My Dead Friend

By Mark Sutz

Memoir

I’d like to take a moment to talk about a dead friend.

Not recently dead. And not recently a friend.

But a dead friend, nonetheless.

High school in Scottsdale in the early 80s wasn’t exactly any worse or better than I imagine it was anywhere else. It was for some the best time in their lives, for some the worst and for most, like me, just another time, not traumatic enough to scar me for life or fantastic enough for me to talk about it longingly decades later.

I was a studious type and loved the academic life and had, since I was a boy, planned on being a doctor, a plan which went the same way as: astronaut, FBI agent and race car driver. I had a decent amount of friends, most of whom shared the joy in acing a test or wrestling with a calculus problem until we figured it out. I dated a few girls, emphasis on few, and spent most of my time from sophomore year on mapping out where I wanted to go to college. I think this was perhaps the most common activity amongst my friends: figuring out where we’d begin our ‘real’ lives and how far we could get from our parents. Suffice it to say, I was as invisible as I suspect ninety percent of high school students feel and ninety-nine percent actually are. Invisibility to all but a handful of people is the common thread most of us will share from the time we’re potty trained until the time we need assisted care in old age.

Into this tightly wound crowd of ‘smart’ kids (in the years since, I have come to realize how unimportant this category is to, well, most of life), Bill entered. Atypically for our bespectacled, geeky bunch, he was as socially confident a fifteen-year old as could exist in our awestruck minds. We all knew upon first meeting him that he’d scale heights reserved for the rarefied few.

Bill was also one of those guys who was popular with every stratum of high school clique. From stoner to jock to brainiac to musician to the invisible, Bill was a guy to whom everyone was electrically attracted. Even the girls us nerds drooled over and who wouldn’t so much as walk in the same hallway as us, even those preening swans of the fakest variety, found Bill irresistible. And the schoolmarmy Spanish teacher who complained with a finger wag about Bill’s being late to class could not help but be impressed when he explained, a few times a week, the reason for his tardiness in Spanish that could have gotten him from Mexico City to Rio without a hitch. He was, overall, one of those people you meet just a few times in your life and onto which you are impelled to glom.

Bill and I became friends in that flummoxing and arbitrary way that most of us have experienced. By the end of my freshman year, I’d found the first best friend of my adolescence. High school was infinitely more bearable and less boring because of my friendship with him.

Bill was a gifted pianist and a ham the way talented people often are. He loved playing the piano and singing (great voice, too) when friends came over to his house. He knew he was good and we all did too. I don’t remember most of what he played (Beethoven and Brahms, certainly), but I do recall one song vividly – “Rocket Man.” He sang the song with such showmanship and sincerity that you’d swear Bernie Taupin wrote the lyrics just for him and played the piano with a flair that Elton John would have applauded. I envied this talent of his more than his others because my own household was devoid of musicians or music lovers, a silent place livened only occasionally with whatever radio station a housekeeper listened to. I credit Bill with my first experience of tasting varieties of music, and I’ve since become a person who needs music like food and books and water and art. His impassioned, lengthy, repeated defenses of the band Yes in the face of detractors gave me quiet strength in the years since, often plucking CDs of mocked and reviled bands off the wall and playing them for friends with supreme confidence and my own defense at the ready.

Bill introduced me to near-frozen Mexican beer on scorching summer days, explained how to be cool with the girls, espoused the idea that intelligence was something to relish and not hide away, gave me the first nickname I ever had, Smarko, and taught me how good chips and extra hot salsa are when chased with tall glasses of frigid, frothy milk while watching football on TV. Burning followed by relief. This analogy to writing and stopping writing is something I think about till this day when I down a mouthful of the hot red stuff.

Bill had a laugh that wasn’t so much infectious as it was healing. When he was in the dead center of a good one, usually after telling a joke or a story himself, the world was better in that tiny piece of geography where we shared our friendship. One of the things we did was watch the A-Team together. Well, not exactly together, but at the same time. When it came on, I’d give him a call or he’d call me and in our respective houses we’d get very stoned and giggle our way through the show, repeating the hackneyed, awful dialogue to one another and laughing our stoned asses off. I have no idea how this activity started or why we both found it so amusing. Some aspects of a friendship are beyond any rational explanation.

