by Elam McKnight
They wanted us all to get together for a barbecue. It was nearing Christmas. I knew it was not the greatest of ideas. It had been years since we had all hung out. I was surprised we all were still alive and even in the same area. Some of us had kept in moderate to mild contact, this was before social media. Remembering that day is hard and it comes back to me in fractured dream. Last night it returned and prompted this.
Darin’s mom had volunteered her house, since that was the original meeting spot for most of us. Started with birthday parties in that fairly calm suburb of Memphis and was still a focal point into our teens and 20’s when many of us had gone off to school. The moment of our reunion, if that is what I should call it, the area was dodgy at best. Gangs had started moving near the suburb, matriculating out from the city center. It was safe enough, in comparison to many spots in the town, but still not somewhere to be running around in the middle of the night.
I was not going to go. I was 34, just landed a job teaching and was trying to save enough money to move out of my parent’s place. It had been a long road and I didn’t need the hassle of anything jumping back into my life. But, over the phone, my old buddy Eric had assured me “come on man it’ll be a blast. Everyone is acting right these days. It’ll be good to see everyone.”
I was not sure what to wear. We had all been such the rockers when we knew one another. I tried on an older concert shirt and some black jeans, not only did it not fit anymore I felt uncomfortable and old. I did not dare don my teacher suit, khakis and a polo, so I opted for some normal jeans and a button up with a light jacket, slipping on some black Chuck’s just to show I still was not totally serious. I wondered why I even cared anymore as I drove down the interstate towards Memphis.
The old neighborhood, where we grew up, had changed some, a bit rougher around the edges as I entered the suburb off the ramp. As I turned into the first row of residential houses the 70’s modern look did not seem so modern in comparison to some of the many Mc Mansions people were throwing up, even in the rural area I now lived in. It seemed so dated, but in that early fall sun, as I turned down some of our common streets, the ones we played on as kids I had that slight wave of nostalgia for a brief bit and as I turned onto Darin’s mom’s street, to the old house we used to hang around as kids, it did hit me. I was not expecting it and there it was, nostalgia so thick you had to shew it away, like flies.
I saw all the cars in the street and crammed in the two-space driveway at the end of the cul-de-sac where we used to ride skateboards and plot our next adventure. It was a motley assortment of used and newish vehicles, nothing I felt completely ashamed about parking my 2nd hand sedan next to, except for the sparkling Mercedes SUV which stood out, parked away from all the others.
‘well somebody made it out’ I thought as I could feel myself grow a bit trembly inside, almost first day of school jitters.
I had been through many ups and downs over the last 8 or 9 years getting my life sorted. Going back to school and walking into a classroom of kids in their late teens and early twenties, student teaching, meeting and being evaluated, poked and prodded by all sorts of new people and none of it made me anything close to as nervous as I felt right before walking back into a house filled with people I had grown up with since day one, people I had spent, literally, more than half my life with.
I could hear them carrying on as I went to the side door of the modern ranch style home. We always came in the side door. Darin’s mom always had us over. Darin’s dad had bailed when he was little, and it left Darin’s mom with 2 kids and a house to take care of. I never understood how she did it. My own mother used to make be take huge jars of peanut butter and giant packs of hamburger patties over there with all the time we spent lounging and eating. But she always said, “oh I don’t mind, it would be lonely without all of them” and would just smile and pull at her extra-long Virginia Slim.
I rapt lightly on the door, the sounds of people talking and chit chatting behind it, and felt that last bit of nervousness wash over me until it opened, and I was greeted with “Bubby!” Here I was, a 34-year-old man, with stubble, and a job, and roomful of other grownups yelling “Bubby” upon sight of me. I could not help but smile and the wave of nervousness left me. There were many of the old gang, Trip and Luke, both with dates whose names I cannot remember. Suze and Kellie, both with guys whose names I think were Bill and Kyle and everyone smiling and glad to see me. “You not got a date Bubby?”
“And bring her around you guys? Not a chance!”
Everyone laughed hard at my comment and I grimaced a bit at the thought of being single with everyone, it seemed, looking like they were married or had, at least, someone significant enough to bring to this reunion of our crazy group.
My eyes met with Elena, who I had not seen in at least 10 years, she smiled and I extended my hand to the guy standing next to her, who was her husband James.
“So good to see you Bubby!” she said as we embraced.
“How are you?”
“Great, we have 2 kids, 8 and 5, both boys. James works with the city government and I am with Fed Ex.”
“Oh wow you have grown up for real.”
She giggled at this, making me feel more at ease, and then she asked about me.
