It was my first. I had just turned 19, and before this I thought I knew everything. Turns out I didn’t know a damn thing about life. Or death. It felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to my gut, everything about me felt bruised and battered. My thoughts were racing so quickly I couldn’t speak, unable to grab a single word from my tornado brain. I was frozen, unable to move. This would be the day, the moment that propelled me into growing up, because now we were dealing with events kids should not have had to experience.
His name was Christian Brewer and he was a year younger than me. Just a kid. We were all just kids. It was 1970 and although he was of draft age, his number had not been called up, and if the politicians could agree on anything, soon the first troops would be pulling out of Vietnam. It was scary shit for all the boys, most who had never been further than Memphis, and surely had no desire to fight in a war that no one even understood why we were there. But I don’t think that was it.
Everyone had an opinion. The parents were worse than us kids about sharing their assessment and opinion, their explanation pointing out how his life was different than their child’s, that nothing like that could ever touch their family. That generation was all about making sure things looked normal, perfect on the surface. You know, the duck model. Feathers smooth on top while paddling like a bat out of hell underneath. My own parents, as probably did most, told us that what happened at home stayed in the home. There was a lot going on in our house that I was too ashamed to tell anyone, so they didn’t have to worry about me sharing family secrets.
Everyone wanted to know what “it” was, the reason, the explanation, the cause. What do you think it is? Oh there’s no doubt it was because… The big it discussion and debate. Oh, people meant well, weren’t judging, well some were, but most hurt for him, and the family now. But this was not right, and we wanted to know why. What could be so bad that sticking a gun in your mouth was the best option.
That was also the summer the heat decided to enter the Olympics and break all sorts of records . Nine days in a row over 110, with the humidity at 120, making the air so thick it was difficult to breath, almost like there was steam coming from every direction. Years later I remember reading about a study of human behavior during periods of extreme heat, documenting a rise in domestic violence, homicides and of course suicides. Mental illness was a taboo subject back then. We might have a crazy aunt who lived in a back room of the house, but we surely didn’t talk about it or seek help. Just said she was crazy and kept her away from everyone. So if anyone was acting out, we slapped a label on them and pushed them into the shadows, or simply said “get over it”. Seeking help was not an option, because then we would be admitting there was a problem.
The day I got the news, I was working in the corner grocery, had been all summer, between my junior and senior year in college, and I was grateful for the walk-in freezer on those horribly hot days. I found excuses to get something, out of the freezer for a customer, check to see if we had more bone-in porkchops in the back. Anything to get out of the heat. The small window units on each end of the store couldn’t compete with the heat those days, one finally freezing up, had to be shut down until it thawed.
As I said, it was my first suicide, unfortunately not my last, but it was my first, and the first leaves scars for months and years to come. I remember how I heard, where I was and what I was doing. It was one of those events people would ask in years to come, like where were you when Kennedy was shot, or Martin Luther King, or when Elvis died. But this was far more personal than a national tragedy, and the questions left unanswered left us all feeling helpless and lost.
I was putting out fresh fruit in the back when Jackie came tearing into the store hollering my name. I knew from the sound of her voice something wasn’t right. I met her in the middle isle, and the moment I saw the look on her face I wasn’t so sure I wanted to hear the bad news she was carrying.
“Jude, it’s Christian. He shot himself. Mr. Rooney found him in his truck this morning. He went looking for him because he didn’t come home last night.” She was talking so fast I could hardly process the words she was saying, the words seeming jumbled, awkward, flying past me,
Jackie normally spoke with a slow Southern drawl adapted by all the well-off families, something passed on from a different era, a commonality of the “haves” and recognized by the “have-nots”. My family was somewhere in between so I blended in with both groups, knew how to fit in wherever I was. But today Jackie’s accent was gone and she talked as if in a race. “Can you imagine a father walking up on that scene? Poor Mr. Rooney. I just don’t know what to do. Oh shit! We need to find Sandy, let ‘em hear it from us.”
My shock and confusion still had my brain foggy. “Sandy? Why Sandy?”
Wait. Sandy? And there it was. A secret love that Jackie knew, but the rest of us were totally clueless. I had never really known Christian to date anyone, just sort of moved with the group, and surely didn’t remember him taking anyone to a prom. But Sandy?
Long before the days of cell phones and Wi-Fi towers, getting in touch with someone required quite a bit of thought and determination, neither of which I had an abundance of at the moment. My head was now hurting, results of the thought tornado, I suppose. “Where’s the phone?” Jackie sternly asked, up in my face, shaking me to attention. “Behind the counter” I managed to say and lifted my arm towards the phone, hidden behind the meat cooler, big and black, the receiver of which was so heavy it could have been used instead of that baseball bat to my stomach.
