By Andrew Polhamus
The evening after Jeff hangs himself my friends and I meet up at Stephen and Danny’s new house. We converge in a neighborhood of brick rowhouses and form a circle of denim in a tired living room. There are six or eight of us, not here to sit vigil, but for lack of better ideas and a nagging feeling that we shouldn’t be alone. We speak in the circular logic of boys, too old to be thinking this way by our mid-twenties, but too inexperienced to handle it any better.
“He could’ve called me,” says Kurt, who is taller and more handsome than the rest of us and was closer to Jeffthan anyone. I’m annoyed with myself for noticing how nicely Kurt’s good looks carry grief, turning him from a jock in a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of a hardcore band into something romantic and world-weary.
“He always used to call me,” Kurt says.
“He didn’t call you because he didn’t want to,” I say. “It wasn’t you.”
“It wasn’t that he didn’t want to,” Michael says. “He just didn’t.”
“We don’t know what he wanted.”
“Well, we know he made up his mind.”
“I think we have bed bugs,” Danny says, his heavy Italian brows furrowing. The conversation drifts to pest control for a while.
Michael, who has dealt with the suicide of a friend already, tells us about how we’re going to feel, how it’s going to feel in six months, how it’s going to feel in six years, but I forget all of it as soon as he’s finished speaking.
Jeff was straight-edge, so instead of pouring out beers we go to the corner store and buy a two-liter of Mountain Dew, his favorite. Then we give a listless toast: To Jeff.
We knock back the neon garbage and feel our teeth get gritty. We laugh about how Jeff drank this shit by the gallon, how he once said “I’m not made of sodas” when asked for a refill.
Stephen and I are the only ones who haven’t eaten dinner, so we watch the last few minutes of the Super Bowl on an undersized TV while waiting for our food in a pizzeria. Fluorescent lights throw glare onto Stephen’s glasses and turn his ginger hair vermillion. The Broncos beat the Panthers 24-10. We head back to the bedbug house and sit around a while before I give Michael a ride home.
I tell Michael he seems less angry than he did a few years ago, when I first met him, if he doesn’t mind me saying so. We don’t know each other well enough for this observation to be appropriate, but Michael thanks me. He says he’s been working on it.
He closes the car door perhaps a little louder than necessary and I drive home alone through frozen darkness beneath sodium lights, down densely packed residential streets and over the Walt Whitman Bridge. I entertain the embarrassing hope that this will bring us all closer together.
A week later I meet up with Toochie, who works on a traveling film crew and was out of town when the news broke. We conference at a tavern known for a variation on the Buffalo chicken wing, where the high-top tables make Toochie’s slight frame look even smaller. The wings are an unearthly orange and are called Fat Daddies.
“It’s fucked up,” I say, and my voice cracks.
“I know, man,” Toochie says.
We swig Miller Lites and find ourselves crying for Jeff for the first time. We avoid eye contact and drip tears into our Fat Daddies.
I’m at an Indian restaurant back home in the suburbs when Jeff’s sister, Siobhan, calls. Jeff’s wife, or as his family puts it, she, has changed her mind. She lives in Anchorage, which is where Jeff spent the last few months of his life. They met on Instagram and Jeff flew out to see her three or four times over the course of a year before moving there for a quickie courthouse wedding. The plan up to this point has been that she, whose name is Caroline, will fly to New Jersey with Jeff’s body, stick around for a few weeks, attend his funeral, get to know his mom and sister and brothers. But Caroline is backing out.
“She won’t take our calls,” Siobhan tells me as I stand in the gray afternoon outside of Nimit Palace. It’s rainy and cold and traffic on Route 73 is terrible.
“She says he wanted to be buried in Anchorage,” Siobhan goes on. “Like she knows what he wanted.”
