by JIM KNIPFEL
July 13, 2014
Letter From a Looney
It was the second week of my sophomore year at East High after I graduated from Washington Junior High. Although Washington was only a block away and most everyone in my class had moved to East, looking around the cafeteria I saw very few people I knew, and fewer still I liked. I was sitting alone at one of those long plastic cafeteria tables against a bank of windows eating my lunch out of a brown bag. There was no maudlin loneliness about this; I preferred not being bothered. Then two people sat down across from me.
I knew nothing about them except they were in a couple of my classes and they were obvious geeks. Geeks, if only for a rickety sense of protection, have a way of gravitating together in environments like high school. These two sitting across from me hadn’t been at Washington, so that meant they likely came from Edison, another junior high that fed into East, and likely knew even fewer people in that cafeteria than I did.
Of the two, Steve was the more gregarious. He was a neatly dressed, slightly pudgy, bespectacled kid with black curly hair, the son of two professors at the local university, with an absurdist sense of humor. The other, Peter, was leaner and bore a close enough resemblance to me that we were often mistaken for brothers, or at least cousins. Over the next few years the three of us would be inseparable, if only because everyone else thought we were too fucking weird to be around.
We didn’t do any of the things that were expected of us. We didn’t drink or smoke or go to football games or school events, but we always seemed to find some way to keep ourselves laughing really, really hard. Steve especially. See, it’s hard to explain, but along with the Dungeons and Dragons (which we played until three a.m. most weekends) and other usual geeky pursuits, Steve and I used to entertain ourselves by going what we called “phenomenological shopping” at office supply stores and Green Bay’s huge 24-hour Toys R Us (the latter usually some time after midnight so we had the place to ourselves). We weren’t there to buy anything. We’d simply wander the aisles looking at the merchandise. The trick to phenomenological shopping is to look beyond the intended use or purpose of an item to the thing in itself, the packaging, the box copy, the shape, simply what’s there in front of you. You start doing that and believe you me, office supply stores can be the funniest goddamn places on earth, and we’d often leave concerned and annoyed clerks behind us as we hit the sidewalk in hysterics, without having spent a dime.
Christ, as I start writing about all this so many things come back to me, so many stupid adventures crammed into that tiny fistful of years (many of which I’ve written about before). We investigated an abandoned and supposedly haunted sanitarium, took impromptu trips to Madison to get a piece of pie, turned German class and the film Reds (Warren Beatty's three hour epic about the early communist movement in America) both into cult phenomena. We threw Spam parties and started our own religion. We became obsessed with a giant pyramid in central Wisconsin until we finally stopped and ate dinner there, surrounded by mannequins dressed like Cleopatra and King Tut. We were assaulted by my drunken neighbor and sometimes just drove around and laughed at dumb crap.
When we were in college at Madison, Steve was the one who found me and got me to the hospital when I tried to off myself. He’s also the one who, later that same night, had me laughing like a fool in the emergency room (which must have worried a few staffers, because they moved us into a side room by ourselves). Then a year or so later, as we were planning a Eurail trip through Europe for the upcoming summer, we had a major falling out after the Grinch arrived on the scene. Grinch was just the demonic force I needed at the time, and as a result the trip never happened.
Years of silence followed until we reconnected when I was living in Philadelphia. Steve was living in Ohio at the time, and during a road trip to the Midwest for some reason or another my future ex-wife and I stopped in. It had been a very long time since Steve and I had seen each other, and there was some catching up to do. Like for instance, when had he decided to grow a beard?
Shortly after we arrived, Steve invited me to his room, turned me to face his bookshelf, and put his arm around my shoulders. He didn’t say a word, he only grinned. The shelves were lined with gay-themed books. Understanding this was his way of coming out and it was a big deal, I refrained from saying “Well, yeah? So? I mean, we all knew that back in high school.” And we did. What else could you conclude about a seventeen-year-old with the world’s largest collection of ABBA albums? But it wasn’t a big deal to anyone back then, and still wasn’t. I told him it was fine, but didn’t make a big production out of it. He seemed relieved, introduced us to his long-time boyfriend, and we had a fine time.
A few months later he was best man at my wedding, and not long afterward (though after my wife had moved out) he came to New York for a visit. Our communication had grown spotty, but it was during that visit I began to understand what kind of chasm had opened up between us. He clearly didn’t much approve of my drunken shabby lifestyle, the overflowing ashtrays and the filthy apartment. So much so that when he returned to the Midwest he called my parents to let them know I was stumbling down that crooked road of perdition, and was very likely an alcoholic.
I didn’t learn that until years later, and when I did I was pissed. I didn’t need anyone ratting on me to my folks—you got a problem just tell me for god sakes. But looking back now I understand. It wasn’t high school anymore, and I was no longer the person he remembered. Still, after all those years I could forgive him. For all its tortures and aggravations, those had been some damn fun years, and he was reluctant to let go.
Well, another long stretch of silence followed after that. Almost twenty years’ worth. Then early last year my mom told me Steve’s dad had died. His dad had been an idol of mine, and so I took a chance and dropped him a line not knowing if I would hear back or not. The response came almost immediately—a long, often very funny and melancholy letter that revealed at once the old goofy Steve I had known and a much more mature one who sounded a hell of a lot more like an adult than I did. Still, he quoted lines from Reds verbatim and reminisced about some of our wacky hijinks from way back when. It was good to hear from him.
The correspondence remained spotty, but it was there, especially after my dad died six months later. Then I stopped hearing from him again. Every few months I dropped a line, but heard nothing in return. Maintaining a friendship takes some doing sometimes, a little effort, and not everyone has the luxury of sitting in front of the machine in comfy pants all day. But it had been almost a year since I’d heard anything from him, and I was starting to reach the conclusion that maybe it wasn’t worth it this time. Then I finally got a note whose subject line read “letter from a looney,” another Reds reference. In the first paragraph he told me he’d been diagnosed with liver cancer.
Well, shit. Damn thing is he was still a little goofy about it, still quoting Reds, and still optimistic about his prospects. I’ve never been one to put on the happy song and dance in the face of a dire prognosis, thinking it would be sadder than anything. But if he was going to be optimistic then so would I, though I didn’t go so far as to use the old “will you live longer with a longer liver?” joke when I wrote back.
Goddamn, though, this wasn’t in the original charter. Went back and looked, and the term “liver cancer” never once appears. Not yet anyway. Even after all the years and all the troubles and all the long silent stretches, I still consider him a friend, and one of my oldest.
Yes we’ve changed (and in my case warped) a great deal and we aren’t the close friends we used to be, but that’s the nature of the game sometimes. Funny how when you look back it’s really no more than blinks of time—in this case four or five highly condensed years—into which so much is crammed that it becomes defining for all the long, often slow decades that follow. For whatever happens there was still that blink and it was worth holding onto.
That’s what this is about, not the liver cancer. The liver cancer’s just a bad and badly-timed punch line that, bad and badly timed as it is, still serves its purpose. And I think Steve, as usual, has a much better attitude about the whole thing than I would.
POSTSCRIPT: On the morning of July 7th, a week after the above was written, Steve’s long-time partner wrote to tell me Steve had died two days earlier due to complications following radiation treatment.
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