“How are you now?” It was always in a tone I was never sure how to read or infer. “how are you now?” like did I answer, “I am not about to die if that is what you are asking” or “Gee I am not matching up to anything my parents would have hoped” or “I didn’t jump off the end of a rope like Trace.”
Instead I gave the pat answer “I am good. Teaching school in Lauderdale County.”
“Oh great Bubby, you were always so good with kids.”
“So how many of the gang is here, has anyone done a head count or taken roll?”
“Not sure but Darin is over there with Pip and his new wife” she said and I turned into the direction she was motioning and there they were, two of my best friends growing up. Each holding a cola in their hands and Pip had this phenomenal blonde woman with him. They saw me and smiled “BUB!”
As I approached they both extended their arms and Pip said “naw buddy bring it in for the hug.”
It felt good to feel them close to me. It had been about 3 years since I had seen Darin during a quick lunch as I was getting fully back on my feet and almost done with my first year back at school. Pip, on the other hand, I had not seen in at least 12 years when he seemed to do a disappearing act. Not many had heard much from him since and I was sort of shocked to see him there. They both looked less for the wear, Darin was balding a bit but he still looked like the Darin I had known all those years. Pip looked as good as I had ever seen him. He was very fit and his teeth sparkled when he grinned. The last time I could remember, when things had gotten dark, he had a green tint to his skin and was puking behind a car we had ducked out in for a week or two, scrounging money from anyone that would help us. Then one day he said he was going home to ask for help and never came back. I guess he found it.
He introduced me to the stunning blonde woman who was Romana, and Romana was from Long Beach, and Romana was a cosmetic dentist, hence the winning smile, and Romana had been married to our boy Pip for about 5 years. Pip was doing real estate there in Long Beach and they met when Pip was out west trying to get into acting.
Growing up Pip was always that guy. I read a cheeky article recently about what it was like, from the perspective of the really attractive set, to have to live being so attractive. Pip could have added some insight to this article. He was always the guy you wanted to be wing man for. He was always the leader. He was the first one to skate. He was the first one to know about the Ramones. He was the first one to get an actual mohawk. He was the first one to think to start a punk band. He was the first one. He was the first one. He… was… the first one. And everyone loved him for all of it. And if he had not been my good friend since 1st grade I would have loathed the guy, but we were too tight and you could not help but love the guy, everyone else did anyway so you might as well join them.
It was that warm feeling you get, kind of like the holidays, once it all set in for me, being around them, like Christmas all over but more congenial and less rushed maybe. Darin’s mom was there setting out food, as usual, and we were all sipping colas and doing that reminiscing that people do when they get to a certain age. I was surprised by how much I had forgotten stacked up against what I remembered. Some even remembered back to Kindergarten, which was a blur to me, and who wet their pants or who got a spanking or who snuck a kiss behind the old, metal slide at the back of the playground. We all laughed and prodded at each other. It felt good again, to reconnect, and be among friends, these friends from so long ago.
Darin’s mom looked completely into her element, with more people than ever gathered around. For each one of us that was there it seemed that at least 75% had brought a spouse or significant other to balloon our number to at least 20. She just stood back, pulling on her long Virginia Slim and smiled. “so good to have all you kiddos back here one more time.”
We all thanked her for having us and told her the same, that it was, indeed, good to be back under one roof as a crew.
Then someone suggested we make a run to the store for beer and wine. Some eyes screened around, some casting at me, and others here and there willy Nellie. I heard a couple of whispers of ‘is that really a good idea?’ And I saw others reassuring and some saying “everything is fine it is just a few beers.”
“I’ll drive someone make a list” Pip yelled and seemed to coalesce everyone around the idea and ceased the harrumphs within the room or at least stifled them long enough for a list to be made and out the door he went. He turned to Darin and me “come on guys I need help carrying all this shit!”
We made our way out to, what turned out to be, his Mercedes SUV.
“Nice car” we both said, almost in unison.
“It’s just a rental guys.”
“You do know you are in Memphis, right?” Darin asked.
“Of course, bro but Romana will have nothing less. She was not raised like our southern fried, Memphis Wrasslin, Middle class, selves.”
“I always thought of myself as Upper Middle Class growing up.” Darin stated.
“Have you peeped the old neighborhood lately D?” I asked.
“Why yes Bub. I live here remember?”
“Hey you two pansies quit your bitching and tell me about yourselves.”
“I am teaching now and still at mom and dad’s. That about sums it up for me.”
“What about you Darin? You got anything cooking these days?”
“Not really. Still working in Midtown serving bar and doing the music thing on the side. Drum when I can.”
“Cool. I wish I had never given up music. There is just no time in Long Beach for anything but work and Romana.”
