With fists, with words, with kindness
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Josh died, but this isn’t his story. Sure, it was sad, him not showing up for work for three days and then Becca, my boss at the travel agency, saying, “Josh passed away.” I’d just been thinking, Fuck me. I sent someone to LAX instead of LAS again. Becca had a faint mustache, and I watched a tear get caught in the blond hairs before I looked back at my screen. I knew I was supposed to be crying too, but part of me was done mourning every time someone in sobriety with me thought they could shoot just as much dope as they had before they’d quit and then stopped breathing.
But this story is more about Josh’s mother. She didn’t have red hair like Josh, but blond, maybe dyed, a bob that curled just below her ears. She wore glasses, artsy purple ones that women of a certain age and economic background seem to love. I first met her walking into the church at the memorial service. I didn’t want to talk to her because grief makes me uncomfortable, but I said I was sorry for her loss, that Josh was an amazing guy. She asked my name, and I told her Chase. Something that wanted to be a smile crossed her face; then it lost the battle, and her lips sagged, and she said Josh had talked so much about me, and I was a great friend. When she hugged me, she smelled of pots of coffee. I wondered if she’d slept at all since she’d found out. I told her truthfully that Josh had been my best friend. She squeezed my arm and said, “He was only able to keep at it because of you.”
Inside the sanctuary I sat next to my co-workers. They all knew people who’d died, because most of us were sober addicts; the owner of the travel agency was in the program, and his “service work” was to give us a shot. They cried. I tried to make my eyes water. A few women from AA whom Josh had slept with sat in the pew behind us. He’d come here to the Midwest to get clean and start a new life, one that didn’t involve plunging needles into his twenty-one-year-old left arm. I thought about how he might still have been alive if not for me.
He’d been dead five days before our co-worker Casey found him. She told me the needle was still in his arm, and a day later, when she helped pack up his apartment, she found a to-do list on his bedside table. This didn’t surprise me. Every junkie is blessed with rare moments when there is just the right amount of dope in your body to let you believe you can still accomplish something. Casey told me that one of the items on Josh’s list was to get back into treatment.
The service wasn’t a real funeral, but more like a remembrance. The minister told us it was a chance to celebrate the life of Josh. His body had already been buried back east, and where a coffin normally rested were three foam-board collages of Josh at different stages of his life: Josh as T-ball player, Josh as Spider-Man on Halloween, Josh as high-school graduate — and that’s pretty much where the pictures stopped, because nobody really wanted to remember those final years of Josh as junkie, following bands around the country and shooting drugs.
People took turns telling stories.
Casey talked about Josh’s love of chicken Parmesan, how he made it at least once a week and was a purist about the ingredients: he once threw out an entire batch she’d cooked for him because she’d used Kraft cheese instead of freshly grated.
Brady talked about how Josh would always sneak a single earphone in during work. Music meant so much to him.
Jared told a story about Josh on the bus, how he would talk to anyone, any age or race or mental capacity, and how he was always genuine in every interaction.
I thought about what I was going to say: PG-rated stories about us making fun of Becca’s mustache and our unspoken feud over Casey and how we traded recordings of concerts — Josh was a Widespread Panic fan; I was a Phish kid — but everything I thought of felt like bullshit. I kept thinking about the first time Josh had relapsed: The band String Cheese Incident came to town, and he and I went. It was our first show sober. I was really into AA then — well, kind of into AA then — so when Josh said he had a line on some liquid acid coming out of Santos, all I said was “You sure that’s a good idea?”
“Bro, it’s not dope.”
“Yeah, OK,” I said.
During the second set the band moved on to their darker material, nothing but sparse Hammond organ and heavy bass and sixteenth notes on the high-hat, and we danced beside one another in the auditorium, and I was trying so hard to dance without thinking, I need dope, and Josh must have sensed this, because he cupped my face, his lip ring protruding, his pupils completely spun, his voice little-boy high, and said, “Nothing is as good as it seems.”
I didn’t tell that story at the service. I told generic anecdotes about our instant kinship during training week. I told them about getting Jimmy John’s subs for lunch and taking them to the park. I told them how music was like religion to Josh, how the hurt that weighted his gaze disappeared for three-minute intervals during certain songs. I brought my eyes up from the podium for the briefest of seconds, and his mom stared back at me, one hand thumbing a stud earring. I wanted to tell her I was sorry.
Years later Josh’s mom still sends me letters. I got one just the other day, in her looping cursive handwriting. It started with the formalities of asking how I was doing: Are you still fighting the good fight? How is married life? She must be amazing to land a guy like you.