None of us have met Caroline, though a couple of us have chatted with her on Skype. It’s not that anyone thought it was a good idea for Jeff to marry some girl from the internet. It’s just that there was no talking him out of it, and everybody thought moving away would do him some good. And it did do him good, for a while. But then the long Alaskan winter set in, and Jeff spent his days at home alone, too depressed and lethargic to apply for a job. He and Caroline were married six months when he died.
It occurs to me that he could’ve told her anything about us. We are a renowned crew of shit talkers, and Jeff was the most talented of us all. He had an uncanny ability to paint anyone not currently in the room as his worst enemy. In the two years before his move to Alaska, most of his friends had dropped away, tired of taking care of him in between his many hospital stints. This just served to prove Jeff right: everybody he ever cared about really was evil, really was waiting to abandon him. There’s no way of knowing how Caroline interpreted Jeff’s twisted account of our many sins.
Worse yet is the creeping realization that this accounting could be accurate. We did get tired of him. We did wish he would just move away where someone else could look after him. We did allow our relationships with him to wither, talking only over text, and even then only once in a while. Or, I did, anyway.
Traffic rolls past and I still haven’t spoken about the fact that Jeff is not coming home.
“What the fuck?” I say, less from outrage than to fill the space while I decide how this makes me feel.
I feel robbed, violated. But it’s not my brother sealed in a box in Alaska instead of cremated at home, not my kids who will hear stories of Uncle Jeff second and third-hand without ever meeting him. So I channel my rage into a moralizing speech about how cruel and thoughtless Caroline is, until I can almost believe that I am angry not for myself, but for Jeff’s family.
Jeff’s siblings decide they’ll have a funeral of their own in a few weeks. One of his brothers has an in with a minister who will run the service. Siobhan, with help from Jeff’s ex-girlfriend , will gather up old photos. Because I am a reporter at the local paper, it’s my job to get an obituary printed. I dash it off at work and run it by Siobhan for approval. She turns it over to her brothers and mom. Their single edit is that they want Caroline’s name deleted from the list of survivors.
The obituary runs in the paper twenty-four hours before the funeral and contains two typos that none of us caught. It’s the newspaper’s policy to run obituaries exactly as submitted. I should’ve known better than to send it in without proofreading. I’ve failed Jeff one last time.
The funeral is held in a tiny evangelical church that I suspect began life as an Elks club: a low, whitewashed cinder block building with fake-rustic exposed beams under a pitched roof. Here I notice how blond Jeff’s family is. Both parents and all three of his siblings have the same white-gold hair and skin tone to go with it, completely unlike Jeff’s dark hair and slight, serious face.
It’s not clear how Jeff’s brother knows the minister, but the man is completely unprepared to run a service honoring a guy best known as the bassist of a band called Kill You In Your Sleep. His sermon is fire and brimstone, and he informs us that we must be washed in the blood of the lamb. It enters my mind Jeff would have loved this part, with its gratuitous violence and references to animal sacrifice, though not for the reasons the preacher intends.
“This guy doesn’t even know him,” a young woman sitting behind me hisses. “He wasn’t religious at all.”
Somebody shushes her, lest the preacher hear what every last person in the pews is thinking. Siobhan brought a case of Mountain Dew for the end of the service, but we’re told we’re not allowed to have drinks here in the former Elks lodge. We go outside, where I notice for the first time how unnatural the scene is. Everyone has traded Doc Martens and leather jackets for too-small suits and ties with bad knots. The guitarist of Jeff’s band, whose hands shook straight through the eulogy he gave a few minutes ago, has forced his elbow-length hair into submission. We raise our Mountain Dews and stand around the gravel parking lot like we’re waiting to be picked up from a middle school dance. Everyone lies that we’ll have to get together soon.
The newspaper is experimenting with online slideshows in an effort to keep up with the times. I do my part by coming up with a listicle of my home county’s more obscure historic locations: a playground next to an oil refinery that was the site of a minor Revolutionary War battle, an office building that used to be the county poorhouse. This gives me an excuse to drive around and ignore phone calls.
