I knew Brian, though not as well as some. We were rivals for a young woman’s affection when first we met and never quite got over it. I think we were, in some ways, too much alike to get along. Which is kind of a shame, because I think, under other circumstances we could have been good friends.
So it is with small towns. And I think he was right in several ways. Brian Jones wasn’t the only shooting star who I thought might burn up in the atmosphere.
Commie High was a bit porous in those days. There were always people who had graduated, transferred to other high schools, attended Commie along with another high school, or who had simply drifted off the path of high school altogether, all coming and going. In the theater particularly, graduates and friends of graduates would hang around, offer a hand with the lights, kibitz over your shoulder if you were running the light board, or hold ladders for you while you strung cable.
That was how I got to know Kris. Kris brought along Ken, Tor and sometimes Sean. Tor had graduated the year before. Kris had been in and out of Commie but graduated elsewhere. Ken was in the “wandered off the path category”. Like me, Sean was actually still in high school. Unlike me, he had not prospered in Commie’s “BYO structure” environment, so he wasn’t around much. Kris was a sound guy and actually got gigs running the sound board for the local theater productions. Kris was a gangly fellow with an Abe Lincoln chin-beard who cheerfully informed me that he couldn’t grow a mustache to go with it. He was a natural mentor, and was fostering Sean’s interest in sound technology. I was more interested in lights and carpentry than sound, but Kris was helpful to me too.
We all found ourselves putting things away in the theater, then going off to get late night eats at Denny’s or the Pantree overlooking Liberty Plaza. Sometimes we’d just wander around in the park or go to Kris’s house, which was in a nice part of town. Ken and Tor worked in the kitchen at Seva, the veggie restaurant. The dish-sink window overlooked the alley that I cut through on my way to my house a block or two away. I’d stop or wave and they might come out and take their smoke break.
When we hung out on the porch of Commie or wherever, Kris would relate florid stories about cultural figures or mutual acquaintances, waving his cigarette and narrowing his eyes gnomishly. Tor was not terribly talkative but was immensely beautiful. He was perfectly Byronic, with flowing hair, a black leather motorcycle jacket and a saunter that caught a lot more eyes than mine. I heard a story of one girl who was so moonstruck by him that she could talk of nothing else for months. I was in the early phases of a long-running attachment to another chap who eventually became my first boyfriend, but I certainly wasn’t immune. Ken and Kris would talk about all kinds of things and I would watch Tor exhale smoke out his nose like a languid dragon.
Ken was rough. It was hard to tell where the consciously cultivated rough ended and the real rough began. He had a sharp nose, pale eyes, tattoos (much rarer thirty years ago than now), and an actual beard—depending on the weather (something not all nineteen or twenty year olds can manage). He wore his longish sandy hair in a mullet that looked like he just cut the bangs himself. Sometimes he answered to “Troll,” which didn’t mean asshole-on-internet back then. He was wiry and snarly and enjoyed kicking things. He was scary, not because I ever felt concerned that he’d hurt me, but because he seemed highly likely to hurt himself. Some guys that age move constantly. I had another friend who used to leap parking meters and climb trees as the rest of us walked down the sidewalk. Ken moved with intense purpose, in explosive, violent bursts.
I trailed these guys to all kinds of places. One time we ended up way out in the country at some stranger’s house on some mysterious errand (probably buying weed, but I have no idea). I remember thinking “It’s 2:00 in the morning. I’m not sure who has a car.” On another occasion we were at the Pantree and joined another crowd, some of whom I knew, and some who I didn’t. There were several young women there who seemed very sophisticated to me (meaning they were probably nineteen to my fifteen or sixteen). They played a game with Ken and Tor that involved passing cigarette smoke from mouth to mouth down the line. It was clearly a multi-layered form of recreation; one of the first times I could see the lines between who was “with” someone else blur in a way that seemed complicated but not sordid.
After a year or so my tenuous connection to their circle faded. They weren’t in high school anymore, except for Sean, who I think sometimes struggled with that. I was in theater, orchestra and model UN. I started aikido and worked first at my Dad’s restaurant, then at Zingerman’s. We would run into each other around town, and I might get a congenial hug from Sean or Kris, a careless lift of the eyebrows from Tor and a glower from Ken. Ken could manage to look both ferocious and politely solicitous at the same time.
I went away to college and came back for a time. I’m not sure when I saw Sean or Kris last. I saw Tor once as he breezed past me on the way to his job in the kitchen at the Del Rio, as magnetic as ever. But Ken I saw several times in the decade after we first became acquainted. One night a group of my friends was playing tag on one of the big fancy play structures at Eberwhite elementary—because we were the kind of dorks who got a big group together to play tag at night, when we were well into our 20s. Somehow Ken and a friend of his were in the vicinity and joined in the game. We ran into each other in the middle of the structure and I recognized the fierce profile. He also smelled something fierce.
