Buddy, I never met you, but I’ve heard the stories, one more than the others, the story that’s become a part of family lore. It’s not so much a story of your life, but, rather, a story that defined you in others’ hearts, minds and memories. It’s a story I can only associate with flickering images of your face and hands, as you smiled and laughed your way through Grandmother’s house, room to room, the camera following you in dreamlike soundless scenes.
I have fond memories of those movies. I remember my father setting up the screen in the living room, pulling its long tubular frame out of the box and unfolding it like a map of the world. There was tension and resistance inside the tube, so he had to pull out the screen and hook it into place on a spidery steel frame, and the sheen of the screen made it sparkle like magic the minute my brother and I raced to shut off the lights. Dad threw the switch on the projector and we waited for it to warm up, a gentle burning smell filling the room as a single bulb shone brightly from inside and the film clicked into place and advanced to the accompaniment of a motor’s gentle hum. It was magic then, as we saw you, Buddy, standing next to your brother, waving, carrying brightly wrapped presents into the house, tracking pure white snow from the driveway outside. And it was magic as you sat down at Grandmother’s beautiful oak dining table, polished and dressed with silver and a feast fit for the large family we used to be. Sometimes, we watched you backwards, Buddy, taking food from your mouth and rewrapping presents. This always made us laugh.
But, as I said in the beginning, there was always that one story, skeletal, inevitable. I don’t remember how old I was the first time I heard it, but I do remember that I heard it more than once over the years, in bits and pieces, small details and loose fragments. I know the town you grew up in, Buddy, and the story begins with nothing out of the ordinary–just a bunch of teenagers headed out to the drive-in for a Friday night movie. The Frisina was gone by the time I made my first visit, but they tell me it was on the outskirts of town, surrounded by cornfields, about five miles from the courthouse on the square. It’s always infernally hot down there in summer, still water hanging thick in the afternoon air, an early evening mist, thirty miles from Springfield, but a heartbeat closer to Havana. So, I don’t know, Buddy, maybe you were thirsty and had a beer or two–certainly no crime. Maybe that’s why you were broke, maybe you and your friends bought one sixer too many.
I can’t see much harm in trying to sneak a couple of extra kids into the movie for free. I’m sure you didn’t either. I often wonder what was playing. My imagination tells me it was Brando or Dean, but for all I know it was Tab Hunter. No one ever told me about that, Buddy. Somehow, it’s just as important as all the other lost moments, the dirt on the cuff of your jeans, the blue-checked shirt, the close-cropped blonde hair shared by neither your parents nor your brother. The road tilted to the right on the way into the Frisina and the line of cars ahead of you moved slowly, and one of your friends stuck his head out the window and cursed the waiting, suggesting you turn it around. So you did, driving about two miles in the opposite direction, where you parked the car under a tree and everyone got out at once, tumbling into the long grass, burnt green to brown and reflected in the polished chrome trim of the car. Maybe you took one last swig of beer and threw the can as far as it would go, past the tree and the long grass at the edge of the field, hurling end over end, scattered drops of beer splattering the tall corn before the can landed silently beyond.
Someone pulled the keys out of the ignition and tossed them to you, as you walked around to the back of the car. Did you catch them, or did someone else shove one key into the trunk lock, turning it with a loud click that died in the heavy air? Maybe it didn’t open the first time — maybe you had to jiggle it a bit and jimmy the lock to get the trunk open. And finally it popped and shot up and you reached over and pulled out the spare and set it in the grass, alongside the car. The home movies tell me you were tall and broad shouldered, so it must have been a tight fit in there, you and your buddy, even considering how much bigger cars were in those days. You were probably both laughing as you squeezed inside, slightly giddy from the beer and lightheaded from adventure, with thoughts of the night ahead, and the soft kisses you’d feel on your lips once the car was parked in front of the giant screen, throwing black and white shadows over rows of young lovers.
Who drove the car, anyway? One of the girls, I’m told, and of course, I wonder if she was “the one,” because at that age I’m sure you would’ve both been thinking that way. It’s hard to imagine you were so young, when I see your brother today and remember he was your junior by several years. But, I wonder what you thought, as she drove the car back to the Frisina and took her place at the end of the line of cars heading up that gravel road, bumper to bumper, all of them leaning slightly off to the right. The air was thick and hot and it must have been worse inside, clouds of dust working their way into the trunk, but you didn’t pound on the hood or holler “get me out of here,” so you must have been able to breathe okay. Did you hear pebbles and rocks grinding into the ground under the weight of the heavy wheels, loose gravel kicking up and pinging off the hubcaps? Did you hear the girls laughing in the front seat, each voice distinctive? Did you hear the owl cry in the distance, as he perched in the tree overlooking the empty spot where the car had been parked? Did you hear the brakes squeal, as the driver of the car behind you reached for the dashboard lighter, cigarette in one hand, fumbling, losing control for a moment and slamming his foot down a second too late?
A still picture, trapped in time — shock, as his Cadillac veered to the right and rammed into the back of your car. You had removed the spare tire, but had you forgotten the can of gasoline? Was that it, or was it simply the force of the impact, sudden and final, as the trunk ignited and the car emptied and the girls cried out and they pounded on the hood with all their might? Or did they? Perhaps they ran for help, ran away, knowing instinctively, immediately, that any help they could find would come too late. Heat, sweat, dust, flames … water, somebody, water, anybody … water. It all happened so fast, I was told. It was hopeless. The bodies were barely recognizable, and at your funeral, Buddy, there was a closed casket, your face peering out from the polished glass confines of an 8 x 10 gilded gold frame.
Today, I watch those home movies on videotape and, like all memories of childhood, they aren’t quite the same as I remember them. I’m older than my parents were then and the world has wrapped itself around my memories like the ribbons Mom saved diligently, every year, to be recycled the following Christmas. I wonder about you, Buddy, and I want more stories, new stories, ones I haven’t heard before. Who were you, really, and what did you hope to be? If we could sit down on Grandmother’s front porch today, watching cars purr up and down Adams Street to the steady rhythm of the cicada’s relentless buzz, what would we talk about? Your garden, maybe, bigger and better than Grandfather’s ever was. Remember all the time he spent out there? Couldn’t get nothing to grow. Hey, I hear someone got arrested for spraying graffiti on the courthouse lawn, one of the Dixon boys, they say. You’d nod your head and then I’d get up and amble inside for a cold bottle of pop and see your son’s finger painting hanging on the refrigerator door. I love it. Hey, how does Kathy like her new job? You guys seem like you’re doing great. Really? Hmmm, that’s sweet … you tell me you love her as much as the day you met, and she’s not even around to hear it! Were you in love, Buddy, was she “the one”? Did you fall, like the scattered drops of beer, of sweat, of water, landing on the carpet too late as I watch you waving, coming at me through this dusty television set? I need to clean it off one of these days, Buddy, but it’ll never shine as brightly as Dad’s silver screen. Never.
Originally published Canopic Jar #7, 1998