Behind a Walmart on a river bank stands an ancient oak tree I’ve chosen for the slideshow. New Jersey is full of oak trees that have been deemed historic, and this one is a personal favorite. The Clement Oak is at least four hundred years old and was a local landmark before Europeans even thought to start living here. It’s also where the first manned flight in the country came to its inauspicious end. In January of 1793 a Frenchman showing off his hot air balloon lifted off from a prison yard in Philadelphia. He drifted across the river and landed a few hours later in the vicinity of the Clement Oak, freaking out a bunch of farmers who were justifiably concerned by some jackass dropping out of the sky in a basket and addressing everyone in French.
I stand behind the Walmart in my business-casual cardigan thinking about how and why people decided this tree was special. It’s three times the size of any other living thing in the region, and stands alone on the side of Big Timber Creek. It’s a white oak, as opposed to our state tree, the red oak. Red oaks appear in suburban backyards as spindly lawn ornaments, straight and boring. White oaks, on the other hand, are broad and expansive, the stuff of fairy tales, all gnarled branches and vast canopies.
I feel an urge to cry, but this is not special. For the past few months, all it’s taken for me to get a good cry going is a little alone time.
It was a mild winter, and now it’s over. Often in the night I jolt awake at a mental image of Jeff with bulging eyes and a black tongue in a basement in Alaska. I wonder what he thought about as he descended the stairs, and wonder if he was hoping, as we all were, for an early spring.
We’re having band practice at Stephen’s dad’s house. Our band sucks, but it’s not the worst band in the world, a fact I can confirm because I have already been in the worst band in the world. Our drummer sits behind a kit that once belonged to Jeff, though he and Jeff never met. Jeff played four or five different instruments. He left the drum set with Stephen for safekeeping when he moved, swore he’d come back for it, made us promise not to break anything. We offered it to his brothers after the funeral but they said it was too soon for them to go gathering up his stuff, which has been scattered around New Jersey and Philly in storage units and friends’ houses. So now we use the drums to play subpar surf punk and live in fear of damaging our dead friend’s most prized possessions.
Band practice is always a boozy event. This is both a cause and an effect of how the band sucks. We’re taking one of our many breaks when Stephen mentions he’s still got bedbugs.
“This is worse than Jeff dying,” he says, dampening the buzzing strings of his guitar. A beat passes, and I realize that he’s serious.
“At least that only happened once,” he continues. “This just keeps going.”
Stephen’s willingness to put his own comfort before anything else has become something like an inside joke, but this is shitty even for him. Six months ago, I would’ve shouted at Stephen for being such a sublime asshole, but these days I’m too tired and drunk. I swallow my rage and we get back to our botched cover of The Nerves’ “One Way Ticket.”
I vent to Kurt in a text, saying something along the lines of “Steve’s going to get hit in his brat mouth if he ever says anything like that again.” Half an hour later, Kurt writes back, vague and transparently uninterested.
I quit the newspaper, convinced that getting away from stories of fires and shootings will help my mental health. Jeff is not the entire reason for my departure, but he is part of the reason. I land a better-paying gig at a medical publisher writing articles in which cancer drugs as effective as coin-flips are hailed as major breakthroughs. I befriend two guys named Dave. They both work in gray cubicles identical to mine, both used to play in punk bands, and both used to dream of writing short stories.
As the months drag past, I realize that Kurt and Danny, who live with Stephen in the old rowhouse, have withdrawn from me, perhaps because I get wasted and obnoxious and bring up Jeff whenever we’re together. Social media suggests they’re preoccupied with hockey, work, and proving to the internet what good friends they are. There are photos of the two of them with their arms around each other at the ice rink, photos of everyone out to dinner as part of a gathering nobody told me about, photos of a birthday party for Kurt I never got an invitation for. I am bitter, a drunk, a loser living in a basement apartment in South Jersey while everybody else has a great time in Philly, but I am also one of the last people still talking about the fact that our friend died less than six months ago. Jeff only comes up when Stephenor I mention him.
