Death of a Young Friend (Part One)
Short Essay about young friendship and death
The five boys met at the Poinsettia Park bleachers—the chipped and splintered dark green bleachers that faced the main baseball diamond where they all played Little League. After some mumbled greetings, the boys left to walk the mile or so to the little white house on Fountain Avenue, leaving the nearly deserted park to the gray haired couple walking hand in hand, the short, little man walking his little black dog, and the group of Tai Chi practitioners on the left field grass. On a normal Tuesday in May, they would have been in school—but today was different. They decided to take the day off, the school year was coming to an end anyway; besides,they had something more important to do.
It was a cloudless sunny May afternoon and the Los Angeles smog was lighter than the heavy gray that would appear later in the summer that would clog up their lungs and make it painful to breathe. The walk seemed endless. They noticed every crack in the sidewalk; the red lights seemed to last longer than normal; the cars noisier than usual. But that was fine with them--they were in no hurry to get there. No hurry to face the gloom. For the first time any of the boys could remember, nobody said anything; no jokes, no snide remarks, no insults, no cussing--not once was cocksucker used, or asshole, or son of a bitch; nobody pushed, nobody punched, nobody yelled; the boys just kept walking—silently walking—trudging really. Jerry bent down to pick up a discarded record lying in the empty field across from the Motown Recording Studios and flung the black disc like a Frisbee--it was the only time any of them did anything but walk. They walked through the Boys Market parking lot, across Santa Monica Blvd, up Fuller Avenue, through Plummer Park—passing the park tables filled with rumpled old Russian and Polish men in frayed sweaters playing cards and smoking cigarettes—snarling at each other as old men do; walking until they got to that little white house with the little white fence wrapped around it.
One by one they proceeded through the gate, down the concrete path, and up the three wooden steps that led to the doorway. They stood on the little porch with the peeling white paint, looking at each other to see who was going to make the first move. Ronnie--talkative Ronnie, loud Ronnie, aggressive Ronnie, was usually the first to say something, the first to act—he stood there motionless and mute. The other boys looked at him-- Ronnie nodded, his eyes blinking as he fought back tears; his large, square face squeezed tight--he pulled the screen door open—the spring let out a slight screech, he gently knocked on the wooden door.
The boys waited silently, some looking down, some turning their heads to the busy Hollywood street behind them; they all seemed to suck in their breath so as to keep back the tears that welled up just behind their eyes. Mrs. Katz opened the door. She looked different than when the boys last saw her just a couple of days ago at the funeral. The makeup was gone; her face was now the color of Silly Putty; dark circles lined her eyes, proof that she hadn’t slept for days--her usually perfectly styled, upswept reddish brown hair was haphazardly pulled back in a bun. She was wearing an oversized oxford gray Brooklyn College sweatshirt that called attention to her slight shoulders. She looked at the boys—her eyes gazing down to the shortest one—who stood about five feet—then up to the tallest—nearly a foot taller; she tightened her lips and shut her eyes, “Come on in”, she said, as if she expected them to show up. Her voice was shaky, barely loud enough to hear.
The boys stepped into the tiny house; the house barely big enough for them, the remaining relatives from out of town, and the large bouquets of flowers sitting on the floor and on every table in the house. Crowded on the drooping couch were Alan’s grandparents and aunts. Several cousins and uncles sat on grayish brown metal folding chairs. Annie, Mrs. Katz’s younger sister and best friend, the one who persuaded Frieda to finally move to LA, was quietly talking to a couple of her cousins in the kitchen. Packed suitcases sat on the floor as the family from Brooklyn got ready to catch a plane back home. The room was dark, the California sunshine locked out behind the drawn shades. The house smelled of cigarettes and flowers and sadness.
“Thank you so much for coming over boys--get yourself something to eat, we still got plenty of food,” Mrs. Katz said as she looked to the dining table where sat the left-over half-full platter of corned beef, roast beef, turkey, rye bread, kosher pickles. “Alan loved corned beef sandwiches.” She paused and took a deep breath, letting the words she just uttered sink in—“Ah--let me get Phillip--let me try to get him, at least,” she sucked in a little more breath for courage. She walked to the back bedroom to get her now, only son. The six boys stood there, silent, hands stuffed into their pockets, looking down at the worn Oriental rug under their feet.
Phillip followed his mom from the back of the house—his flaming red hair and face full of freckles highlighted his green eyes. He was wearing a light blue t-shirt, a pair of jeans, and a brand new pair of bright blue Adidas Gazelle athletic shoes that his uncle Joe bought him during a shopping trip to Star Sporting Goods the day before. “Hi, I didn’t know you guys were coming. It’s great to see you…..” Phillip’s words falling off in mid-sentence. He stood there awkwardly; his hands felt like cooking mitts, big useless things he didn’t know what to do with. Thoughts batted about in his mind—like batting practice balls going everywhere--should he cry?; say something to ease the tension—something he knew he had no talent for, talk about baseball?--instead he just stood there like his feet were nailed to the floor; the awkward stillness turning the quiet room into one of deafening silence. “Yea, it’s good to see you,” Phillip continued in a voice flat enough to step on. Then Ronnie, good old Rhino, rambled forward and put his big arms around his best friend’s little brother; Phillip recoiled at the touch, almost knocking down a bouquet of flowers sitting on a small table behind him. All Phillip could think of were the words he heard come out of Ronnie’s mouth eight days earlier—the words he still couldn’t get out of his head, the words that left him feeling guilty. The rest of the boys stood where they were, startled, they diverted their eyes downward wishing they could escape through the floor. Without saying a word, Phillip put his red head down, turned on his bright blue sneakers, and walked back to the bedroom, the room he used to share with Alan. Ronnie was left isolated, helpless, alone in the middle of the room.
Mrs. Katz hurried forward, holding her hands clasped in front of her, prayer-like, her face twisted in pain, “It’s been really hard on him, I’m……” before she could finish, Ronnie pulled the large, thick envelope he had tucked away in the back pocket of his jeans and handed it to her. “This is from all of us” he said, trying to forget what just happened. She looked at the boys—trying hard not to break down—trying her best not to let out a gusher of tears. The boys looked back at her. “Go ahead, open it,” a couple of the boys said. Her hands shook as she tore the envelope open and pulled out the card. The card was stuffed with 10 and 20 dollar bills, a rubber band holding them together--$620 in all. She grabbed the money tightly in her fist—squeezing the bundle, then let her grip soften. She looked at the card which was signed by 30, maybe 35 of Alan’s friends and fellow ballplayers, wishing her and her family condolences—but all she saw was a messy blur—deep runny lines of black ink. Tears filled her eyes and rolled down her cheeks until she stood there sobbing. Annie rushed over and put her arm around her and laid her head on Frieda’s shoulder. Mark, at 16, the oldest of the boys, said, “We collected the money for you—we wanted to do it—we thought it might help.” All the other boys nodded their heads—tears staining their faces.
Mrs. Katz stepped out of Annie’s hold and handed the card and the bills and the envelope to her sister; she walked up to the boys and hugged each of them—saving the last hug for Ronnie, a hug that sucked every ounce of energy she had left, a hug that sent her collapsing into the strong young man’s chest. “Thank you. Thank you so much”, she said over Ronnie’s shoulder. “Alan loved you guys.”