Bill’s hyper-intelligence was his most remarkable trait. He had the capacity to fuck around as much as the committed stoners did all day, yet Bill would ace not only every class, but also every exam or quiz in those classes. He’d spoken about Harvard first when we were sophomores, not as if it would be a burden to get in or if it were an exceptionally lofty goal, but in a manner that convinced me they were just waiting for him, high school a simple formality that he’d like to be quickly done with. He spoke about it as if he’d already matriculated, graduated, time-traveled back to our conversation and felt the warmth and comfort of having an Ivy League education packed away like insurance for every version of social, financial and professional malaise a person can encounter in life.

And so it turned out that Bill was our high school’s first student admitted to Harvard. The moment he was accepted (early admission), his aura was fully confirmed and our friendship began to fizzle. I think, honestly I’m certain, it was more because of me than him, because of my envy of his acceptance there and my failure to even get a sniff at the Ivy League schools I’d been casually knocking around in conversation since I could sharpen a pencil.

My awaiting college, UC Berkeley, was all the way on the other side of the country. While nothing to sneeze at, Berkeley wasn’t, isn’t, Harvard and I could tell our trajectories would seriously diverge after high school. I suppose I was already mourning a dead friendship rather than doing what I should have been: making it stronger so it might have a chance to last.

For the last year of high school, we hung out less and less until we graduated, the summer rolled away and we were each off to our next step in life.

I didn’t last at Berkeley. Academics weren’t the issue at the time – Berkeley suited my awkward desire to exercise my brain like a Mensan. An odd loaf of financial hardship and a myopic family incapable of commonalities like communicating with other human beings kinked my plan. I’d turned down a full-ride scholarship to Arizona State, my local university, because I had the same species of ant under my feet that many kids that age have, the kind that makes you want to get away from everything you’ve ever known and start anew. But because I turned it down upon graduating high school, I was rendered ineligible for it anytime in the future.

So, I returned to Arizona, went to school after a year of moping, and led as equally an uninteresting life after high school as I’d done since I left the carnival of infancy.

Move ahead more than ten years. By 1997, I’d long since graduated college and was sliding my way toward 30. I had a girlfriend I wanted to marry, a woman who once kissed me so nicely, so perfectly, I lost consciousness for a few seconds. This woman left me giddy enough so I annoyed my friends with constant talk of her. She also led me to thinking about all the great people I’d had in my life and what they were doing.

I hadn’t seen Bill in more than a decade, but kept up with his activities through our dwindling grapevine of mutual friends that I’d see at the bars occasionally. He’d graduated Harvard in three years and returned to Arizona to go into the securities business with his father and start a few ventures of his own. One of them, oddly, was a bar. I assumed the only kind of bar Bill would own must be very classy or very cool and made a mental note to drop in and check it out sometime.

Finally, in early May of 1997, after thinking about it for months, putting it off because of my job or my girlfriend or any of a number of regular hangovers, I got the notion to call him out of the blue. We hadn’t spoken in such a long time, but I was confident that at least we’d be able to catch up over beers, perhaps revisit and restart a friendship that I’d thought about often as I bumped around my twenties. Maybe because 30 was near and because my more recent friendships seemed flimsy at the time, I wanted to rekindle one I felt was strong. I easily found a number for his brother Jeff, who’d never left Scottsdale, and called him to ask how I could get a hold of Bill.

In a monotone I’ll never forget, Jeff told me Bill had recently died. I couldn’t speak and uttered some incomprehensible gobbledygook and nearly puked. Jeff said he’d been killed in a car accident on April 15, about three weeks earlier. I was at work when I called, a denim resale shop a friend owned, and I broke down like a baby.

I cried my way through asking to go home for the day, cried my way home in the car and cried the night away on my couch, so sad, so surprised, so utterly incapable of accepting that this person, a guy of Bill’s intelligence, humor, talent and promise was dead before thirty. I fell asleep on the couch as wiped out as if I’d run a marathon or been beaten by an angry mob.

The next weekend I visited Bill’s grave. It was a clear, windless spring Arizona day. When I got to his gravestone and saw his name, the tears came again. I stood there for thirty or forty minutes thinking about our concluded friendship, not quite believing he was freshly buried beneath me. As I was getting ready to leave, a wind kicked up and a piece of paper tumbled corner over corner toward me from the edge of the otherwise pristine cemetery.

