The Jimmy Cliff Apocalypse
In the gospel tent they were soul searching, reaching for the heavens, exhorting our lord. The blues tent was funky and lowdown—some woman doing someone wrong. Walking between them on this wet Thursday afternoon you got an instant snapshot of the human condition: heart, soul, and sexual organs all crying out for satisfaction. Of course, I was a little drunk. Not a surprising development in the middle of the New Orleans Jazz Fest. There wasn’t a sober person for miles and my companions were doing their level best to keep it that way—handing out drinks to all the pretty girls that came close, hoping for the lingering look, the flashing eyes, the party-girl laugh. These were married men, mind you, men with wives (in my case ex-wife) and kids and jobs and responsibilities. And to be fair, walking around drunk with a drink in your hand was the norm during Jazz Fest. The fairgrounds were replete with the walking impaired—spirits high, judgment questionable.
We were headed over to see Jimmy Cliff at the Congo Square Stage. Alan was our point man—Hawaiian shirt stretched tight over a sizable beer belly, face as red as a seafaring Irishman. The last couple of years he’d gone a little thin on top so he was wearing a porkpie hat made out of macramé and Budweiser cans, the small front brim inadequate to the task of providing shade to his rather sizable nose. As you can imagine, this wasn’t the most promising look for lingering looks. His saving grace was his naturally sweet disposition, which only improved when he drank. Born with the ability to talk birds out of trees (he became a salesman of course), his words might slur, his intentions grow lascivious, but the sentiment behind them was always pure. He just wanted you to like him, and men and woman, kids and dogs, whenever they were in his orbit, were instantly won over. A great appreciator of humankind, a connoisseur of character, a female worshipper extraordinaire, this man’s great tragedy was that he married a woman that saw none of those qualities in him. Ever.
On his right flank, Jeremy, a lean slab of southern-fried hokum: Mississippi bred, failed scion of southern aristocracy. A disappointment to his relatives who walked away from private schools, privilege, and golden opportunities only to end up at our unimpressive state college on the dreary prairies of the Midwest. A gentleman with a baritone voice—tall, stooped-shouldered, the look of a Methodist minister—and the personality (when drunk) of a human flywheel. In other words, he was liable to get wound up, become undone, fly free. But a gentle giant, nevertheless, that would hurt you only if you stood beneath him when he fell.
Over the years I’d heard about dark sides from his wife and one of his children—strange episodes where he seemed to become another person—but I’d never seen them. He was and remained the irreverent college buddy I knew and could count on for mindless camaraderie. (Only some of what I’ve told you about them is entirely true. There’s a bit of exaggeration to it, a bit of gloss, a bit of friendship generosity.)
But let’s leave that for now. Now we are going to see Jimmy Cliff.
Jimmy Cliff, black Rastafarian prince, warrior of love, libido liberator (exaggeration warning), a man that had given us the soundtrack to many a night in college—the drug-taking lullabies, the night-on-the town serenades, the risky-behavior anthems. In the sky above an armada of dark clouds was sailing towards us, the air so heavy it felt like the devil himself was trying to drag us under. We remained undaunted; like the rest of our sodden brethren, we’d already weathered two showers—a third couldn’t make us any wetter. We had collected our own little armada as we made our way to the Congo Square Stage, one that we liked to call the Fuck Derek Brigade.
The fact was, we were not simply revelers interested only in pleasures of the flesh; we were keepers of the flame and this was a pilgrimage. Fuck Derek was our yearly sacrament to a best friend who had died seven years ago—the man that had first brought us to this place of musical mayhem and a person whose passing had left a hole in our lives that was impossible to fill. Fuck Derek was our way of telling him that he had been wrong—very wrong indeed—to have killed himself on the cusp of middle age. The liturgy of this religion was simple: strong drink and the recognition that Derek’s death was irreconcilable to the continuation of our lives as we knew it. Anyone could join, but we were the high priests, because in our hearts we suffered. The rest were laity—welcome, celebrated, but outside the inner sanctum of loss.
