down to talk and it’s not long before he tells me about Mike; working as an electrician in a neighboring town, Mike and two co-workers were spending the night in a newly constructed restaurant which he’d somehow been locked out of; he’d attempted to get back in by climbing through a vent in the building; he’d gotten stuck where the shape of the vent had tapered and he’d asphyxiated; died while trying to regain entrance.
The first of us to die… It had happened six months ago. Danny had heard about it on the radio in his car and confirmed it with mutual acquaintances. The first of us to die– I’m surprised by an exhilaration that comes over me as Danny leaves– similar to when you’ve had a close call in traffic and you’re shot full of adrenaline and aware of the newness of each passing second; wide awake and emphatically alive. It settles into an even more unexpected sense of relief– as if the dread and anxiety I’ll sometimes feel building for months finally has a solid place to settle in for awhile.
It’s in the night that my imagination pays visits to the restaurant and that final innovative push of his, that impulse that had always whispered to him about an alternate route to be forged if he had the courage; the same instinct that had distinguished him as an individual, someone I’d known well, a long time ago.
When I talk to my friend Doc about it, when I try to articulate the catalogue of Mike’s extraordinariness for her, his giftedness, that’s when I finally do cry about all of this; I’m aware of my inability to convey it to her properly; what we’ve lost here; what we’ve allowed to slip away without even having said goodbye.
Feb 5, 2010