Skipping forward a few years, we had enough friends in common that we’d see each other at a party once a year or so. In the mid to late 90s, Ken’s hair was shorn in the back and flopped in smooth bangs across the front. He wore a light suit, a new last name, a new first name and even a touch of a fancy accent. One year he had a very young woman with him who looked like a fairy princess. That was the year that my own escort to the party was a married man. And just because small towns are sporty that way, the fairy princess ended up married for a time to an entirely different friend of mine. (The fairy princess was not the subject of the rivalry first quoted above. However, I suspect one of the women in the smoke-sharing game might have been).
The affected accent and the new name threw me a bit, although I’d tried on a few different ways to look and be myself in the intervening years (including several variations of my hair in a mullet). I wasn’t sure what to make of the urbane Ken, or was it Brandon…?
I moved to the next state and eventually across the country. I married and had a couple of babies. And as with the new chapters to several other stories, I joined Facebook. One of the earliest friend requests I got was from Ken: first name once again what I remembered, last name still adjusted. From what I could tell from his pictures he was back to wearing mostly t-shirts with the sleeves cut off, and what hair that still grew on his head he kept ruthlessly short. But the surly ferocity was mostly gone, replaced with maniacal glee.
In Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s top selling 2001 novel about shipwreck, violence and loss, there is a short line where the journalist narrator arrives at the home of the adult protagonist. When the narrator sees Pi’s children he says. “This story has a happy ending.” I detest first person narrators in fiction, and if the narrator isn’t even a protagonist, I want to throw the book in the sewer. This is the exception because in that single sentence there is so much relief and joy in discovering the life Pi has now. He didn’t just live, he achieved a beautiful life.
Ken and I briefly exchanged a couple of messages. He told me he lived in Ypsilanti and that he had a wonderful wife and equally wonderful son, plus another child on the way. Facebook is funny, because it gives you a certain amount of information easily and some more if you look for it. I discovered that Ken had ended up working and becoming friends with several other old acquaintances of mine from Ann Arbor, from several unconnected (for me) circles of people. They all live in Ypsilanti, drinking beer and playing cards together. They have been in each other’s weddings and go to each other’s barbecues.
And I became Facebook friends with Kris and Sean and Tor as well. Kris and Sean are both sound engineering professionals. Kris does not usually sport a beard, but it looks like he can grow a mustache if he chooses. Sean still has the beatific grin of a particularly impish newt. Kris and Tor are both married. Kris has cats, Tor has a garden. Sean has become quite good at “BYO academic structure” and has been shredding college, a couple of courses at a time. Tor still looks Byronic (I think he’s even a writing and literature professor, for the love of god!)
Some time after Ken and his wife had their second child, a little girl who sounds like she kicks butt and takes names, Ken made some casual comment on a picture I posted that he wanted wooden toys for his kids. I packed up a wooden train set I had and a wooden infant toy, asked him for his address and shipped them off. My husband asked something like, “How do you know this guy again? So you haven’t seen him in twenty years and you’re sending him stuff for his kids? Did he send you stuff for your kids?” I answered along these lines, “no, but I’m honoring something he did do for me. Do you know how many bad things happen to girls who end up out in the country with a bunch of boys and no car? Do you know how many times I was heaven knows where with those guys, back way before cell phones, and not one of them ever touched me or even scared me.” My husband considered and said, “Fair enough.”
I’m not suggesting I mailed kid toys to a guy for not being a rapist when he was younger. It’s a lot better than that. Sure, a lot of girls did and still do get hurt, while I didn’t. I had friends in that same crowd who were raped by their own boyfriends, or at parties. Some of the guys I knew really thought it was okay to have sex with an unconscious or sick girl. And those are only the sad episodes I actually know about. My mother used to suggest a lot of boys were worried that my dad was a martial arts master who would beat them up. Maybe so, or maybe they were just good guys. I choose to believe the latter and that it is still possible to raise men who are kind and responsible, even when they’re messy, melodramatic, angry or high. It wasn’t just that my friends avoided harming me, but that I felt that they would protect me from harm.
Now we’re all middle aged, thicker, grayer, more lined and more worn. Some of our peers did not make it this far. Not many folks from my high school ended up in jail or dead before thirty, but a few did. Some just ended up lost. There were people I wondered about for years that I don’t wonder about anymore, some for worse and some for better. Ken’s rage or restlessness now seems to be channeled into boundless adoration of his children and his wife. He’s raising a daughter and a son who are well and truly loved and who will hopefully be kind and expect kindness.
And I’m sure some of that craziness goes into writing gory, splattery horror fiction. Lots and lots of horror writing. He gets published and does readings and stuff (while wearing granny glasses). I don’t read it, because I just can’t.
But, this story has a happy ending.