We gathered converts with bottles of beer and the trusty Fuck Derek stickers that we wore and handed out to whomever was interested. The stickers were surefire winners when it came to drawing a crowd. Stick one on your chest and someone was bound to ask the question, “Who is Derek?” And then we’d tell them he was a best friend who had died and that we had been coming to the festival for seven years in his honor. And the next thing you knew they were wearing a sticker on their shirts or hat or face or, god forbid, as pasties on a pair of bouncing breasts, drinking a beer and howling at the sky right alongside you.
Shameless, yes, but in our sorrow we remained pure of heart.
Just in front of me Jeremy wobbled a little and fell against one of our pilgrims—a girl in a granny dress, rubber boots, and a feathered Mardi Gras headdress. She looked up and steadied him with an arm around his waist. He towered over her, the feathers on the headdress brushing his nose.
“Excuse me fellow traveler; I’m afraid I may be in need of assistance,” he said.
“Darlin’ we all been there,” the young woman replied.
She raised her beer and they clinked bottles. “Fuck Derek,” she said, even though she had never met Derek in her life.
“Amen,” he answered.
She hooked her hand through a belt loop and they went on.
We were like Bedouins traveling from oasis to oasis, with our coolers, backpacks, folding chairs, umbrellas, and ambulatory refreshments. The Congo Square Stage rose up before us, banners snapping in the breeze, Jimmy Cliff’s voice calling us to prayer. The bass guitar hit us first—a gut punch, a pelvic wake-up call—followed by that trance-like, reggae beat. We began to dance as we walked, the whole group, swaying, shaking, bobbing and weaving, drinks held high.
Alan led the way through the crowd, his belly a bulwark against writhing bodies. The sea parted, Jimmy emerged into view, and we settled amongst the masses, shoulder-to-shoulder, hip-to-hip. The quarters were too tight for chairs, so we dropped them by our sides, or straddled them and stood with hands raised, funky acolytes to the Jimmy Cliff crusade.
Jimmy finished up “Sitting Here in Limbo,” and stepped back from the mic, wrapping his arms around himself and bowing his head like a magician about to conjure something out of thin air. The crowd grew hushed. Alan was talking to two women in cutoffs with asymmetrical haircuts, body piercings, and tattoos that could only be described as satanic. They were bountiful and dancing freely, and Alan was completely smitten, even though it was obvious that they were lesbians and that this beaky, red-faced fat man was invisible to them, sexually, unless he could find a way to turn himself into an instant Anton Levey with a shaved head and a hexagram tattooed upon his forehead. Alan turned to me with his hand outstretched, his voice urgent.
“Terry, Terry, I’m out of stickers. These young ladies need to be initiated.”
I gave him a look to try and dissuade him, but he just kept waving his hand at me, so I pulled some from my sodden backpack and handed them over. I could feel the wind pick up and see the stage sway with the sudden force of it. The sun pierced through briefly and the light around the field took on a nacreous tinge, as if the air itself had become supercharged with excess energy. Then the clouds closed up and the entire field went dark. And just at that moment Jimmy flung his arms wide and ran toward the mic as the band broke into “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” His voice shot out into the crowd and it erupted—a ragtag army, slaves to the beat.
Jeremy was dancing next to his girl in a sort of herky-jerky frenzy, his long arms clearing out empty patches in the undulating bodies. Alan was trying to stick a Fuck Derek sticker on one of the satanic lesbians, when I suddenly thought of Derek. It wasn’t a thought, really, but a sensation of his physical presence—the way he used to take up space, the scary intensity he could project when he wanted you to understand something, and just behind it, a sort of mocking air that made you wonder if he was really serious about the outrageous things he could throw at you. Lightning ripped across the sky on the horizon and I could see the shadows of the dancing figures suddenly visible on the muddy ground, like antic Thai shadow puppets.
Thunder roared and the band played louder.
Rain came down in sheets and people danced harder.
