On this day two years ago, she called me and was hysterical, a beautiful girl of 18 who was named after mountains and had already seen too much shit in her life.
"Someone just told me that Ryer died. Is that true?"
I was in the wharehouse, standing by a coffin elevator. "I don't know." My stomach was filled with rocks. "Let me call some people, and I'll call you back."
He had collapsed that morning, and I had been told that his heart had stopped, but he was in the hospital and it looked like he would pull through. I had a terrible feeling all day, but still this call shocked me. "Lightning Crashes" was playing on the radio, and I knew things were going badly, and the rocks were being juggled. I called Ryer's girlfriend. It rang a few times and went to voicemail. I was panicking. I called again, and after three rings an unknown voice picked up.
"Who the fuck is this? Where's Ariana?"
"I'm a friend of Ryer's mother."
"Someone just told me he died, what the fuck happened?"
She choked up and I died inside. She didn't need to say it, but she did anyway. "He passed away. I'm so sorr-"
The phone fell from my fingers and a cinder block fell from the sky and hit me in the back of the neck and I collapsed onto the elevator, my head in my hands.
That night, I drank more than I thought was possible, and I watched as the crying train of people filed in and out of the house where we, his friends that were closer to him than his own family, had our own wake and our own funeral for this friend we loved so dear. It was not two months after we celebrated his 22nd birthday that we would weep in sorrow, knowing that in three days he would be in the ground until whatever end this Earth comes to.
I'd known him since high school; we traveled amongst the same circles of drunks and delinquents. He was one of the only football players who was in our group, most of us being more of the rebellious type (and sorely lacking in the athletic department). He was a big motherfucker, sitting at 210 solid pounds at 5'10, and he would have been a great player if he wasn't, as a friend of mine said, "Made of shit and twigs." He had more oddball injuries than anyone I'd ever met before (or since), including the proclivity of his once-dislocated shoulder to just slip out at the most inoppurtune times. He broke every bone that was possible, and was always in some kind of cast or brace; he once got so sick of being in a body cast that he took a hacksaw to it, which stunned his doctors and infuriated his mother.
He went by many names amongst us, some because of his size, others because of his personality- things like, "Steroids", "Jocko", "Ry-Air", and, my favorite, "Cryer" (called this because of how often he was whining about something). We liked to break his balls, being as his demeanor just lent itself to good natured teasing, and we knew he could handle it.
All these jokes would fade, however, when we'd workout at the school gym. There was an old leg sled that had a thousand pounds and Ryer's name on it, and he would live on that thing, slamming the weights and breaking red paint off the sides while the metal wailed. I never told him, but I was impressed by the shear strength that guy had, watching the metal plates race up and down. He was a guy that you wanted on your side in a fight...or if you needed to pull an airplane out of a ditch.
When he was a freshman in college, he was looking for part time work. He wanted something blue collar where he could be outside, and being as I worked a local garden center at the time, I got him in there. Two weeks later, he was on the job. It fit him well to be working there, being as he liked moving heavy stuff but was so often injured that construction would have killed him.
These were good years. I learned that working with a guy that you're buddies with can make a shit job seem... well, less shitty. While moving rocks or shoveling shit into the dumpsters on raggedly cold afternoons, we would rage over politics, at which point the argument would always end with me calling him a "neo-fascist ignorant asshole" and him calling me a, "commi pinko pussy motherfucker." He would wear his black "Welcome to America, Now Speak English" shirt with pride, going well with a crappy trucker hat that had an American flag on and looked cheap even though it cost him $25.
There were alot of similarities between us. Neither of us were fond of people, and both of us liked weightlifting, drinking, and women (exactly in that order). We both hated prim metrosexuals, greasy guidos, and any man that wore capris during the swampy Jersey summers ("If there ain't no flood, don't fucking wear those things.") Neither of us did drugs, nor were we for doing drugs; any younger kid that started working there that had a coke or heroin problem would be subject to a constat beration of jokes and insults from us. We were harder on the ones we liked; we wanted them to see us and realize that the shit isn't cool, and the older guys that they were trying to impress thought lowly of it. I know of at least two cases in which we were successful, to the point where the guys said that we were like older brothers to them.
You talk about alot when you were work with someone for nine hours a day. Eventually everything comes up; drinking stories, religious beliefs, your girlfriend's favorite sexual habits, how many times you got caught by the cops while she was in her favorite sex position, etc. On Christmas Eve's and Fourth of July's when you're working, you need to come up with shit to entertain you, just like on the New Year's Eve's and the Easter's. Eventually, you end up seeing each other more than your own families, and it takes on a dynamic similar to cops who are partners.