Then the transition: I wonder if Josh would have ever settled down. He wasn’t much for long-term relationships.
Then her therapy: He would be twenty-nine now. Can you believe it? I thought I saw him in the supermarket today. . . . When you have kids . . . Just keep at it.
I have a folder of her letters. It’s behind the tax returns and the manuals to DVD players long since broken. Nearly every letter Josh’s mom has ever sent me is in that folder: seventeen in all, in chronological order.
There was food after the service, but I didn’t eat much because it looked disgusting: crockpots full of dark meatballs, and finger sandwiches smothered in mayonnaise and cut into triangles. I was sitting in the little parlor of the church eating a plate of pretzels when Josh’s mom — let’s call her “Margery” — came over and pointed to the seat next to me. I smiled and motioned for her to sit. It was clear by the way she studied my resting hands that she wanted to talk, needed to talk. I just kept giving closed-mouth smiles as she thanked me for my kind words, saying it meant a lot to her to meet everyone Josh had talked about. She called me a “good friend,” a “good influence.”
I felt like a liar.
Then Margery did something I found disarming: she took my hand, placed one of hers under it and one over it, and she pressed. They felt good, her hands, the perfect temperature. And she said, “Tell me about him.”
Those were her exact words.
“Well, you know, he was . . . Josh.”
She nodded as if this declaration meant something. I didn’t know what else to say because I’d known him for only two years compared to her twenty-one, but by the way she stroked my hand, I felt I was supposed to continue, as if I could somehow shed some light on her son’s last years, on him. Maybe it was because she knew I had spent my teenage years as a runaway, following a band and doing drugs, and she needed to understand why someone would do that. I thought about trying to explain it, telling her it started with the music, with the crowd, the atmosphere, the grass under your feet, the setting sun, lights, bodies pressing against yours, a girl with dimples who makes you feel good, drugs, highs, tears because you didn’t know things could be this good, because you didn’t know there were thousands of others out there like you. And it’s the sense of family, kids playing grown-up, a communal existence or something close to it, and it’s not your father or mother, and it feels real, just genuine. It’s never having to be alone. And it’s pot, then hallucinogens, then synthetics, then pharmaceuticals, then heroin. It’s that moment in the second set of every show when the music gets quiet, and your dancing slows, and you look around, and people aren’t cheering or yelling but just shuffling in circular arcs, their eyes closed, and the look on everyone’s face is please-let-it-never-end, and then you think about home and parents and rehab and missed court dates and felonies and your future being only this, and you feel alone, and you close your eyes and try to find a rhythm, try to tell yourself that ten thousand broken kids dancing with eyes squeezed shut isn’t the saddest fucking thing you’ve ever witnessed.
I didn’t know how to tell her this.
I told her about how Josh and I would people-watch together. How we’d just sit on bus benches and make up life stories for everyone who walked by. How Josh was always so much better at it than I was.
The smile on her face told me to keep going.
And one time, I said, we went to the midnight showing of the horror movie Final Destination, and the whole next day at work Josh kept freaking out whenever Becca or Casey would get close to him, because he thought they were going to kill —
Then we were both quiet, because what I’d said was fucking stupid.
But the hand rubbing continued. My mother had never touched me like that. We weren’t that kind of family.
Margery and I sat there looking at the foam-board collages, which had been moved in from the sanctuary. She looked at the picture of her son dressed as Spider-Man and said, “Josh wanted to be a superhero. I suppose every little boy does, but he was so positive that was what he would be when he grew up.” She paused, wetting her lips. “But not Superman or anything. He called himself ‘Joshatron.’ ” She allowed herself to laugh.
I told her that was funny.
“One day,” she said, “oh, he couldn’t have been but six. He climbed up the maple in our neighbor’s yard and jumped.”
She kept petting me.
“He broke his arm. Got a really bad concussion. That boy worries me sick.”
Her mistake in verb tense gave me pause, and it was the first time that whole afternoon when I stopped thinking about myself — about how Casey saw me or what I would say during my mini-eulogy — and felt something not quite selfless enough to be compassion, but close. Sadness maybe.
Margery continued: she’d talked with Josh about being a superhero, telling him that he wasn’t able to fly — at least, not yet. She turned her gaze from the pictures. I met her eyes through the thick lenses. “Do you know what Josh said to that?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“He said that he wasn’t trying to fly. He told me his power was to hide under the ground.”