On stage, Jimmy’s eyes seemed to roll back in his head, his mouth open, cheekbones taut, a scream piercing the air. For a moment, his whole visage seemed carved from stone, like an Egyptian deity you’d see on a temple wall. I glanced over at Jeremy just in time to see him grab one of the folding chairs and hold it up to the sky. It was an act of lunatic defiance against the raging heavens and just like him in every way.
“C’mon, give it to me! Show me what you got!” he shouted.
People looked on in alarm. The chair was metal-framed and Jeremy was the tallest thing around. If ever there were a target, he was it. People began to pull away from this gyrating lightning rod. Even his girl seemed just a little bit concerned. But he was whooping it up, shouting at the sky, pumping the chair up and down.
When the lightning bolt hit him, it was too close for me to even see.
It was more like the feeling you get with that first big drop on a roller coaster: you can feel the pressure hit your chest, the air leaving you, and a free-fall sensation. What hit my eyes was not white light, but the opposite—a sort of glowing darkness. I closed by eyes and could feel the static electricity make the hair on the back of my neck tingle and bring up an acidic taste on my tongue. I heard the sound of screams, opened my eyes, and found myself staring at the ground. The first thing, I saw was the chair, lying in the mud before me, steam coming off the wet canvas. Next to it was Jeremy, sprawled upon the ground, his arms out like a great white egret shot from the sky. His head was turned to the side, his eyes closed. As my eyes traveled down his body, I searched for signs of damage, but he seemed to be in a pristine state. The only thing that seemed odd was that his tennis shoes were steaming, just like the chair, the metal eyelets around the laces still glowing red.
After something like that I guess I need to fill you in about Derek. Not an easy task, because he wasn’t a type like the rest of us—someone you could stick with a two-word summation of his basic demeanor. He was hard to pin down—mercurial every way. When you thought you had him figured, he’d throw you a curve ball that would put you back to square one, searching for answers. It’s not that he had an outsized personality or strange traits; in most ways he was within the range of what you’d call normal. But there was really nothing normal about him.
People go through a great deal of changes between early college to middle age and most of them can be pretty predictable. The best way I would describe it is that you come to terms with your limitations. I don’t mean this to sound depressing, because in many ways it’s a good thing. Happy people are usually people that have found their niche and aren’t striving for some unattainable thing—whether it’s the perfect love, fame and fortune, or saving the world. Unhappy people are the ones that keep butting their head up against the limits of their capacity to be bigger than they really are. Derek didn't change the world, attain fame or fortune, or find his perfect love, but he never stopped trying and was supremely fulfilled by that pursuit. Or at least he was able to fool us all those years.
The suicide raises questions we can’t answer—hence the Fuck Derek and the seven year Jazz Fest quest.
Maybe if I told you how we met you would have a better idea. There were only the three of us at first. Alan, Jeremy, and I had come together united in the belief that if purgatory existed it would resemble campus life in this becalmed corner of the state where sons of farmers wore their barn boots to class and nobody said a word about the suffocating smell of cow shit. We were outsiders lured by the low academic standards and the even lower entrance requirements and fees. This was not a find yourself kind of school; it was a sail-through school designed to move its denizens into the wider world with machine-like efficiency.
Most of the students there had a job already picked out; they were just shooting for the baseline skills to make that happen. Jeremy ended up there when he burned all his bridges to the ivy-covered halls of higher learning in Mississippi. His parents cut him off and he managed to land a scholarship on the lacrosse team, which he promptly bombed out of because of his inability to show up for practice on time. Alan had been such a poor student in high school, he didn’t have a lot of choices. I landed there because my high school girlfriend, Beth, was going to attend. Once we were both accepted, I think the thought of our love affair continuing for another four years scared her off, and she ended up going to a school on the opposite side of the state. It was too late for me to make a change, so I packed my bags, drove south, watched the landscape flatten, the wipers scrape the bugs off my windshield, and reconciled my heart to a future without Beth.
Derek didn’t come onto the scene until halfway into the first semester. We’d all seen him, of course; we shared a couple of classes and he’d catch your eye walking across the quad wearing some long scarf around his neck and carrying an ornate leather satchel that seemed ridiculously donnish. He also stood out because he walked with intent and had an air of sophistication that seemed far beyond the shit-kicker ethos of your average underclassman. He wasn’t standoffish; he just seemed deeply preoccupied.