We rode around the corner to the circle K. It had bars across the front where there had been none years before. We used to ride our bikes down to this spot, back when it was a 7-11. The thick bass from a car greeted us as we got out of the SUV.
“Old neighborhood is changing” Pip said.
“It’s not too bad. North Memphis is worse in spots” Darin said back. “I have not had any real problems.”
We each grabbed a case of different beer and Pip grabbed up 6 bottles of different versions of white wine.
“Better get some cups I am not sure if mom has enough.”
“Solo cups and wine, I must be back home in the Southland” Pip said and smiled.
“Well you want them to drink it out of their hands Pip?”
“Why no D? I was just being funny. Give it a rest buddy.”
Darin did seem extra stressed about something and sensitive about our hometown when we knew, all of us, that she had seen better days.
We loaded our booze into the car and headed back across the 4-lane street and back into the residential area listening to some classic rock on the local radio station.
Once we returned the group took on a deeper level of merriment. I knew I had a little bit of a drive to get back home so I nursed only one for the first hour and others seemed to do the same but this quickly devolved as Darin turned on his mother’s old tabletop stereo to the local public radio. It was a Saturday and the volunteer DJ’s were taking 2 hour slots. Old School Hip Hop sprang from the speakers and these seemed to charge revelry into the group.
As the sun slipped down and some of us mingled outside it was Pip who summoned us with “hey guys let’s go check out the gulch.” I cringed at the thought, but Pip had been pounding them hard and Darin had seemed to have loosened up after a few drinks. Before long there were about 6 of us, me included, walking down the old path that lead to a concrete drainage ditch where we used to play, affectionately known as the Gulch. I cannot remember how old we were or who named it. As we walked one of the wives, who I did not formally meet, who was really drunk on wine, was talking about how reconnecting with each other was akin to the same thing Xmas decorations do.
“My grandmother used to hang these certain dangles, with the old school blue lights, outside her front door and I would stare into them and feel so, at peace.”
“I have read that the expressions created by Xmas decorations is caused by first reinvigorating a sense of nostalgia within the person, depending on their sense of the holiday, but for most it takes them back to a deeper sense of childlike happiness. When combined with other’s experience you get a unified memory, a communal malaise.”
“Unless of course if Xmas sucked for you right?” I asked.
“True. This is very true” she said. “You got something against Xmas?” She then asked.
“Nahhh I effin love Xmas!”
She stared at me as we walked, maybe her slight drunkenness hid my sarcasm from her a bit, then she smiled.
There was a small, concrete maintenance bridge that spanned the Gulch and we all stood over its railing.
“is this it?” the same wife who was chattering on about Xmas asked.
“Yep. This is the Gulch.” Pip said.
“Welcome” I added.
“You walked me all the way down here to a drainage ditch?”
“You can go back hon.” Tim, the husband said.
“I think I will.”
It was a sight. Amazing how your mind creates this superficial reality or perceives size so differently in youth but later becomes non-sequitur as you grow up, the places of fantasy grown over and the mountains now mole hills. There, before us, was part of our collective mythos, the Gulch, a place where we floated the Mississippi like Huck and Tom, fought pirates, reenacted battles, made our first moves, copped our first feel or got our first kiss, and later where we bought 10 cent bags of weed and got whatever wino we could find to buy us .40’s to sneak down to the banks and stumble home or lie and say we were at a friend’s house.
As the wife stumbled off back up the path Pip looked out over the bridge that reached over the concrete ditch.
“How did we never catch typhoid in this thing?”
“It is just storm water.”
“Yeah but no telling what else ran through it.”
Darin seemed to go back to his earlier form but even more pent up, like the drinks were bouncing back onto him and undoing the good will they first created.
“What’s up with you D?”
He swiveled his head. I was glad Tim’s wife went back. It would have been too many questions. Too much ‘well then what happened’ and ‘did you see it coming?’
I didn’t say anything to Tim but I could tell he was relieved too without all the talk.
“I just don’t ever come down here since.”
“Since what?” Pip asked.
“Oh that’s right you had bailed from here before that.”
There was a silence and a space between us all.
“Honestly, I am not following you D.”
“This is where Trace killed himself Pip.”
Pip lowered his head a moment then nodded it back and forth as he looked down.
“Man I had no idea, honest I didn’t. I only heard about Trace a few years ago. Once I got clear of here I did not even have contact with my folks for a while. I am truly sorry man.”
“Ahh you didn’t know. But you could have stayed in touch.”
They both stood facing each other now and Pip stepped forward and turned his body into Darins giving him a big side hug.
