The first time I saw John he was milling about the library, waiting for his mom and sisters to hurry up and get their books checked out. He had on a wickedly obscene t-shirt. I walked up to him, said, “Man, I love that t-shirt! But, you know, I’ve got all these kids running around here…” Catching my hint, he smiled slyly, “Yeah, thanks. I’ll just go out and change.” He left, and came back in with the same t-shirt on, turned inside out. About a week later, I saw his mom and sisters in the audience for the Harry and the Potters concert. Not long after, I saw John from across the parking lot, sporting the same offensive t-shirt. I waved at him and gave him a stern library-lady point towards the shirt. He threw up his arms as if to say, “But it was the only clean shirt I had!” I walked up to him and said, “Now, you know that the same rules apply to the outside of the library as do on the inside. I don’t like the rules any more than you do, but I keep my job by following them.” He turned the shirt inside out and stayed for the concert, and never wore that shirt in the library again. From that time on, if he saw me somewhere, he made a point to come up and talk to me. We had an agreement, you see.
John came from a passionate, non-traditional family, probably of Scots-Irish descent (very much like my own family). His were the kind of folks who, if they liked you, you were like family; if they didn’t like you…well, then, you probably didn't want to mess with them. Mom was tough. Came in to my office one Monday afternoon to tell me that she had won the wrestling contest over the weekend. Beat all the men in the place. She was admirable in a salt-of-the-earth way (hell, she was just admirable in an admirable way). We connected in a couple of ways, one of them was hiking, the other was Native American lore. We also connected because the first time I met her, I understood her and (unlike my coworkers) tried to work with her when she came in frantic because she had received a nasty letter from the library saying that she owed an ungodly amount of money (I told her to pay what she could to stop the collection letter, and try to find the books, which she did). She did the best she could with her passel of kids, John giving her some trouble here and there along the way.
I liked John cause every time I saw him he was dressed in black. Even when he was walking home in the Alabama heat from his job at Walmart, he was wearing his standard black. He was a lean, good-looking young man, sort of looked like Harry Potter if Harry Potter had dabbled in the dark arts and had had long hair. He was the kind of young man who looked like he was on the edge of going over the edge, and I think he intimidated some folks because of it. But he was a good guy, trying to clean up his life after making some bad decisions; a good guy who, from the first time I met him, seemed to be trying to do the right thing. He was just attempting to make his way in the world, and sometimes got caught up in mischief.
Just last month, while at the mall for the teen rock band competition, John found me in the crowd. When I saw him, my heart sank. He was dressed in spotless new black clothing, but looked awful, stitches on his cheek, jaw bruised and clenched. I asked what the hell happened. He said that he had gotten jumped by some guys a couple of nights before while walking home in East Gadsden. Said he was really drunk, and couldn’t fight back. They had used brass knuckles on him (from the looks of his face, I do believe him), and had taken his phone. He looked scared as he told me the story; looked like a guy who had been beaten up for no reason other than someone wanting his phone…(why would someone do that when all I was doing was trying to get home). I commiserated with him for a bit before he walked off and I went back to work. I lost sight of him as he slipped through the crowd, a phantom of himself.
Today, John’s mom told me that on the Fourth of July his best friend accidentally shot him with a crossbow, and that John was dead. He was twenty years old.
We are responsible for everyone in our lives, no matter how big or how small a role they play in our day, no matter how much we like or dislike them, no matter how much we want to change them or not change them, no matter how much they do or don’t do things for us. You better make it count while you can…
John, I want to do right by you man, but I just can’t figure out how. I've always felt that if you can't do right by the living, then you sure as hell can't do right by them after they're gone. I am too full of grief for you right now. I have memories of you…kind, biting and funny. I now have memories of you in a cardboard box (because mom new that you would think it a complete waste to spend money on something wooden that wasn’t furniture and did what she knew you would want in this situation) in the middle of the kitchen of your mom’s trailer, the sides of the box covered lovingly with the signatures of your friends, a can of Budwiser in your hand, an arrow tucked in beside you. You look a little different than I remember. Your lip-stud is missing. And I can see where your jaw still looks tender from the brass knuckles that bruised it weeks ago, a wound that won’t heal…
The last thing I said to your mom before she left the library today was this, “You know, I may be completely out of line by saying this, but…John couldn’t have gone in a normal way…” To which she replied with a hearty laugh, “Yeah, Carol, who would’ve thought, an arrow, in this day and age…”
There is not enough vodka in Russia right now…
In a surreal post script: I’ve just received a MySpace friend request from John. Because he kept in contact with so many of his friends via MySpace, his mom is keeping his site going.