The three of us also noticed him because we could see girls noticed him. And they were always around: breathless on the cold mornings as they hurried to class, feline slinky as they stood next to him in line at the bookstore, and dreamily engaged as he leaned in close to talk to them on the steps of the library. He smoked smelly, hand-rolled cigarettes, never combed his hair, and had the pallor of a funeral director, but they flocked to him. At different times we had all talked to him, but he had never been forthcoming about himself or his journey to our sorry corner of the state.
During this time, out of sheer boredom, the three of us had been going to the school’s football games. Our team sucked and attendance was terrible, but it was something to do and we all sort of enjoyed the existential exercise of rooting for a team that had no chance. We were proud young nihilist with a zeal for mockery and contempt. Give us a cause and we would show you the futility of caring or trying: the world was rigged, true believers phonies, and nothing felt better than laughing in the face of the pathetic strivers that surrounded us. It was this spirit that led us to resurrect the school mascot. The beaver had never been a particular attractive mascot, and because the team was doing so poorly, no one wanted to slip on that grotesque big-toothed costume and scurry around on the sidelines. They mothballed the thing partly because it was an embarrassment and partly because a bouncing beaver exhorting empty stands made things sadder than they needed to be. Basically, only if you were dating or were related to a team member would you endure the long siege of humiliation at the hands of an opposing team.
We had latched onto the team and were three of their most vocal supporters. But when we chanted and pumped our fists, we made sure that everybody knew that our hearts weren’t in it. Fans would glower at us, frown and then look away, because every word, every cheer was a slap in the face. The team members would look up and you could see their fighting spirit wilting before your eyes. Animating the beav was going to be the crowning touch to our well-planned assault on school pride. The trouble was—nobody would do it. Not one proud student would even consider the possibility.
And then we found Juan.
Juan was a Mexican guy who worked in the cafeteria and would occasionally sell us reefer that he got from his uncle. He was a gentle young man who worked brutally hard, sent money home to Mexico, and loved everything about America from hotdogs to snow. And he was small. He barely cleared five feet and could jump like a rabbit—perfect for a stint as our mascot. We hired him, paid him cash for each game, and he really threw himself into it. Backflips were beyond him, but he could do cartwheels and standing jumps that would startle you by their sheer ferocity. And we let him cheer in Spanish, which further seemed to shame the white faces of the team’s fans. This went on for some time and we were all quite jolly about it, until an incident happened that put an end to the fun and shamed us.
It was after a game—a game that we had actually managed to win. Juan had been spectacular that night, a blur of matted fur and cartoon teeth that never stopped moving. Apparently the bouncing beav’s antics had got under the skin of a fan from the other team. I’m sure the fact that we had beaten them was like salt in his wounds. Afterwards, when Juan had disrobed and was coming out of the tunnel beneath the stands, this guy got a look at this dark-skinned Toltec-faced, south-of-the-border beaver and decided he need to teach him a lesson.
He beat him up. Bad.
Juan had to go to the hospital. It was in that moment, I think, that we began to have our first moments of self-reflection, as a group and as individuals. Suddenly those nihilist tropes that we had been so avidly cultivating seemed to lose their appeal.
And it also was in that moment that Derek came into our lives.
We were at the hospital trying to convince Juan to file charges, but were not making any headway because of his illegal status. He had the bottom-rung immigrant’s way of taking things stoically, without complaint. This was terrible but terrible things happened. He would survive; he would stay in America and throw snowballs as soon as his right hand, crushed by the brute’s heavy boot, healed. He wasn’t angry with us or interested in justice.
Fair was for the fortunate.
None of this made us feel any better. We wished him well, gave him some cash, and slipped away like bad guys in a bad movie. As we stepped outside the front entrance, we found Derek waiting for us. He greeted us by name, and told us he had something he wanted to talk to us about.
