THE FUN OF BEING THOUGHTFUL
Brian O'Malley cut his hair for the funeral. No one could believe it, maybe not even Brian. When I saw him in school, I could not stop myself from laughing. I know why he had done it, but when I saw the way he looked, his dark red hair no longer a straight wave running down to the top of his back, his hair now short and combed, parted down the middle like some prep from some suburban sub-division with a peaceful name like Park Forest or Orchard Hill or Spring Lane, some fucking pretty-boy with initials that were both the same, like James Justice or Gary Grizadas, when I saw the top of his ears, which no one had seen in years, I could not choke down my laugh. Brian, like the rest of us, was a head. He was a stoner, or a burnout, what my older sister, who was a cheerleader and coincidentally an anorexic, called us. Now without the long hair, he looked just like the rest of them. And the rest of them could suck it.
Brian had cut his hair for good reason. He was seeing Erin McDougal, a sweet-faced Irish Catholic girl, a blonde with no chest, and now they were doing it. Everyone I knew was doing it. It like happened overnight. One night we were talking about who'd you screw Wonder Woman or Lita Ford and why and then, the next night, like Oriental magic, it seemed we had found girls who were as lonely as our dreams. Even I was doing it. I was doing it with Beth Hefner, who was OK, but I really wanted to be doing it with a girl named Mary, who's last name I didn't even know, only that she was a friend of Brian O'Malley's girlfriend, Erin. Everyone knew Erin. She was the girl with invisible parents. Her mom worked nights and her dad was bed-ridden. So we all went to her house to 'get our drink on' as we called it, or smoke up, because Brian O'Malley always had dope, and Erin's mom was a nurse who worked night shifts, and her dad, well, like I said, her dad had emphysema and was hooked up to all kinds of oxygen tanks and heart monitors and there was never a worry about him leaving the bedroom ever. In an emergency, the poor man could have not made it down the stairs.
But Mary. This Mary was tall. I liked them tall. And mouthy. The mouthier a girl was, the more fowl, the more she swore even, the more in love I fell. This girl Mary had a mouth like a French hooker, and you can take that how you like. The first time I saw her, she was in Erin's basement and cussing out our pal, Terry Moran, for spilling his beer on her shoe, and Terry, quiet as he was because of his uncontrollable acne, just nodded and apologized, wiping it up. Then, by mistake, he simply said, "Sorry, dude."
"Do I look like a dude to you, you douche bag?"
Douche bag? I thought to myself. Who uses the word douche bag?
The girl of your dreams, my tender heart sang.
Brian O'Malley cut his hair because Erin's father had died, which was not a surprise to anyone. I had only seen the man once and that, for only an instant, where I looked up the front staircase and saw a greyish man in a white robe crossing, with a walker and an IV on a wheeled trolley, into the bathroom, from where his bedroom must have been. He did not see me and I always had the feeling it was like seeing a very gentle animal going about its work, like watching a very delicate bird building a nest or preening its wings. Maybe looking up at the staircase at him gave me the feeling that he was citizen of some other place, somewhere else, no longer part of the cigarettes and cheap beer and poorly-rolled joints that had taken over his basement, he was part of something older, something delicate, something beyond anything I had ever known, but which I was just beginning to grasp.
The four of us, Brian O'Malley, Terry Moran, me, and a kid named Eddie, who did not know Erin or her dad but who insisted that we help spring him from school, get an excused absence to go to the funeral, which meant we were done after third period. The funny thing was this kid Eddie went with us, not so much because he wanted to, but because at the last minute, he realized since he did not have to go back to school, he did not have anything else to do.
The funeral service was in a church with a priest and Erin's family and it was all very quick, very stilted, and very uncomfortable. At the end, as the bereaved began to leave, the pall-bearers began to roll the coffin back towards the front doors of the church. Erin let out a cry. She was standing somewhere up front and Brian looked at me and he was terrified. None of us knew what to do. I gave Brian a tug and we made our way towards the front and that girl, Mary, was already there, stroking Erin's hair and saying, "You'll get through this, you'll get through this," and I wondered how did she know? Mary was a kid still like the rest of us, foul-mouth or not. But somehow when you heard her say it and saw the way her brown eyes looked, her hand moving along Erin's soft blonde hair, you knew she was right. We would get through this. We would all get through this.
After the funeral service, we drove in the procession to the cemetery in Terry Moran's blue Celica station wagon, the one with the back window that had been replaced with a transparent piece of plastic. There were only two good things about the Celica: the first, being that it belonged to Terry. He had worked all summer at Dibartolo's Pizza for it. Terry had to endure a forehead full of his now trademark zenith acne. He had missed his chance to score with Kari Stieber, who because of a birthmark above her right eye, which she thought was unforgivable, but which I thought was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, made her the easiest of Catholic school girls. Worse than all that, Terry had to listen to his boss, who was in a KISS cover band, describe all the women he nailed, with interesting details like, "She could suck the chrome off a bumper," over and over again, just so he could own his own car.
The second good thing about the wagon: it had a cassette player. Terry slid in a mix tape and the soft, sad dirge of "Fade to Black" by Metallica clicked on. No one said anything. It was like the soundtrack to your worst day on earth and after seeing Erin crying like that, the song made you feel very awful, Metallica or not. Terry fast-forwarded the tape, which he had to do with a pen, because the tape player was broken, and most of the time, it would stop when and where it wanted, and then, it stopped, and a song came on, just like that.
"I got something to say!" Dun-Dun! "I killed your baby today!" Dun-Dun! "It doesn't matter much to me as long as it's dead!"
It was 'Last Caress', a Misfits cover, and very up-beat and even hopeful sounding in some ways. "Sweet lovely death, well, I'm waiting for your breath, one sweet death, one last caress."
In that moment, as Terry pulled the Celica in line with the rest of the automobiles, which were slowly forming a kind of motorcade, a terrible thought came over me.
I am still alive. I am still alive. Brian O'Malley, bad haircut and all, is still alive. And Terry Moran, with this acne and crappy car, and even this kid, Eddie. We are all still alive.
One of the most tremendous feelings of joy swept over me, down my neck and hands and fingers, and my heart wanted to cry out, We are the picture of youth! We have triumphed over this thing death! You are gone and you were brave and good and better than us in almost every way, but somehow, somehow we have found a secret passage! We have found a way! We are still alive and the world is alive and we should all be singing!
At the moment, the Celica pulled into the cemetery, and through the clanging of its severe metal gates, the terrible truth issued its response.
The world is one mad graveyard.
And this, this is how I've been feeling all week.