When the paper reached me, the wind stopped and it lay still at my feet. I bent over to pick it up and put it in the trash. It was a flyer for an anti-tax rally and on the bottom, in bold, was April 15, 1997, the day Bill died. It didn’t make me religious but certainly cemented the day in my head as something more than the day to send in my returns.

In the years since Bill died, I’ve often thought of him. To many, perhaps most, people who knew him he’ll always be just shy of 30. But to me, he’ll always be 18 and always be my first best friend.

Even in death, maybe especially, a friend can teach you so much. My friendship with Bill, or should I say his friendship with me, a fairly unremarkable person, was a gift that I still unwrap and learn from.

In the ensuing years, when I felt like, feel like, an asshole or nasty words for people are just behind my lips, ready to escape, I think of Bill and how he treated me: as an equal, a friend, someone to eat salsa with and someone just to get to know. I’m far from the most tolerant person on the planet, but my friendship with Bill reminds me, even when I’m in a lousy mood, that good friends are better than good jobs or good trips or lots of money or any of the other things that are stand-ins for what life really is about. My friendship with Bill helped strengthen in me the shapeless, nameless muscle one needs to nurture friendships and it has served me well. I’ve become a better friend to others (though far from perfect), keenly sympathetic and kind to the oddball in all of us, and a more compassionate person in general than I ever would have had our paths not crossed.

He lives with me and will until the day I die, always extant in the architecture of my personality, as are many dozens, hundreds, of other people also in that structure. Bill provides, however, along with only three other people in my life, the most important part: a certain, solid foundation buried beneath the skyscraper that I feel like I am some days and the hovel I feel like on the rest, both of which are invisible to most save a vital few.

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MARK SUTZ writes with hunks of charcoal on large slabs of pavement. He resides on the first floor. He regularly contributes to random bar conversations, political telephone polls, messy exchanges with his family and arguments against the death of the book on paper by reading them in public settings. Once a year on their shared birthday he recites into the night sky his memory-banked version of 'The Raven' for Edgar Allen Poe's spirit. Having quit haiku, his skill too weak for its form, he now writes novels. For those interested in tossing stories into the contest void, he manages Fiction Contests and Other Opportunities.

40 responses to “My Dead Friend”

  1. This was excellent.

    Mostly because it kept me from thinking about Jon Bon Jovi for five minutes.

    This was interesting, because none of my friends have ever died. But about eight years ago my best friend was diagnosed with cancer. I’d moved to a different town by then, and we’d kind of drifted apart.

    He recovered completely, because it was caught early and it was one of the least aggressive forms of cancer.

    And you know how many times we’ve ever talked about it?

    None.

    I’m house sitting back in that town right now, right across the street. We met up, drank beer and played soccer, just like we have every other time we’ve met up.

    But everytime I stop and think how different things could have been. How much more impact the whole thing could have had on our lives. I’ve never really had to deal with death, which is something I’m incredibly thankful for.

    • Mark Sutz says:

      Thanks so much. Death is strangely healing when it morphs into better understanding life. I think people who work in the field of (pseudo)science that works to make life infinite just don’t understand that life means nothing without death. I appreciate the time you took to read my first piece at TNB.

  2. Art Edwards says:

    What a lovely remembrance, Mark. So many poignant lines.

    ASU and Changing Hands forever!

    And welcome!

    Art

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Everyone needs a friend like Bill. A laugh that heals is indeed a precious thing. I’m sorry for your loss.
    Lovely piece. Lovely lines.
    Welcome to TNB, Mark. Glad to have you here.

  4. Lenore says:

    this broke my heart. i want to be like bill. also, my birthday is april 15th. not that that’s relevant, but i just thought i’d point it out because it makes me feel special for no particular reason.

    i’m not sure i understand this chips and salsa paired with milk thing. but generally speaking i’m anti-milk, so i suppose it wouldn’t understand. but from the way you describe bill, i’m sure he would have convinced me to try it, too.

    • Mark Sutz says:

      lenore,

      didn’t mean to break anything, but appreciative you read and enjoyed my piece. i’m not much of a milk person anymore, but i remember the pleasure of that old odd activity with much fondness.