He insisted we go to a local downtown dive bar that none of us had ever been to. He said he didn’t want people seeing us all together. We bellied up to corner table right next to the wafting stench of the men’s john and ordered beers. The bartender, who had the appearance of having been recently water boarded, called him by name, and didn’t charge us a dime. All of it had an aura of mystery and intrigue, and looking back, I know that this was all part of the overall effect Derek was looking for. We sipped beers and stared at him with our newly chastised demeanors (young nihilists running for the hills). He knew all about Juan and the thug from the other school. Knew who that guy was and knew he had a bad reputation. He stared us in the eyes and laid it out for us:
“He gets away with it because he’s a golden boy. Rich. His father owns a meatpacking plant and half the town he lives in. Big-time donor to the college and other well-respected charities in the area. His son is a psychopath and does as he pleases. Your Juan was just one more victim in a long line of them. I even heard he probably got away with rape.”
“But what are we supposed to do about it?” Alan asked.
“Juan is powerless. It’s your job to see that justice is done.”
“Justice,” Jeremy asked, “what kind of justice can we provide? We already gave him money.”
Derek sat back, sipped his beer, sucked on his stringy mustache, narrowed his eyes. “Old Testament,” he answered.
That’s just the way he said it. And we immediately understood. What was interesting about it all is that we were instantly game for whatever he wanted us to do. His demeanor was so solemn, so full of riotous indignation, so passionately felt, that it wasn’t about jump, it was about how high.
This was to be our first and only vigilante experience in our lifetimes. The three of us were not get-in-your-face kind of guys. Snide remarks muttered with our heads turned was as brazenly confrontational as we got. None of us had thrown a punch or had a bit of fighting instinct. I’d ducked a few wild swings in elementary school and once pushed a guy into a hedge, but that was about the extent of it.
But somehow, without Derek ever having to spell it out, we understood that we were expected to kick this guy’s ass. He managed to rally our collective courage in a way that seemed almost supernatural. It was like mental boot camp: no shouting in your face, or chanting, or rah-rah fervor, it was simply that he wanted us to do it, and we wanted to be like him.
He began to map out our mission: we were to meet next Saturday night, drive to the town where the bully went to college, and search for him in one or two of the places he was known to hang out. Derek would engage him, find a reason to get him out back, and then we’d jump him. How Derek had dug up all this information was a mystery to us. He seemed to have good contacts with a range of people that were outside of our provincial clique. That night we went back to the dorm, closed our eyes, and envisioned blood flowing in the streets.
The next few days I had a heavy class schedule and didn’t see much of the guys. The few times I caught glimpses of Jeremy and Alan, the simple act of exchanging glances was charged with intrigue. We were no longer just friends: we were a secret society with an important mission.
Saturday night came, and we piled into my beat-to-shit Nissan Trailblazer and set out to find the bully. Derek hadn’t told us the guy’s name; he said it was better that way. We pulled into town and started our rounds. The plan was that Derek would go in first, and if he didn’t come right back out, we should all filter in, one at a time. We found the bully at the second bar we hit. I went in after Derek and sidled up to a table by the window. I could see Derek talking to a guy at the bar that looked slightly older, with a pretty-boy face and the definite air of wanton entitlement. He was smoking (the good old days when you could smoke in a bar) and was brushing back his blondish locks from his forehead with a kind of supreme casualness that can only come with the knowledge that you would never have to worry about paying your rent.
The two of them seemed coolly familiar with each other, or maybe I was just imagining it. Derek certainly had the ability to engage anyone just by his general demeanor—something was going on in that head of his and you wanted to know what it was as soon as he met your eyes. Alan made his way in and then Jeremy, each finding a spot in different parts of the room. I ordered a beer and quickly drank most of it. Looking over, I could see the rest of the crew also indulging in some liquid courage. I was just about to order a refill when I saw Derek and the bully get up from the bar and head out the back exit. We gave it about thirty seconds, as planned, then made our way down the narrow hall to the rear door. I’ll always remember the look of the exit sign above my head as I stepped out. The way that red light seemed to glow and pulse made the metal door feel like a gateway to another world. And, in a way, it was—we were entering Derek’s world, one that he had created for us.
