“Jesus, did you see what was left of the car? It was shredded seven ways from Sunday.”
“No shit? Guess that’s why it’s closed casket, huh?”
“Hey! Keep that shit down. That’s his cousin. Seriously, what’s wrong with you assholes?”
He was my hero. Sure, he got high on coke when I was just eleven and tried to rape me, or at least he pretended to. He also got me a date with Suzy Q, his next door neighbor that was two years older than me. When you’re thirteen and get to go on a date with a fifteen year old girl named Suzy Q, it’s a pretty damn big deal.
Mike was like that. He was a completely selfish asshole that also took a lot of pleasure in helping out people that were less than him. He was a monster of confidence and a lot of us were less than him. He was a good six inches taller than my friends and had about 80 pounds on us too. He took the piss out of me every chance he got. He also worked his ass off to show me how much fun the world could be if you just acted like you deserved everything. He wasn’t quite a sociopath but he’d keep you in a sleeper-hold until you passed out then take you to a party later.
Mike was also the first dead person I knew.
They said he blew the red light because he was stoned. They found a bag of weed in the mangled car but that’s all bullshit. Pot barely effected him anymore. I think his own indestructibility killed him. He was exactly the kind of guy that imagines he can blow through a red light without any consequences. I'm sure the impact was a surprise and insult.
He came so close to pulling it all back together too. After years of his parents rationalizing his erratic behavior as “wildness” they finally kicked him out at 17. He was a drug addict, a thief and an all around devil to the world. But that was three years earlier and he was finally making good money as a car salesman. His scheme to subvert his student loans toward flipping mobile homes was long behind him and he was skyrocketing up the sales charts at the car lot. Mike was all charisma and machismo and god damn that sells cars like nobody’s business.
I think a lot of 14 or 15 year old boys are enamored with “badass.” Things like studded bracelets, cigarettes and pocket knives held magic for me in the eighties. Beyond all other things, Mike’s black leather motorcycle jacket was the most badass of all badass things. It was thick, stiff leather with a satin lining and snaps at the neck and wrists. It was straight out of Mad Max.
I’m still not sure why his parents gave it to me. I don’t think they ever really liked me much. Maybe they couldn't bear to throw it away or keep it. Whatever was going on with them, they gave me that black leather jacket and I was destroyed.
That jacket was tangible proof that there was no magic in the world. Here was this thing that I could hold and smell and feel and it seemed like so much a part of Mike. It still smelled like cigarettes and mischief. It was the king’s armor and it was mine. It was also undeniable proof that if Mike was mortal, I was somehow less than mortal. I was downright fragile.
My parents did two memorable things the day we buried Mike. The first was kind and loving. The second was cruel and necessary.
Standing there next to his grave was the hardest I’d ever cried up until that point in my life. I was 14 or 15 and had no reference for dealing with that kind of a hole. My parents let me sob and they waited quietly. They stood there in the rain, in a muddy cemetery and let me cry as hard as I needed to. They didn’t try to comfort me or make me feel like I should man-up. They let me dissolve into the rain and run down the muddy tracks left by the procession. They let me weep so desperately that I was shaking. It was the first adult sadness I’d owned and it was heavy.
The second thing they did, I don’t blame them for. They probably felt like they needed to do it. They took me to see the remains of the car.
If you’ve never been close enough to smell the grotesquely synthetic odor of a mangled car wreck, you’re doing pretty good in life. Sitting in front of me was a Salvador Dalí sculpture of an automobile. It was turned inside out. The sinew of cables strained to keep the shape of the car against gravity. As if splayed on the ground after deboning, the doors and steering wheel sat to one side of the wreck and what I imagine was the driver’s seat sat on the other. Oil and water still dribbled from where the hood should have been. I took in all that mechanical gore and nearly vomited.
I think I was supposed to learn that cars are dangerous. I learned that death can be violent and quick and doesn't care who you are. It can leap on you from a dark street and debone you, turning you inside out in a second.
I finally donated that jacket last year. I’d carried it for 30 years. Occasionally I’d bump into it in the back of my closet while looking for my cheesy Hawaiian shirt with the toucans on it and I’d pause. Just for a second, I’d reel a little way back to that rainy day. My memories would stretch back to Mike sliding me my first beer at an Easter dinner. I’d remember him wearing that jacket when he’d knock on the back door to the arcade and we’d get let in like VIPs. I'd remember the time he offered me some cocaine and I said no and then he beat the shit out of me. Life is weird like that. It makes you carry other people's decisions like stones around your neck, until one day you realize they're the bedrock foundation you've built your life upon.