Hung

Daniel Riley

    Jack’s was the third death since October, and certainly the best of the three, significant and memorable for its noteworthy blend of spectacular physics and failing instinct. One of the first two students to die had a heart attack, the other an allergic reaction to bee stings, both freak accidents, both tragic displays of lacking medical preparedness, but neither were witnessed: they were lonely deaths, alleged until the bodies were discovered hours cold—not like Jack’s.

    Four teenage couples from the high school of the coincidentally fatal pair of heart attack and bee sting accidents had driven to Palos Point to watch the Christmas fireworks ignited in the center of the bay, a tradition, two Fridays before the holiday vacation. Together, and with several dozen others unrelated to the high school, they watched my best friend Jack die, collectively, the unsuspecting audience.

    The first couple, a senior and a junior, were on their first date: dinner at a sandwich shop at the base of the peninsula and a casually suggested, though well-planned, stroll in muddy beach sand, wet from the rains, smooth before their pair of footsteps broke through to the dry. Halfway up a lifeguard station, Vivian, the junior, kissed Marcus, the senior, casually suggested, expertly executed, eyes closed, lips parted, neither sure whether they had touched tongues in the space between their mouths. When they reached the parking lot at Palos Point, they were alone, and kissed until the others began to arrive.

    The second couple, the juniors, Nick and Kendall, were fighting about Kendall’s father. He had challenged Nick to a basketball game, something unexpected but with precedence. Kendall’s father had played in junior college, torn three ligaments in his right knee, fathered four girls, and challenged Kendall’s boyfriends to friendly one-on-one, usually during the second month of dating. Nick had welcomed the challenge with a polite chuckle, and then welcomed it for a second time with a firm nod when he realized Kendall’s father was intent to establish a date for the matchup. Though Nick was only a mediocre basketball player, he had, only hours after first meeting him, taken to Kendall’s father’s peculiarities with private amusement. It was not the challenge that had upset him. It was the halfway passive comment on Kendall’s part that had proclaimed her father’s overall record in those matches to be 5-1. This happened as they were walking out the door to drive to Palos Point to watch the fireworks shot off into the bay. They were arguing still, Kendall certain that she had mentioned all the others before.

    The third couple, the freshmen, had driven illegally. Friends since nursery school, the girl, Erica, prepared to induce unconsciousness if the boy, Jeremy, was questioned by the police. She had studied taekwondo since age three, and had practiced her pressure pinches on Jeremy, the boy, and herself since she learned them at age twelve. She could, on command, choke herself out, a potentially legitimate excuse, they reasoned, for Jeremy to be driving his father’s Land Rover without a license when both his parents were on business in Beijing. They would claim an accident, an emergency, a story convincing enough to race off to the hospital with the officer’s reluctant permission. Jeremy checked the digital clock on the dashboard. He knew that the fireworks were about to start.

    I was part of the fourth, me and my ex-girlfriend, Teryn, together strangely, an arrangement that teased memories of having attended the event twice before when we were dating. We hadn’t been alone together in months. It was my idea to come. We sat in a din of strange jazz, which she liked, even scrambled as it was around the heavy bend of the peninsula, hidden from the projection of the downtown radio waves. I had turned on the heat and was smiling, though I don’t know whether she was.

    The parking lot was filled with plenty of others, none from school, many much older, several local residents, certainly no fewer than fifty. The road runs about a hundred feet from the edge of the cliff. The parking lot at Palos Point is cut into that hundred-foot buffer so that the space nearest the water, containing the wild brush and modestly sized boulders, is at its most narrow. Children climbed atop the rocks, protected by cotton hoodies from the crisp breeze off the water. Though the temperature was gradually falling in the longer evenings of mid-December, it rested in the low sixties that particular night. Several fathers still wore shorts and sandals, their wives in fashionable turtlenecks, grandmothers in festive sweaters and snowman earrings, grandfathers conspicuously turning down the volume of their hearing aides to mute the buffeting thunder of the wind.

    The first fireball that swam into the post-rainstorm clouds momentarily disappeared in the filmy haze before it ignited, as anticipated, into ten thousand golden shards. The second explosion was either red or green or blue, just like the third and the fourth, and the rapid series of blasts was consumed by the glowing audience, the sound delayed two or three seconds by the half-mile of saturated atmosphere.

    In the even, rhythmic illumination I turned the radio off. I wanted to make sure that I couldn’t subconsciously wed the music to the conversation Teryn and I were about to have.

    “I’m glad we can do this,” I said, keeping my eyes fixed on a young brother and sister, each four feet tall, taking turns climbing up and hopping off a rock that extended up just above their heads.

    Teryn took a moment and then said, “I know. I am too.” I began nodding in accordance the instant she started to speak. Jack had wanted us to do this together. He was going to meet up with us at Palos Point after work. I took a deep breath.

    “What happened with you and me?” I said.