We found the two of them hunched in the shadows of an alleyway doing a line of coke. The bully’s head was just coming up from the aluminum foil, a rolled twenty in his hand, his nose delicately frosted. When he saw the three of us coming towards him he blinked with surprise. We stopped a couple a feet away and stared at him. He glanced at Derek and then at us.
“Excuse me, do I know you?” he asked, as he sniffed and wiped the blow from his nostrils.
For a few seconds we couldn’t say anything, but like a dream unfolding that is sweeping you along and that you have no control of, I moved a step closer.
“No,” I said, “but you know a friend of ours. Does a guy named Juan sound familiar?”
“Afraid not,” he said. “Now if you don’t mind, please get lost.”
“The beaver,” Jeremy said, his voice cracking with tension.
“You beat him up,” Alan said.
“He was a friend of ours,” I added.
I could see it beginning to hit home in the bully’s eyes, the buzz of the coke adding an extra bit of bravado to his next words:
“You got to be kidding me. This is about the beaner?”
And that’s when I hit him. It was an awkward roundhouse sort of thing, but it connected with the fleshy end of his nose with a satisfying smack. He started to run, but Derek tripped him up, and as he staggered and went down, we all got our shots in. Then he did us the favor of trying to get back up and throw a few punches so we could land another round. I caught a pretty good shot to my ear and it was galvanizing. The last few punches were mine, and mine alone, and when he went down he stayed down.
He looked up at Derek. “I don’t fucking believe this,” he said.
“Believe it,” Derek said and walked away.
We turned and followed, found the car, and drove back.
I know how all this sounds—immature and violent and not particularly edifying. So what, we beat someone up, ganged up on him like cowards and exacted our revenge. All I can say is that it didn’t feel like frat-boy hijinks. There was no celebration afterwards. We didn’t regale each other with replays of the action, or pump ourselves up like super heroes out to save the word. In fact we never talked about it again. It was simply a fact of our friendship now, the price of the ticket to Club Derek.
After that, the four of us were inseparable.
When I look back on it, I can see that we changed that night. We weren’t better people, or braver or smarter or more disciplined. We were just more there. Those bruised knuckles told us we had skin in the game. Who we were and what we did, mattered—everything mattered. The masks were off, the game was on.
After college we all went our own ways: jobs became career paths, girlfriends became wives, children became a lifestyle, parents became burdens, and hanging out became impossible. But we never lost touch, mostly because Derek wouldn't allow it. Because he never found a single career, or got married, or settled down into what you’d call a normal person’s existence—he was free to pop in and out of our lives at random. He joined the Peace Corps and went to Africa for two years working in the most dangerous environments. He came back, learned to play the mandolin, and toured with a bluegrass group all around the world. He dropped that, decide he wanted more adventure, and ran trekking tours through Torres Del Paine, one of the wildest and most remote regions of southern Chile. He came back stateside, taught himself woodworking, and ended up in Martha's Vineyard making furniture.
Women came and went in his life, all of them fairly exotic, or at least they seemed that way to us. Through all this he managed to bring us together, whether it was the Jazz Fest, or a quick sail down the coast, or a bit of canoeing in the boundary waters of Minnesota. He was always coming up with something new and dragging us away from family and responsibilities, and we loved him for it. He never seemed to have much money, but he got by, and over time we had all covered his end of our journeys together. It didn't matter, because we realized how much more circumscribed or lives would have been otherwise. We never talked about it, but I’m sure we all felt that life was rushing by, years clicking off with increasing speed, and that these new experiences were like speed bumps on our way down the cul-de-sac of our own existence. Derek had the power to temporally stop time and we needed that.
And then, of course, he stopped time for good.
“I’ve got some news.”
It was Jeremy calling past midnight, his voice hushed and mysterious. At first I thought something terrible had happened and got a little fluttery in my chest. But after you’ve been hit my lightning and survived, it’s hard to imagine that fate is going to deal you something else quite as epic, so I calmed down.
