There Is Only One Shade of Black
Dressing up death has always seemed like a pointless exercise. The makeup smeared across people's pores always looks like a cheap whore overcompensating in search of that night's paid crabs recipient. It's calming to think of the deceased as entering a perpetual slumber. I'm a realist. In a couple decades, they're nothing more than a pile of decomposition lying across the bottom of a once-empty box.
Every one of these thoughts runs through my head simultaneously as I stare at my friend Zachary's pale face, devoid of the scraggly patches of facial hair he sometimes passed off as a beard. He looks solemn in the coffin. Not in the profound, lip-clenching smile he effused after ripping off a bong hit, but in the way he looked the moment he told me he had to stop smoking cigarettes. There's a pile of memories sitting atop my head. When someone passes away, those lost relics become post-mortem grasps at a semblance of normalcy. It seems like a burden to preserve the entire experiences of a singular life. It's in those moments though that you realize how the joyous moments rise to the surface.
Still, that sort of happiness erodes. Glee flees from my mind as if an enormous tidal wave is towering over my consciousness. My friend died merely three days before this funeral. Our friendship seemed murdered over a year and a half ago. The interim period lays waste to my mind. It's a toxin, obscuring the pleasant memories in a dense fog. A peculiar formation seems to appear in the fumes. Letters appear. Guilt.
It's April 9, 2011. I walk into the Lutheran church where Zachary's funeral is taking place alongside my father. Dozens of cars fill the wind-swept, cruddy streets of Belleville. I gawk at the droves of people flooding into a place I only recognize as the locale for our monthly 4-H meetings. I feel a palpable dissension towards me from the rest of the crowd. It may not be overtly visible, but it settles over the crowd like the fog clouding my mind. Everyone else must see it too.
I realize I've never been to a funeral I actually cared about before. My dad shuffles by wearing his woolen, 1990's suitcoat I've nicknamed his "funeral coat" after stumbling upon the programs of five other funerals in its deep pockets. I call it the visual representation of melancholy.
I'd like to say it's refreshing to see my friend one last time. It's more of an emotional rush though, a cerebrally overwhelming potpourri. He looks the same as when we first met four years earlier. Except we're not playing soccer together this time. This time he's dead.
In 2007, my freshman year of high school, I wasn't close to making the varsity soccer team. Zachary was a junior that year, toiling away on JV alongside me. We bonded over scatting competitions. In reality we probably sounded like a dog's jowls flapping in a wind tunnel. The next spring, it turned out we were both in the same web design class together with my best friend Brandon. From then on we strolled around as a trio. The modern interpretation of the Great Triumvirate, except we toiled around with alcohol rather than the political endeavors of Calhoun and co.
In a small town like Belleville everyone knows everyone. Entrenched friendships don't often erode. Even when they disappear, the tendrils always linger in the background. Zach, Brandon and my friendship blossomed the fall of my sophomore year. It came at a time when people actually feel like they're growing up. It's that smattering of development when puberty finally disappears, alcohol starts running through your veins and the lunacy of adulthood seems like a far cry from the antics you're engaged with. The Great Triumvirate grew up together that year. It made the splintering feel even worse.
Before the split, we seemed to act like a drunk, traveling circus group. My first foray with alcohol took place with Zach and Brandon. Sipping on an all too cliché first drink of UV Blue, we guzzled down the bottle using Doritos chips as a chaser. Choosing boxing as the night's entertainment, it played right into Brandon and Zach's strange penchant for violence. Considering the six inch and probaby 100 pounds advantage for Zach, their constant sparring was ceaselessly entertaining. We wouldn't remember it either if we hadn't stumbled upon some random videos the next morning after waking up to the sound of Brandon puking in the next room.
"Guys I puked, but it's not that bad," Brandon called out.
His upchuck spread out like an uncontained bog. To this day the stain still lingers on his cement floor, a testament to his incredulous attitude and utter inability to judge the severity of his morning ralphs following a night of copious alcohol consumption.