    “It was bad timing,” she said. I squinted at the rapid series of canon blasts, a new phase in the outdoor performance. I felt myself nodding, still focused on    the things through the windshield.

    “Why do you say that?” I said.

    “We were becoming very different quickly. We were too busy.”

    I stared at the top of the steering wheel so that it became focused, sharp and clear, and every other depth plane turned fuzzy.

    “Was Jack the reason?” I said. She turned immediately and grabbed my wrist: aggressive, reactionary, foreign. It surprised me, and I turned to her. Her eyebrows were pitched toward the center of her forehead, where there were three hard creases. She held still, then blinked, then began shaking her head so that her long, blonde bangs slipped out from behind her ear and fell across her eyes.

    “You know he wasn’t. Look at me,” she said, even though I already was. “You don’t think that—”

    “No, I know he wasn’t,” I said.

    She moved her head to hold my eyes as I shifted my gaze toward the bay, the smoke raining into the water, made visible in large part by the waxing moon on the horizon, just days, it seemed, from its greatest magnitude. She let go of my wrist and shook her head.

    “He’s late,” I said. She nodded heavy, deliberate. “I’m sorry I said anything, really. You and Jack are good,” I said. “He’s my best friend. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”

    “Please know that I’m glad you’re okay with this,” she said.

“You’re two of my favorites,” I said, and paid close attention to what appeared to be the opening blasts of the finale.

 

    I didn’t see what happened, not until it was right in front of me, not until the jeep was carving a descent, obstructing my view of the fire show.

    Later, Marcus said he saw the white pickup truck heading south. In the front seat of his car, entirely disinterested by the performance in the sky, he kissed Vivian conspicuously so as not to draw attention from the families perched on the clifftop, two-dozen feet in front of him. He heard an engine revving at significantly higher RPMs than is custom and opened his eyes, certain to continue moving his lips in new, thoughtful ways, but taking note of the oncoming white pickup, racing south, headlights bouncing as the suspension moved with the asphalt. He slowly lifted his mouth from Vivian’s to watch the truck move across the passenger window, to the rear window, and out through his driver-side window, barreling down the wrong side of the road, as though zip-lining, toward another pair of headlights belonging to a fire-engine-red, canvas-topped jeep, whose driver elected, at the very last moment, to pull his steering wheel left instead of right, into the brush and boulders of the clifftop buffer, instead of up and over the embankment and into the front lawn of a waterfront property owner. Marcus said that the jeep slid across the sixty feet of natural terrain at the edge of the cliff, and without so much as a jolt from a boulder or brush, began its quiet thrust toward the horizon, backlit by reds and greens, falling slowly, curving with dramatic deliberation, as though drawn on glass with erasable ink and a protractor.

    Kendall screamed. I thought I remembered hearing this. She was indulging Nick with her full romantic history, because she truly was falling for him, maybe love, the first time in seven tries. She caught a glimpse of the white pickup truck speeding, and later said there was a brief horn honk, a cursory and perhaps obligatory warning that seemed to force the other vehicle, the jeep that went over the cliff and into the water, to choose a direction to swerve: left or right. Kendall was the first one to scream, before the fathers or grandmothers, or children.

    Erica and Jeremy were up and out of their car while the others stood quiet and still in the soft colorful shades of the incessant and increasingly rapid explosions overhead. Erica and Jeremy ran to the edge of the cliff, slowing when the clay they kicked began to crumble and slip over the side. They said they could see the colors of the fireworks in the cracked rear window, all the way down at the bottom.

    The jeep meant nothing to me. In my mind, it would not have been Jack’s, even if everyone at Palos Point had instantly described it in detail—as they later did—down to the window stickers, the surf rack, and the flattened front bumper. It only became evident to me with the sudden, certain words that came out of Teryn’s mouth: “That was Jack,” she said.

 

    Jack and I buried a box, emptied of its baseball cards and instead filled with prophecies and promises scribbled on scraps of paper, at age ten, the morning of our Confirmation. Unable to decide whose house was more suitable, we picked one of the local parks, dug a hole in the surprisingly resistant turf, and covered the box with black clay.

    The morning of the funeral, I recovered the box from its shallow resting place. The cardboard was warped from eight years of irrigation, but the 1996 Topps trading card logo was shockingly preserved. I remembered the hours I had spent thinking about the things I would write. I treated the opportunity as a meditative ruse to get out of mandatory prayer every night before bed: what, precisely, would I contribute to the box? In the end, they were detailed variations on commitments to each of the three things that mattered most to me in the world: baseball, my family, and Jack. How much I would practice, what position I would play in college, where I would inevitably end up for triple-A ball (eight hours a day, first base, Toledo). What I would get my father for his birthday, how often I would call my grandparents, what extra chores I would be willing to do to help my mother (beer mug, twice a week, make my bed). What role I would play in Jack’s wedding, where we would live, whether I would be Godfather to his kids (best man, Hawaii, yes). Those were the things that I remembered.