“News?” I asked. “What kind of news do you need to tell me at damn near one in the morning?”
“Well, not news really, but some interesting information. Besides, I knew you’d be up.”
Odd that he would say that, since I usually turned in fairly early during the work week. Burning the candle was not half as fun as it used to be, and these days could be down right disastrous. But ever since the lightning strike, I sometimes had the sense that Jeremy had gained some weirdly prescient ability to know things. More than once he had called and told me where I was and what I was doing. He had changed since Jimmy Cliff brought down that lightning bolt. It had been almost two years now and physically he was almost completely healed—mentally, I wasn’t sure. What saved him, they say, was the fact that he was soaking wet. The electricity traveled across the surface of the water and went right down to the wet ground. The only hiccup on this glide path was the metal eyelets in his shoes. He had third-degree burns on his feet, which took forever to heal. To this day he wore only slip-ons made out of hemp. Other than the burns on his feet, he had some short-term memory loss, and was unable to taste anything for about six months. We did not go back to Jazz Fest the following year and our commitment to the Fuck Derek campaign came to an end.
Somehow we all knew that a chapter in our lives was over.
Lives changed: Jeremy, who worked for a large firm specializing in managing business properties, quit that job and, last I heard, was busy exploring his options—a move that had not pleased his wife. Alan had left his wife and was now working more than ever, had a girlfriend, and was happy to be out on the road away from home. He told me that even with his heavy schedule he saw his kids more than ever now because he really had to make an effort to do it, and that having sex with someone that actually liked you was incredibly sexy. I was the one whose life had changed the least: I was still writing copy for the same ad agency after fifteen years, and had watched as all my coworkers moved up the ladder to become account executives or creative directors. I guess I lacked ambition in all departments—still divorced and still trying to sell the house that I was marooned in when my wife took the kids and went to live next to her parents halfway across the country.
“First,” he said, “I think I may have a job.”
“Really. That’s good, right?”
“I think it is good. It’s for a disaster relief company. They get help to people all over the world—earthquakes, wars, tsunamis, you name it. Turns out my skillset is a good fit, if you can believe that.”
“That is different.”
“Yeah, and that’s what I like about it. It’s not great money, but I think it might be fulfilling.”
There was a pause on the line. I thought about his use of the word fulfilling. It was not something I’d ever heard him say before, not something that we generally talked about, and certainly not something that was a concern of mine. Who was fulfilled? No one.
“It sounds great,” I said.
“Anyway, how’s Derek?”
Derek was my son, ten years old, a worrisome little creature that had somehow managed to inherit all my wife’s qualities I had come to despise over the years. I was hoping that with time we could become different people.
“He seems to be less disaster prone these days,” I said.
“Well that’s good.”
My last yeah echoed through the empty rooms. The wall-mounted TV screen was the only light, my chair on a sea of carpet, the remote in my hand a magic wand against loneliness.
“Okay,” he said, “here’s the real news. It’s about Derek. Our Derek.”
How did I know this was coming? Perhaps some of that electrical soothsaying had been transferred to me on that day, but as soon as he said Derek, I could feel something stirring in me. I hit the remote and killed the TV. The room went dark.
“What? What about Derek?” I asked.
“Okay, so I tracked down his last girlfriend.”
“Because I wanted to know some things. You know, just to see if I could be clearer about why he killed himself.”
“Well, she was reluctant to talk about it. But I kept calling her, and I told her about the lightning bolt and all of us and the whole Fuck Derek deal, and she finally opened up a bit.”
“What did she have to say?”
“First of all, she didn’t leave him—he left her. I know we were all thinking that she broke his heart and that had something to do with it, but that’s not the case. He forced her to leave and then killed himself. He had it all planned out.”
I watched a car’s headlights sweep across the wall, drift across the room, and suck back into the darkness.
“This is not making me feel any better,” I said.
Jeremy’s breathing quickened. “Wait,” he said. “Derek had Huntington’s disease. Do you know what that is?”
“Sort of. Woody Guthrie had it.”