I wasn’t sure what this story meant, and it was obvious Margery wasn’t either. She stopped rubbing my hand. Maybe she wanted me to illuminate the truth of the story, to say that I, too, had felt like that as a child. That Josh and I, we were the same, both suffering from the affliction of wanting to be buried and hidden from the world, to be forgotten. That these feelings were what had caused us to leave home, to shoot dope.
But it wasn’t true. I wanted to be more famous than Jesus. I wanted love in the form of naked women and jealous men.
Or maybe my feelings weren’t so different from Josh’s. Maybe Josh just wanted to know that people loved him. Maybe Josh’s desire to be a superhero wasn’t like most boys’ wanting to fight evil and lift cars. Maybe Josh understood that Spider-Man and Superman were both charmed and cursed. And maybe Josh understood that a broken bone would result in kisses on his freckled nose.
I wanted Margery’s hands to be back cradling mine.
I kept thinking about Josh’s first relapse at the String Cheese show, when we’d taken acid together. I thought about him holding my face, how tender a gesture it had been, a deeper-than-sexual love, him telling me the summation of his twenty-one years, the truest thing he knew: that nothing is as good as it seems.
Maybe that was the story Margery wanted me to tell her, but I couldn’t tell her that truth or any other.
She asked how long I’d been sober.
I told her it would be two years that month. I was lying.
She put her arm around me and pulled me in tight. I tried to picture my mother doing this to Josh if the circumstances had been reversed, and I couldn’t, but then I kind of could, because what else would there be to do?
“Promise me,” she said, “that you will do everything in your power, I mean everything, to stay sober.”
The first letter came maybe three months later. It was a Christmas card with a picture of Margery, her husband, and their daughter, Josh’s twin sister. It is the one letter she’s sent me that I don’t still have. I try to remember where the picture was taken, the looks on their faces, but I can’t. What I remember is that it was so clearly missing a son, that it was a picture of three people trying to do whatever they could to keep going, to regain a sense of normalcy, some semblance of life going on.
I wrote back. I don’t remember what I said, but I know it was bullshit. I didn’t mention the fact that Phish had gotten back together, and I’d left the sober life I’d created, ignoring my mother’s pleas, my father’s threats, and my co-workers’ warnings, and gone back to following their tour. I’d lasted two nights before I’d succumbed to heroin. I didn’t tell her that I’d just been through my sixth treatment and was once again living in a sober house.
I’ve never told her this, and I’ve written her back at least seventeen times, each time by hand, even though I can’t spell and my handwriting looks like a third-grader’s. I tell myself that it is the right thing to do, that Josh would have done it for me, that it’s just a matter of blind luck that I’m here and he’s not. I tell myself I’m being selfless, that I’m a good person.
I don’t know, maybe this story isn’t about Margery either. Maybe it’s about me. Put the blame on my failure in AA to let go of my self-centeredness, because really what I write back to her — how great my life is, how marriage is amazing — is just self-aggrandizing filler.
I came close the other day to telling her the one thing I’ve always wanted to: After Josh’s first relapse, but when he was still working at the travel agency with me and making fun of Becca’s mustache and sitting in church basements reciting prayers to a deity we didn’t believe in, there was one afternoon when we were walking down the street and a man stopped us. He told us a story about being from St. Louis and locking his keys in his car and needing a hundred for the locksmith and that he would make it worth our while, that he had dope — the good shit, not the stomped-on tar coming from out west — in his car, and he would hook us up. He said he just couldn’t have the cops getting into his car before he did. This man reached into his sock and pulled out two tiny purple balloons and said, “Got rigs in the car, and Starbucks is right there with lockable stalls, and this shit will get you so fucking straight.”
I want to tell Margery that I went to the ATM and withdrew a hundred. That Josh spun his lip piercing with his top teeth because he was nervous. That I gave Josh half the dope, and we went to Starbucks and blasted our veins full of pure fucking love. That this love was why Josh wanted to be a superhero who hid underground. That Josh was wrong, because dope was always as good as it seemed, at least at first.
I want to tell Margery that I was able to quit after three days because I still lived in a sober house and had to take piss tests. That I didn’t even get sick. Josh wasn’t so lucky. He died two weeks later.
I want to tell Margery that Josh might have started shooting dope again anyway, but it was my money, my enthusiasm, my telling him, Just this once, that got him started again. That this is one guilt that no amount of twelve-step self-forgiveness has been able to rid me of.
And, Margery, I want to apologize because every letter I have ever sent you is not for you or your family but for me. It’s my attempt at penance, at turning the death of your son into a way to make myself feel better.
But most of all, Margery, I apologize because I know this is the closest I will ever come to saying I’m sorry, so sorry — and I know it’s not good enough.