I visit Siobhan with my roommate Ava one day after work. Siobhan surprises us by acknowledging her dead brother could be a real pain in the ass.
“You mean to tell me he didn’t leave a note? She didn’t know he wanted to kill himself? That’s bullshit,” Siobhansays.
We’re talking about Caroline again, though I can’t find the energy to blame Jeff’s wife for what happened.
“You know how he was,” his sister continues. “He told me he always talked to you. He was always bitching about something. There’s no way she didn’t know it was going to happen.”
We’re in Siobhan’s backyard on a long, golden-pink early summer evening. She and Ava are planting basil in cardboard flower pots that will in turn be planted in the garden. Ava excels at working with plants, though our subterranean apartment inevitably starves her succulents of light. She’s the kind of young woman people describe as “earthy,” with a bandana in her hair. Ava reaches into the potting soil without gloves. I’m still dressed for work and am holding my own basil plant, too stoned to participate.
Siobhan says: “If he never went out to Anchorage, this never would’ve happened.”
She told me months ago that Jeff visited her in a dream and said he left a note, but I’ve already forgotten how I responded. I do know that I was skeptical at the idea of dream visions, even though Jeff keeps dying in the space behind my eyelids before I drift off to sleep each night.
Ava asks Siobhan about her plans for the rest of the yard. I notice that they’re getting along like old friends, which is exactly what Siobhan wants. She told us in the weeks after her brother’s death that she wanted to get to know us all better, that being friends with us might show everyone another side of Jeff, that we already had so much in common just from knowing him.
Nobody else from our old group has accepted Siobhan’s invitation. Stephen says matter-of-factly that it’s not worth the drive, and that anyway Jeff and his sister weren’t very close. Toochie lives too far away and is always on the road for work. Kurt and Danny have ceased to appear anywhere except Instagram.
I visit the house with the garden just once. Siobhan and her brothers are angry about Jeff’s death in a way I can’t relate to, burdened with a rage that isn’t mine. I suspect that I am failing Siobhan by not doing more to befriend her. But I also know it’s not really my company she’s looking for.
Ava visits Siobhan a few more times, which baffles the rest of us. We’d all known Jeff for years by the time Avajoined our social circle. She’s a little too willing to burst into tears or wax philosophical over a joint for anyone’s taste.
“She told me I need to hang out with Jeff’s family because it’s so therapeutic or some horseshit,” Stephen says. “She barely knew him. She sure didn’t know his family.”
I agree, though I should be ashamed of turning on one of the few people willing to go through this with me. No one except Ava is taking it as hard as I am, and yet I’m repulsed by her grand displays of emotion.
“I’m getting tired of how upset Ava is about my friend dying,” I rant to a friend in a bar.
The month passes without me noticing. Somewhere in here, somebody looks concerned when I mention I’ve been drunk every day since February, but no one tries to make me put down my beer.
I turn twenty-six at the end of the month with a handful of friends in a bar. I’ve surprised myself by becoming close to the two Daves from work, and one of them even manages to make the party. The night disappears from memory except for a single conversation.
“I didn’t think to tell Danny we were going out for your birthday,” Stephen says.
“Who cares? Why would I want to see someone who doesn’t like me?” I say, slurring.
Kurt has barely spoken all night. He’s straight-edge, like Jeff was, and downs a single two-dollar Coke before heading home.
Two months vanish. Jeff’s twenty-fifth birthday is October 5th. Ava takes off from work and spends the day texting us about how it’s just too hard. I’m too annoyed to consider that she might genuinely be as shattered as I am. I can’t tell if I’m bothered by Ava’s behavior because it seems disingenuous, or because some part of me has decided I’m the only one allowed to parade around as a brave, wounded old soul whose friend killed himself. I go to work as usual and text Jeff’s siblings that they’re in my thoughts.