Jackie slipped around the end of the meat cooler. The phone was strategically placed with a long cord to be answered by the butcher, folks calling all day to put in an order for steaks or porkchops, the thickness determined by the customers idea of a perfect slab of meat, a bit of fat left for flavor. She picked up the receiver and began the circling of the phone number to reach Sandy. There must have included a nine or a zero, for it seemed to take forever or the dial to return to its home position. Jackie was one of those people blessed with a memory for numbers, or almost anything, but definitely phone numbers. She had Sandy’s number in that head of hers, god only knows why because there were no close ties. I couldn’t recall a single time Sandy ran around with our group, a close-knit tribe comprised of five bookworms, probably would have be called nerds today. We were all introverts, another label not given or understood back in 1970, but definitely one of the odd labels befitting our troop.
I could hear the phone ring once. Twice. And then who sounded to be Sandy’s mother answered and Jackie lost here nerve at that point, a long pause, she couldn’t seem to get it out. That rapid-fire speech of earlier was gone and she was desperately trying to speak. I nudged her side, and she finally said, “Mrs. Canon this is Jackie. Is Sandy around?”
“No sugar, that kid is down at the ballfield mowing grass and putting out lines. Spends every waking moment doing something with baseball.” She paused a minute. “Honey you okay?”
“Yes mam. I’m okay, thanks,” and hung up before Mrs. Canon could ask any more questions Jackie wouldn’t be capable of answering.
“I can’t go. I’m working.”
“Fuck that! You have to go with me. I can’t do this on my own.”
She was pulling on my t-shirt, dragging me towards the front door. Mrs. Owens was at the cash register, and I quickly threw some words out there that sounded like “emergency baseball field” or some other incoherent jumble of words. I didn’t give her time to respond, just rushed out the door as if our asses were on fire. They might as well have been. Beaten and battered, fire would be the next disaster.
We jumped in Jackie’s convertible and she threw gravel as she floored it out of the parking lot. The baseball field was only a few blocks from the store, she flew up behind home plate and cut the engine. Sandy was running the line from home to third, seemed to be the last one, the rest of the field all trimmed and marked for games to begin.
We slowly got out and Sandy was saying “What the hell? Brought a little dust with you didn’t you sista?”
He walked through the dugout and over to us behind home plate, immediately registering something was terribly wrong. Our faces couldn’t lie.
“What is it?
Jackie walked over to him and took his hands in hers. The chalk from the lines was up to his elbows and transferred to Jackie’s hands.
“Christian shot himself.”
As the words sank in, it looked like Sandy’s face was melting, every inch being pulled down by some unseen force.
“What? No, it can’t be…” The tears started then and he fell to the ground, holding his stomach, rolling around in the dirt. I thought about my reaction and maybe it’s a common thing for the pain to be physical, like a bat to the middle.
Jackie kept her hand on his shoulder but just let him feel his way through this news. She wanted him to get the initial shock done with while with no one else watching, knowing his having this extreme reaction would throw up some red flags, and the last thing anyone needed was some asshole giving their opinion. No, that would not benefit anyone.
Sandy finally pulled himself onto his knees and looked up at Jackie, tears running through the dust and chalk on his face.
I didn’t know. Hell I didn’t suspect it at all, but I supposed they did a good job of hiding it.
“His dad sort of caught us in the barn.”
There’s the it! Most people would never learn the true it, and lord knows it wouldn’t come from me, but if Bulldog Brewer caught his son doing anything with another man, it’s a wonder he didn’t kill him himself. Of all the fathers I could think of, Bulldog would be the last to understand and accept anything about this son being a homosexual. I had seen him berate Christian, slap him on the back and tell him to toughen up, be a man. Now Christian couldn’t be anything. Oh God my head hurt.
Sandy stood up and walked over to Jackie’s car. “Come with us Sandy. Everyone will be gathering at school circle.”
“I’m going home” he mumbled, shuffling like a person on doped with Thorazine.
“Let us drop you off then. I don’t think you should be driving.’
Knowing he didn’t have the energy to argue, he hopped into the backseat without opening the door, and laid down facing the leather seat. I’m not sure he knew where he was, what was happening at all.
We pulled into the driveway at Sandy’s house, and I got out to walk Sandy to the door. I was about to turn the handle when the door opened and Mrs. Canon was starring at us, fully aware that something terrible had happened.
“Tell me,” she simply said, and I did.
A mother knows her child, and she took hers into her arms as he began to sob. They might never speak of it, never put into words the true pain Sandy was feeling, but she knew, and she would protect her son against everyone as need be. She knew what had to be done. She took him to his room and told his father he was sick. It wasn’t really a lie, chances were he would be throwing up soon. She would make him chicken soup and see to his needs as he hid away from nosey neighbors or judgmental so called friends. She would protect him, protect him from the people if not the loss. See, it was Sandy’s first too, as it was everyone at the school and in our small community. This first might be a result of it, but no one can truly know what goes on in a person’s mind. This first almost crushed all of us, changing the way we look at the world and each other, becoming more aware of each other’s blue moods. We became more careful with each other, more sensitive. Perhaps that’s the one good thing that came out of it.