    When I opened the box, I began to finger the scraps of paper—fibers inflated with moisture, ink bled out to unrecognizable obscurity. I could make out individual letters on nearly every slip, a word here and there, but only a single corner of a sheet of computer paper with dot-matrix type, offered a coherent message. It was introduced, “The funniest joke I’ve ever heard.” It was Jack’s.

    I read the joke, my face tight like a fist, and suddenly my body was limp and crumpled, balancing uneasily on my two legs, bent at the knees holding a slumped mass while I scraped at my forehead and cheeks with somewhat neglected fingernails, scratching flesh into even rows of subtle welts. I finally fell over from my catcher’s crouch, and choked on the snot running into the back of my throat so that I coughed until I could breathe again. I rose into a kneeling position, pocketed the slip, and tucked the baseball card box under my arm.

    At the funeral, when it was my turn to speak, I stood and faced the several thousand in attendance, who sat uncomfortably close to one another in pews and stood over vacant industrial carpeting in the aisles and wings.

    Not including myself, there were seven kids from my high school at Palos Point the night that Jack was run off the road. Every one of them witnessed a death—alive, and then not alive—with approximately fifty-five other community members ranging in age from two to eighty-nine. I know about the community members from the newspaper reports, but I know about my classmates because I talked to each of them the week after it happened. My counselors and teachers instructed me to not attend class when I wasn’t feeling up to it. Once in the morning and once in the afternoon on each of the first three weekdays, I made my way to the school’s temporary psychological services center, a space ordinarily designated for special education students, but of late, that autumn and early winter, used almost exclusively for students mourning the death of a friend or classmate. It was at the psychological services center on Monday morning that I spoke to Marcus and Vivian, though independent of one another, as they hadn’t seen each other since the evening of the fireworks. They answered my questions, even the probing details: what they did on their date, where they first kissed, what they were doing when Jack went over the side, what they thought it looked like.

    That Tuesday afternoon, Nick told me about the basketball match. He had decided not to play Kendall’s father. Kendall told me this had created a rift between she and her parents. She told me they had relinquished their support    of her dating Nick.

    Even Erica and Jeremy talked, not until Wednesday, but nonetheless willing to share additional details. Erica said she could see Jack’s hair when she looked over the edge: it was blond, the water was that clear. She said she had had a crush on him, from afar, this semester, the first and only term in which she could be enamored. Jeremy spoke mainly of the fireworks finale, how it never seemed to end, louder and faster, until there was nothing left and you could hear the waves rolling over the hood of the jeep. They were fourteen and fifteen years old, both grounded indefinitely as punishment for taking the car, unable to see each other to talk through the immortal spectacle outside of school.

    Teryn never made it to the center. She came to school Monday morning, and then skipped the last four-and-a-half days before break. Her family postponed their trip to the mountains. They would go after the funeral. She had invited Jack, he had told me. They were getting serious. I had driven Teryn to Palos Point to meet Jack, all three of us, to go to see a month-old movie before it left theaters. We were waiting for Jack while we watched the fireworks show.

 

    I saw all seven of my classmates when I stood at the foot of the altar. I recognized hundreds of other faces: strangers from the accident, old neighbors, longtime schoolmates, their siblings, parents of friends, my aunts and uncles, my own mother and father, then Jack’s, then the one I was looking for. Teryn squinted, her thin nick holding her head at an exhausted angle, the right side of her face resting in her hand, her elbow propped on an armrest, closest to the aisle so that I could see her clearly. She blinked twice, long the first time, and longer the second, and slowly concealed the rest of her face behind ten ringless fingers and two palms. Grabbing hold of her head, she forced it into the space between her mother’s shoulder and the lacquered backrest of the pew.

    I took to the altar’s marble steps deliberately so that the sound of my shoes rattled off the oxidating copper of the organ pipes. The church was decorated for the holidays, the third Sunday of Advent a day away, purple banners and drapery, evergreen wreaths and boughs, saturating the altar. I slipped behind the lectern onto the maroon carpeting—so chosen to conceal wine stains—and adjusted the microphone. I exhaled loudly so that the volume clipped. I stared out at my audience and down at the casket.

    “Jack had a joke that he liked very much.” A chorus of sobs were initiated at the sound of my voice. I pulled the scrap from my pocket, just to make sure I got it right. “‘Why do women love Jesus?'” I said. I did not look up, and instead read: “‘Because he’s hung.'”

    I don’t know what the sounds were after I said that. A hot, muffled pulsing began to echo in my ears and my temples. I don’t remember putting the piece of paper in my pocket or stepping down from the lectern, coasting across the marble steps, or even down the center aisle. I saw the void where the front doors would be, filled instead with the half-blue, half-black of sky and parking lot. I walked toward the back of the church and out the doors.

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