Our friendship tended to rely on a few core concepts: alcohol, video games, weed. In essence, triviality. So when we decided to roll a blunt the size of two Nerds Ropes taped together, it sounded like a stroke of brilliance. With my parents gone for the week in Rome, Brandon, Zach and I huddled at my kitchen table, computer paper in hand. My brother lingered in the next room, eventually sauntering in, nearly catching us ganja-handed. I covered by saying we were writing alternate lyrics to the Journey hit, "Any Way You Want It". Turns out he knew all along though. It was pretty legal though, Brandon later found out that batch was 3/4 catnip.
With my parents still slurping on gelato in Rome, the trio popped over later that week. My brother and Brandon played Guitar Hero downstairs while Zach and I whipped each other in Wii Tennis. Peering out my bedroom window, a sudden flood of lights illuminated the entire driveway. Sprinting downstairs, our quartet ran outside as an elderly man stepped out of an egregiously enormous SUV.
"Hey," he spoke rather aggressively. "You got a bunch of calves out on the road by your driveway, nearly hit one of them."
"Really," I stammered. "I'm really sorry, we'll go out and get them."
"Yup," He stated, casually adding, "Oh and I think I hit your dog."
And as swiftly as he arrived, the aptly nicknamed "fuckface" departed our farm. My brother's eyes turn to constant streams of tears on his freckled face. Toby was only one year old. I carried his limp body to the back, hoping my 12-year old brother wouldn't see his pets mangled corpse. None of my friends had ever done farm work before, but Zach and Brandon stood by corralling calves like professional wranglers. I never felt closer to those two than that night.
One year later I am effectively exiled from ever talking to Zach.
Mace and Whip
After a whirlwind sophomore year, Zach prepared for college and I started dating my first girlfriend. Initially I felt elation at finally having cracked through some ludicrous social threshold. Things spiral though. In my case, my girlfriend went off to college 1,000 miles away in North Carolina. Our relationship became vodka and milk. Yet the more it seemed to curdle, the harder I latched on. The thought of being alone again seemed untenable. I made impossibly immature sacrifices. One day she said I wouldn't be able to talk to Zach anymore because of some off-handed comment he made while we blazed up and pissed in a bucket. Of course I said yes. Friends forgive; girlfriends sometimes don't.
My father and I settle into the splinterless pews at the church's main hall. Most of my friends gather on the other side. The center walkway suddenly looks like a cavernous gap. I stare across solemnly, all the while very aware that I'm to blame for my ostracization. Zachary's brother steps to the stage for a heartfelt eulogy. At the wake two days earlier he told me, "I know Zach cared about you a lot," before embracing me.
The words ring in my ears like a constant hum. They simultaneously torture and relieve me. A final bastion of undeserved comfort as I stare at pictures of Zachary and his brother. The service is merely a blur. I rendezvous briefly with Brandon afterwards in the dining hall. We don't talk much though, for two best friends, sometimes silence just works best.
Heading outside, the funeral car drives by with a neverending line of vehicles in pursuit. The only other time this sort of traffic ever proceeds in this town is when parents honk behind the fire truck carrying a championship sports team. One is ceaseless celebration; the other is tires wearing against the pavement, an austere silence punctuated by the guilt's unceremonious home in the pit of my stomach.
The country graveyard sits on the outskirts of my minuscule township called Dayton. It lies directly next to a cornfield, probably set aside originally to commemorate the people who were trampled by livestock. It seems unceremonious, but when I consider Zach's calming demeanor, it seems appropriate.
All around the gravesite, I see people I don't think deserve to be there: a girl I don't think even knew Zach is crying. So is one of his "friends" I know he secretly hated. These people are posing with a façade of sadness. My lip curls.
My own position suddenly becomes all painfully clear. How many people are looking at me as an outsider? I'm the flaky friend who abandoned the triumvirate. The guy who completely shut Zach out of his life for some stupid girl. A pale fog begins to settle over the proceedings again. I turn into a pariah, a pointless passerby who shouldn't even deserve the honor of seeing his friend put to rest
"He was dead to you long before he collapsed on that treadmill," is what they whisper at me.