“I mean it buddy I had no idea. I just wanted to see the Gulch.”
Me and the two others stood and awkwardly waited for the next thing, the next word to see where this was going.
Then Darin pointed with his right arm “it’s over there.” He stepped from us a few steps and then we followed him.
“That tree over there.”
Pip led the two toward where he pointed, and I followed. The other two held for a moment and then I heard their feet on the dry brush behind me.
There, at a medium sized oak, the only sign was a sawed-off limb. It was evenly taken, not fresh, but even after the years of its clean cut it was still obvious.
“I cut the limb down after the funeral and burned it in a fire. I would have cut the whole damn tree down but after I cut that limb off I didn’t care anymore. It’s just a damn tree. None of it matters anyway.”
Pip stood considering it. Stared up at it.
I kicked at the dirt a bit. I had seen it before and had tried to leave Trace in my mind in other places besides this one. Places where he was still alive. Places where he smiled, and sun lit his face.
Pip pulled out his wallet from his back pocket, thumbed through it for a bit and pulled out a small coin envelope. He sat down across a fallen tree in the sand and gravel near the concrete of the ditch.
“Who wants to smoke this with me?”
The other two, Tim and Eric, were both immediate.
“Hey guys you have fun with that, we are going back to the house.”
“Hey guys it’s just weed man no big.”
“Yeah well I don’t blaze no more man. I get drug tested.”
“Tell my mom we will be right back ok?” Darin said as they walked away and Tim motioned back that he understood. Darin’s voice, sounded like it used to, sounded much too young to be coming out of his older self.
As they disappeared into the trees Pip withdrew a smaller, cellophane envelope with about 2 grams of white powder and a sheath of aluminum foil wrapped up beside it.
I immediately knew there was trouble inside there.
“Hey man have you not learned anything in the last 10 years Pip?”
“What the f*** dude? It’s just a little dope man?”
“Yeah a couple of minutes ago you said it was just some weed.”
“Yeah but you know those two they were always squares and I did not want them going back telling their wives I was smoking dope. How would that look?” He chuckled and looked at Darin. “Darin knows what I mean.”
I nodded my head.
“Seriously, this is the last thing I expected from you Pip, especially with your life now. Do you not remember the last time I saw you?”
“What are you stressing for man? I am in Memphis with two of my oldest bros and I want to feel a little dope and relax. It’s Christmas… Come on!”
I turned to leave.
“Darin you going back into this?”
“Just tell my mom I will be back in a bit.”
“this is f***ed man. Really f***ed.”
The old me would have never said a word. The new me, the me that didn’t want to go back into that still wanted to be the old me. To feel that release again. To be calm and not worry about all the shit that I worry about now. The things that consume my mind, past, present and future. But I knew the way that road turned and just as I was about to join in or give in to myself I watched the foil unravel and heard its tinny sound as it rubbed itself. It was like a bell waking me up.
I wanted to say something else, but I walked back up the path and kept my head down until my feet touched back onto the pavement and then I made it to the house and the people. Everyone was even rowdier and then Pip’s wife asked, “Where is my hubby?”
I told her that he was be back soon with Darin. Tim and Eric were saying goodbyes with their wives in tow. They nodded in deference to me and shook my hand “glad to see you Bubs.”
We all three knew.
Darin’s mom came to me as I was finishing up my third and final beer.
“Where’s my boy?”
“Ahhh he and Pip stayed down at the Gulch for a bit.”
“They were being good boys, right?”
I nodded ‘yes’ and tried to train my eyes elsewhere. She knew I was full of it.
“Darin has never been right since Trace. It is good that you stay in contact some but sometimes, your friends drag you down.”
I looked at her and she nodded that we both knew what she was saying.
About that time Pip’s wife, Romana, came storming through the house asking if anyone had seen Pip. “The damn rental is gone. I went to get my contact case out of our overnight bag and it was gone.”
Darin’s mom caught me with another glance.
I slipped out the back door and made my way to the path that lead to the Gulch. I wanted to tell Pip that the car might have been stolen but I knew, deep down, better. As I rushed back to the spot the sun was almost cutting through the trees and setting to the west. I looked down to the spot by the bridge where we stood. I could see the charred piece of foil burned up beside the brown coin envelope. This was the only sight of them, all that they had left behind.
I crept back up the path and back at the house I snuck back into my older sedan, glad for where I parked, eased it out into the middle of the cul de sac, turned down that street, back onto the main one, hit I-40 and did not look back. On the radio in my older sedan I turned on the classic rock station and hummed along with the tunes for a bit. You can never go back and sometimes you don’t need too.