He became the older brother that I never had. He was trustworthy and blunt, and if you wanted the absolute truth on something, he would give it to you without thinking twice. If you got pissed at his answer, he would give a sarcastic, "Sorry", immediately followed by, "Don't fuckin ask if you don't want to know."
He scared people because of his size and demeanor, the red goatee on his chin making him look meaner than he actually was, and I knew that he had my back in any scrap we got into. There was a time when he literally threw people off of me, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, and dragged me from a fight, all the while I was spitting and cursing at him to let me get back in. Through a drunken haze, I remember him saying as he slammed me against the wall- "Good fight. Now fucking stay here and don't move." He grinned, and I knew that he was proud of me, the undersized kid who fought like a fury that night. Later on, he would tell people that he was impressed with how I did that night- it was the biggest compliment that he'd never give me. He knew me too well, knew that my ego would explode after hearing something like that, and so he kept it from me.
It might sound like I'm idealizing this guy- I'm not. He was what he was: a big man unafraid of anyone put in front of him, and even though he was an asshole to everyone he didn't know, he would have laid is life down in seconds for his friends, family, and country. He made many men back down in front of him, but still cared deeply for those around him. This, to me, made Ryer a better man than I.
This is where you might expect the happy ending, the moral of the story that makes all the tribulation of his death worth it. Well, this is real life, and that shit just doesn't always work out. He died of a ruptured spleen. No one dies of a fucking ruptured spleen. When they opened him up, he was as healthy as any 22 year old guy should be...with the exception of the time bomb that took his life without warning, without reason, and without care.
When I said before that my group of compatriots is like a family, I wasn't kidding. We all come from roughed up houses, sad pasts, and have seen tough times even though we're all under 25. Nothing, however, struck any of us harder than his death. We were the tough guys, the ones tempted fate constantly and always made it out- now, one of our best and brightest was dead. He took care of himself far better than any of us, and he was dead. He was 22, a guy, and invincible... and he was dead. The drinking has not really stopped. Some of us haven't recovered, and may never. I have not. I might never.
I'm paranoid when people call me late at night, or more than once, for fear that the news is terrible. I have cursed off God on bad nights, drunk on whiskey and anger, and have told Jesus that I'd kill him if he was here. I think of the empty chair in Ryer's house on Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I punch walls. There is a section of the building at work where we were fixing rotting sheetrock during his final week, and I was painting it over the day he died; I can't go near it. I didn't sleep for months at a time, and for most of the following year I was going off of three hours of broken sleep each night; the only times I could get more were when I was drunk...so I drank. I get panic attacks in old diners that smell like cigarettes, but you'll never know it- it's a feeling that rumbles inside me and I do my best to contain it, and the only thing that you'll see is my leg shaking. It's worse than that.
I get the feeling every day that somehow this will be my last day alive, and something will blow inside me and I will collapse and see the last lights of a beautiful life, and then die, as he did. I fear something happening to the woman in my life, one of the few who I have let get truly close to me- I have it too good, and it will somehow be stripped from me. I don't want kids, because those kids will die and I'll have to bury them, and watch more gray caskets get soaked into the Earth while sad songs like "Fields of Athenry" play on ancient bagpipes over the straight, silent rows of marble. I avoid the obituaries in the papers because my head spins when I read them.
While I weightlift during the day, eat as many calories as I know I need, and do sets of pushups that burn my heart out on my off days, during the nights I lead a slow suicidal push that grows as the moon does in the sky. I spend nights in alcohol induced slumbers, wondering when the fates will cut my string, and how many crying people will be at my funeral when God finally comes to judge me. I wonder if I died in a car wreck tonight, if I would go straight to hell, or if there is something after it that I never could foreseen. Or, worse yet, there is nothing but a cold darkness where time is dead and the world is gone. I wonder what, if anything, matters in this world, and whether our memories will survive when the sun expands in four billion years and incinerates the Earth. I wonder if what I say here, now, matters at all. I wonder if Ryer made it to heaven. Sometimes, I've thought that if I went too, at least he'd have someone to drink with, wherever he is. Sometimes I think that it should have been me.
This is my heartbreaking wreck, my vicious life carved out for me by memories that run and flail like eight year olds playing youth football. I try to keep on, though, and I just put my head down and fuckin fight, because, in the end, that's all that men can do.
Everytime I hear this song, I think of him.