  5. Scott Conwell says:

    Mark, thank you for so eloquently sharing this memoir. You were successful in describing the person and his legacy. I look forward to reading more of your material.

  6. Gloria says:

    “Invisibility to all but a handful of people is the common thread most of us will share from the time we’re potty trained until the time we need assisted care in old age.” Wow. What a discomforting idea.

    I remember the hot salsa followed by dairy trick. It works with ice cream, too. It causes one heck of a belly ache though.

    “I had a girlfriend I wanted to marry, a woman who once kissed me so nicely, so perfectly, I lost consciousness for a few seconds.” Gosh, that’s lovely.

    This whole piece is. It’s all lovely. You’re a sweet man and your words make me happy. Thank you so much for sharing this.

  7. Mark Sutz says:

    gloria,

    thanks and thanks. oh, those long lost kisses. lovely to remember.

    i’m sated so easily by women who kiss well and friends with whom i can talk long into the night.

    sometimes, when life hums along perfectly, the two are the same.

    appreciate your time in reading my remembrance.

    m

  8. Alison Aucoin says:

    Welcome Mark. Nicely done!! My father had a heart attack on April 15, 1998, never regained consciousness, & died during Jazz Fest a couple of weeks later (I lived in New Orleans then). Makes for weird associations.

    • Mark Sutz says:

      Alison,
      Condolences about your father. Those moments stick with us, even years later, but make us stronger, too, I believe. They have to. Thanks for taking a bit of time to read my piece. Much appreciated.

  9. Joe Daly says:

    Wow. What a great debut. Welcome aboard, Mark, and nicely done.

    I suppose I was already mourning a dead friendship rather than doing what I should have been: making it stronger so it might have a chance to last.

    Was just thinking about this yesterday- about how we (I) often worry so much about how we’re going to lose something we care about, that we stop trying to grow it. Good reminder, man.

    I look forward to seeing more of you on here!

    • Mark Sutz says:

      Joe, thanks.

      We all take things for granted and regret it. I try to do so less and less as I get older.

      Appreciate your time in reading my post.

      • Joe Daly says:

        Ah yes- I remember this post well now. A fantastic inaugural piece. Your words about growing a new sympathy for the oddballs stand out now moreso than the first read, as I see them in a new context.

        Love that you quoted Nin in your comment on my piece. Serendipitously, for many years, I had one quote taped to a small piece of paper on the bottom of my monitor:

        “Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.”

  10. Jeffrey Pillow says:

    Welcome aboard TNB, Smarko. A fine tribute to your friend this is. That he changed you in such a way and that you think of him still thirteen years later, says much of Bill’s character and presence in your life.

  11. Paul Kent says:

    Mark,

    Good stuff. I like the emotion and rememberances it brings. If we meet up sometime (say at Taste of Tops) I’ll relate the story of ‘Taco’.

    Nice profile pic.

    • Mark Sutz says:

      Paul, thanks…was just at TOT last night…love the selection of beers they have…hope you’re well and looking forward to ‘taco’. thanks for stopping by and reading.

  12. Irene Zion says:

    Beautiful tribute to a friend long lost, Mark.
    April 15th is a pivotal date in my life.
    Interesting to know it is also in yours.

  13. Garrett Socol says:

    Beautiful, very moving piece. Few people have such an impact on one’s life, and it’s good to acknowledge it, whether they’re living or dead.

    My best friend died at age 31. We were polar opposites but so comfortable with each other. Go figure. It was really a kind of unconditional love that’s seldom found.

    Not a day goes by when I don’t miss him. The world has really dimmed since he left, and nothing is as bright or exciting as it would be if he were here. Lesson to all who have best, best friends: No, I won’t tell you to let them know you love them. They probably know that already, and I’m not that sappy or saccharine. My advice is to really appreciate every single moment. Acknowledge it to yourself. Feel the joy when you’re with them, and know that it may not last a long time.

    Anyway, thank you for this very memorable piece.

    • Mark Sutz says:

      Garrett,

      The impact of those dead and gone is remarkably tactile, but I agree, it is better not to have to conjure only a memory as the real thing is much, much better.