I’m consuming a lot of podcasts lately. The pace of work is slower than at the newspaper, so I spend significant chunks of time listening to famous people tell Marc Maron about how it looked for a few years like they wouldn’t make it, but then they made it after all. I don’t have a data plan that allows me to listen on my phone, so I listen to illegal uploads on YouTube. My typical work day looks like this:
- 9 am: Community-acquired pneumonia kills 100,000 each year (350 words)
- 10 am: MARC MARON PODCAST MARK MOTHERSBAUGH INTERVIEW PLEASE SUBSCRIBE!!!
- 11 am: Shaving pubic hair associated with greater risk for STDs (290 words)
- 12 pm: Lunch (Two grandma slices from La Sicilia pizzeria, one can Barq’s Root Beer)
- 1 pm: RADIOLAB PODCAST – Dinopocalypse! FULL
- 2 pm: Brief cry (Grown-up kind, tears only, no sobbing)
- 3 pm: MRI outperforms standard biopsy for diagnosing prostate cancer (337 words)
- 4 pm: MARC MARON PODCAST EDIE FALCO PT.1
- 5 pm: Home (Earlier than encouraged by management)
I am packing on an unhealthy amount of weight. I’ve replaced all my button-downs with less stylish shirts, two sizes up and in the same four muted colors. I snore now, which is new, and my bagel intake is unprecedented, though it keeps pace with my hangovers. Donald Trump is elected president and although this is horrible it’s on-brand for the year I’ve been having. I’m aware how bad this news is, but I cannot focus on reading except to get through my job and I lose track of current events beyond a general sense that we’re all going to hell. My world contracts until it contains only my office, my apartment, and the inside of my car.
This Thanksgiving is the first in years I haven’t been on call for work. I drink through it, sitting around the living room with my aunt and future brother-in-law. My sister and parents maintain respectability, carving turkey and keeping the conversation civilized. I am bloated and half-awake, my new default state.
Stephen and I compare notes on our depressive weight gain while Toochie looks on, amazed. We’re putting together cassette tapes for our band, but when everybody’s drunk it’s hard to stay on task. You can only fold so many inserts before you need another beer. I sit on the floor of Toochie’s spare room and rail against friends who have drifted out of my life. I do this without noticing I’ve become unbearable, a drunken slob who only wants to talk about death. It’s important to me to remind everyone how I’ve been wronged, all the time, forever.
Christmas comes. Nothing about the holidays stands out except the company party where I’m forced to dart away from the karaoke machine after a bunch of coworkers try to get me to sing.
Our terrible band plays its first show in a basement in West Philly. The punk house is known as Time Cube and is named after a conspiracy theory. Nobody in the band knows what this means or who is supposed to be conspiring, though Nick, our rhythm guitarist, believes the theory is antisemitic. This only makes it more confusing.
Michael, the guy who warned us all in February that we had a hard road ahead, is playing with his band Stupid Reasons. Michael has an art degree and drew up the flier, which features a cartoon car crashing into a tree, a plume of smoke rising from the hood. Inside the smoke, Michael has written the names of the bands, the cover charge, and the time. Anyone looking for the location has been encouraged to ask a punk.
I drink a forty and pee in a toilet with a Post-It on it begging visitors not to flush. The residents of Time Cube are all in Washington for the inauguration, either protesting or sitting in jail for breaking windows. My contribution to the unflushed toilet brings the situation to critical mass, but this is not, strictly speaking, my fault or my problem. The sink is full of gray water and there is no soap. I head down to the basement and pet a black lab I’ve drunkenly named Choco. We’ve all brought guests, who are annoyed at the bathroom situation but happy to be at one of the biggest gatherings we’ve attended since the funeral.
Our band is better than I thought. We receive approving nods from the crowd, which in this venue is equivalent to a standing ovation. The guy running the door compliments our Nerves cover. We carry Jeff’s drum set back to the car, gingerly, the way he used to do after his own shows. With every scratch, we fear, his memory grows a little fainter, until the drums are no longer special.