The fog starts to dissipate as he descends into the earth. My fifty-five year old sobbing neighbor grabs me in a vice-grip hug. I stare at the mob of people, worthy and unworthy, departing from Zach for the final time. Most of them will never come back to visit. I spot Brandon walking away alone, his polo whipping in the wind, a disturbing look of disbelief and sadness etched on his face. I don't bother to catch up. Back home, Toby nestles in his burial place with a newfound friend to play with.
It's late March, 2011 and I haven't really talked to Zachary in a year and a half. I feared angering my girlfriend. My Mom calls me into the living room after helping my Dad milking cows. Sitting down on our plushy cushions surrounded by our house's ""late-40's Mom grasping onto the firm sense of family as her kids leave the nest" aesthetic, my Mom relays to me how Zachary had an aneurism the other day running on a treadmill at UW-Oshkosh. He was in intensive care. All of this knowledge was thirdhand, passed onto my Mom only through a neighbor
She dropped a subtle bomb, "Some of his friends are going to visit him in the hospital."
"Do you think I can go," I responded solemnly.
"Probably not, they wanted to keep it small with close friends and family."
The estrangement and regret, the impossibly stupid sacrifices I made, everything started emerging in a moment of perverse clarity. News slipped through gradually the next few days, and like a single drop in an IV bag full of concerned friends, I recognized my anonymity within the entire situation.
Two days after Zachary arrived in the hospital, my family is preparing to celebrate my sister Becky's birthday at a nearby restaurant. Garbed in dapper dress, my Mom gives a brief wave from the living room. She says it all with a simple phrase,
"Zach died today."
At 18, everything in my life up to that point has seemed rather ephemeral. Classrooms and teachers pass by. Friends come and go. Trying to understand the meaning of death in a single instant is preposterous. Tears well up in my eyes. Brandon doesn't want to talk and I don't have anyone else to talk to. Dinner flies by like a blur. My mind is a Jack Kerouac novel.
I may be a singular drip in the IV fluid, but I'm stuck on the side of the bag. Isolated, alone, unrecognizable, Zachary's droves of friends mingle far below me. After the funeral, I try to reconcile the death with a last hope for help: my girlfriend. She responds the night of his funeral by decrying any sort of eulogy he might receive, besmirching his reputation with tales of how he really wasn't that great of a person. Any semblance of comfort I may have attained that day from seeing friends is systematically ripped apart. One year later we break up and the severity of my choices all comes crashing down on me.
Zachary's death wouldn't hit me until the actual wake, when I stumbled alone through the line and embraced Zachary's brother. I carry his words today as a lonesome comfort, "I know he really cared about you." It echoes constantly, but as I saw Zachary's corpse and had to remind his parents how Zachary even knew me, I knew there would never be any resolution. Guilt never disappears completely. I scribble a succinct message in the wake's log book: "I'll miss you buddy. - Adam."
A brisk wind whips at the corners of my funeral black spring coat. I stand alone in the Dayton cemetary. The gravel on the road still whirls around from where I pulled my dad's truck to a stop. It has been almost two years since Zachary passed away. His tombstone looks barren, devoid of the flowers his loved ones once placed nearby. No one has forgotten about him, perhaps they have merely come to terms with his absence.Meanwhile, I'm searching for forgiveness in front of a rectangular rock, talking to a man buried six feet under the ground.
I tell him about writing for my college paper, playing through video games without him, reconciling with the fact I chose the wrong person all along. I tell him sorry through intermittent tears.
He can't hear me though. He can't forgive me. He can't console me. No one truly can, even when I tell my friends about how I blame myself for his death. My musings are irrational, the sort of ramblings reminiscent of a guilt-stricken madman. I can hear myself sound like a crazy person. I blabber on, lost amid my own sense of guilt.
I stare at the tombstone, leaning in to give it a simple pat, a final semblance of the sort of platonic affection I wish I could show him one last time. The engraved soccer ball on his stone stands out against the marbled backdrop. I turn away and start walking back towards the truck. Behind me Zachary and I are warming up together, scatting as we pass the ball back and forth. Perhaps peace only resides on that field, back when he and I were just two strangers who thought each other might be kinda cool. It's a lonesome place with just he and I. Then again, the innocence of beginnings is welcoming. I suppose it's fitting we leave as we started, an estranged duo looking for friendship.