      I appreciate your taking the time in reading my piece and responding so openly.

      Amazing things, words. Damn near as good as the things they signify, but not quite.

  14. Simon Smithson says:

    An excellent debut, Mark – welcome to TNB, and glad to have you.

    I’ll be sure to try almost-frozen Mexican beers on a hot summer day.

    There are those people you meet who just seem to have that touch about them; Planet Earth’s Most Valuable Players. Bill sounds like one of them, especially the way you speak about how he taught you that intelligence shouldn’t be hidden.

    I think the lessons you’ve learned, especially about compassion, are a fitting tribute to such a man, and such a friend. So often, because the machine is humming along as we think it should, we don’t examine it, take time to think about what is actually happening, and the humanity of our lives.

    I’m sorry for your loss.

    • Mark Sutz says:

      Simon, thanks much. I figure if I just keep my head up and pay attention, there are plenty of people out there to teach me all sorts of things. As a fiction writer, I hold to the Henry James, quote, ‘Be one on whom nothing is lost.’ It works well for just being a human, too.

      Thanks for reading and the welcome.

      About to have a slushy Corona as we speak. Phoenix in the summer is intolerable without one or two.

  15. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Gosh, this is so beautifully rendered. There’s such honesty in your work and a lovely appreciation for life. I enjoyed this so much! Looking forward to more of your stuff, Mark.

    • Mark Sutz says:

      Thanks very much, Lisa.

      I’d like to think I appreciate life but as a man of constant contradiction there are days when I wonder if anyone in the world can be as frustrated and puzzled by the humans actors in its midst. I won’t say rage emerges, but dammit if my own species doesn’t shock me daily with the stupid things they are capable of doing.

      Okay, steam blown off now (just read some news first thing in the morning – NOT a good idea).

      I appreciate your reading, Lisa, and you’re kind words.

  16. Brenda Stroud says:

    Mark…

    Thanks for inviting me to read your story… Enjoyed it very much… What a great tribute to your friend and the memories you have of him… Most people do not remember that much about another but you seem to have a great insight of human beings.

    Your comment on invisibility really hit home with me. I am invisible to people all the time when I
    go to clubs, church, work, stores, etc… I even comment that I am invisible and some people comment but most of the time the comment goes unnoticed also!! I always thought I was the only one that this happens to.

    Sorry that you lost your friend before you got to rekindle the friendship. That is why we should not put off doing something but do it right then!! Life just speeds by us before we know it!!!

    Hope to read more of your stories… take care

  17. Curtis says:

    Beautifully written Mark. Can’t wait to read more from you.

  18. Tricia McDaniel bosco says:

    Great tribute to Bill. He certainly had that special something. Apparently you do, too. Beautifully written. Well done. Best, tricia

  19. peter says:

    Mark,
    I was Bill’s Uncle in Minnesota, brother to his mother. I lost my wife to cancer two years ago. It has been a lesson on how the dead to go on, and still communicate with us. Your article soothes over the pain, and lets me and us know that life here has meaning. God bless you for this fresh air. Keep up the riches for us.
    Yours,
    Peter Troedson, in Minnesota.

  20. Michael says:

    Mark

    I have never commented online before, but your article was incredible.

    Jeff, Bill’s brother, was my best friend from third grade until we graduated college and I had to move to Minnesota. (I have since moved back and we are still very close) My brother Max, whom I am sure you know, was a very good friend of Bill’s.

    I was with Jeff the day he found out his brother was killed. It is a day that no 30 year old older brother should ever have to go through, and a day that I will never forget.

    I too think of Bill often. I remember playing music in the basement of his family home in Minnesota. Actually, Bill played music, my brothers and I were simply noise in the background. I can picture it like it was yesterday, Bill sitting at the piano and singing while we sat back in amazement. He had to have only been in third grade. He was one of the most talented people I have ever met.

    Thank you for sharing some of the memories of your friendship with Bill.

    He will forever be missed.

    Michael McDermott

  21. Graham Falcon says:

    Great story. I never knew Bill. But know his brother Jeff very well. And the friendship you described with Bill sounds very similiar to what I share with his brother, Jeff. The fact is, Jeff play a monumental role in saving my life from alcohol and drug addiction. For that I am forever grateful.

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