Jeff’s personality has been overshadowed by his violent death, an item in a box in my brain labeled Traumatic Events. It’s only now that I’ve processed the loss enough to begin missing him, his petty sense of humor, his fluency in C-list slasher flicks and slacker comedies, his encyclopedic command of the history of metal and hardcore.
Jeff’s favorite movie was Wayne’s World. The movie is turning twenty-five, the same age Jeff would be today. Theaters across the country are holding special showings on the seventh, coinciding with the first anniversary of Jeff’s death. I wonder if he would’ve done it if he knew he was killing himself on the anniversary of his favorite movie.
I have a hack writer’s fixation on cheap symbolism. I once talked for months about going on a bad date to a pizza place that burned to the ground a few days after my date told me she wasn’t interested. It is thus very important that I go see Wayne’s World. I ask around to see if anyone wants to come, but it’s a Tuesday and everyone has work tomorrow. It’s out of the question to ask Kurt or Danny, who are still in the cocoon they’ve made of their hockey jerseys and seem to think I haven’t noticed they’re not speaking to me. Toochie is traveling. Stephen agrees, but when we arrive at the theater, we realize we’ve got the wrong location. The correct theater is forty minutes north, and the movie will be almost half over by then. Instead we get dinner at a chain restaurant and call it a night. The year after Jeff ends without fanfare.
In nine months I’ll introduce myself to a support group called Survivors of Suicide on the forgotten top floor of a municipal building off I-295. In a year I’ll cut out alcohol for a while and shrink fifty pounds back to my normal size. In fourteen months I’ll make up with Kurt over dinner in Rittenhouse Square. I’ll tell him, at a tiny table in an over-decorated mansion-turned-restaurant, that I’m sorry if my drinking and bad attitude drove him away, and he’ll say that it was just distance and work and different styles of grieving that pulled us apart. He’ll say we’re still friends, but will stop shy of admitting he’s been avoiding me. I’ll accept it, because it’s almost good enough.
In eighteen months Danny will take me aside at a summer party and tell me he regrets how shit went down with us. I’ll be moving away in a few weeks, and Danny says he doesn’t want me to leave feeling like nobody cares.
“I talked some shit,” he’ll admit on the front steps at Toochie’s new place in Delaware County. He’ll tell me that he’s in therapy and taking Lexapro, and that he should’ve handled his issues with me differently. “I don’t want you to feel like you can’t come around,” he’ll say.
We’ll hug, or maybe we’ll just shake hands, but either way we’ll go back inside and join the laughter in the dining room. I will understand for the first time that things with my friends will never really be the same. And with my sunburn and my sweaty beer bottle and the hot night around me, I will be okay with this.
A few months before this reunion — after I join the support group but before I hear from Kurt or Danny, before I make moves toward pulling myself together — the Eagles surprise the world by winning the Super Bowl. Everyone in the tri-state area is enthralled even if they don’t like football, clinging to any reason to celebrate in the depths of winter.
It’s been two years and one day since Jeff. A woman from my support group who is about the same age as my mom has encouraged me not to dwell on the anniversary if I don’t think it’ll help, so I’ve decided to attend the victory parade with one of the Daves from work. We’ve been given a day off for the occasion. Somewhere, Ava and her boyfriend are watching at home together with their own beers, and my social media feed is a long string of photos of all my oldest friends meeting up without me.
This city is not famous for being easy to get along with, but today the citizens of Philadelphia have gotten together for a little semi-wholesome debauchery. It’s a clear, freezing morning and two million people are getting joyously shitfaced on Broad Street. The team rolls by, waving from the tops of giant green buses, and the crowds drift north toward Center City. I walk down the middle of the closed-off road with my companions, kicking through the Bud Light cans that form dunes on the asphalt. I’m making my way toward City Hall, which is topped with the statue of William Penn. He gazes down from his perch at the scene on Broad Street. From my place on the ground I look up at him and keep walking.
Andrew Polhamus grew up in New Jersey, where he began his writing career as a newspaper reporter. He lives and works in Columbus, Ohio.