“Right. It attacks the nerve cells in the brain. You inherit it. If one of your parents has it you have a fifty percent chance of getting it. Shows up in your late thirties, forties. And then you start falling apart—horribly. No cure for it. Derek’s father had it. She said Derek started showing the first symptoms and told her about it. She wanted to stay with him, but he wasn’t going to allow that. He drove her away and then did the deed. Guess he wanted to go out on his own terms. He also told her to never talk about it to us or anyone. She was honoring his wishes.”
“It explains all of the women in his life,” I said.
“Yeah, I think so, didn’t want to make it a forever thing since he knew what was coming. Or at least had a very good chance of coming.”
“It makes you think of everything a little differently," I said. “I’m having a hard time getting my head around this.”
“No shit,” Jeremy said. “I was doing mental backflips for about a week, then I started looking into a whole bunch of stuff. She was very helpful. Toward the end there he kind of just poured out his life to her. And then I started checking a few things out.”
“What else don’t we know?”
“It’s not that hard to put together, really, when you see the bigger picture.”
“Why he was the way he was?”
“Think about how we met him, how he turned up at school.”
“He grew up there.”
“Yeah. He grew up there. He was in Oxford, England going to school. He was a Rhodes Scholar, had a full scholarship. He came back because his father was dying from the disease.”
“The guy in the bar from that first night?”
“The thing is that’s when he first learned his dad had it, and he might get it. I think it changed everything for him. He was going through all that, and he was taking us along for the ride.”
I suddenly had a thought. “And the guy we beat up?”
“Grew up with him, played sports against him.”
“Of course.” It was like fireworks were going off in my head. “But Derek seemed so sure of himself, not like a guy …”
“Yeah, that’s what’s got me to thinking about everything. Everything!”
There was another long pause. I could hear his breathing, an almost gasping sound, but distant like something coming up out of the bottom of a well.
“You wanna know something, Terry, ever since the lightning strike, and realizing that my whole life was hanging by a thread, I’m not looking for that thing anymore.”
"You know, the thing that can’t be fixed by friends or family or your job or kids or going to church.”
“Yeah, that thing,” I said.
“And here’s what I figured out.”
Now I could tell by his voice that he was crying.
“That’s it, see. Derek dialed it in early. He had his lightning-bolt moment right there in college. Huntington’s was like a lightning bolt always out there waiting for him, and he was pretty sure it was going to get him. Like my lightning bolt could have killed me, but it didn't, but it could have. It changes you, the simple random craziness of it.”
I was afraid to ask my next question. Somehow I knew that what he told me I wasn’t going to like. “How does it change you?”
“It gives you a gift. The biggest thing in your life for the rest of your life. And if you’re smart enough you’ll hang onto forever.”
“Gratitude,” he said and hung up.
I’ve found a buyer for the house. A family man. A striver. A real go-getter. He’s gung-ho about the potential of the place. Wants to make a home and be a good neighbor. All the things I failed to do. I gave it to him for a song. My job is still my job, though I have contemplated moving to the office on the West Coast, or just plain quitting, which is against my cursed and cautious nature. I’ll put the money in a bank, become a renter. Short term leases. Move around a bit. The thing is, though, escrow closes in about a month, and I haven’t even started looking for a place to live. These days, I go to work and occasionally see a few friends that didn’t make their exit with my wife after the divorce. Keep in mind, these are family people, so being a single guy puts you on the sidelines in most social situations. I tried to date a woman in the office, but that became wrong on so many levels that she ended up quitting her job just to put an end to it.
On rainy nights you can find me down on River Road. I’ll be easy to spot. You know the place where the trees clear away, high on the bluff with the bend in the river down below, grey-green and sweeping to the south? You’ll find my car pulled over to the side, the door open, the interior light spilling out into the darkness. You’ll hear the music first, Jimmy Cliff singing, “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” And if you slow down a little and look back, you’ll see me. I’ll be the guy holding a metal-framed folding chair above his head, and dancing in the rain.
*Feature image created for Pipeline Artists by Graham Sisk