We weren’t good friends. We were too different to be close. But we worked together, traveled together. There was no getting away from him.
I guess that sort of made us friends.
He drank too much and smoked too much. He did harder stuff nobody knew about. But his personality was inviting. He could make friends with a doorknob.
He’d grown up tough on the outskirts of Atlanta. As a boy, he learned to play guitar, and he picked the hell out of it. It took him places.
He was close with his mother. She came to his gigs. She never missed, she’d sit front-row.
She killed herself before he was full-grown. After her funeral, he spiraled downward.
When we worked together, he was trying to get his life together. He had a new wife, a new daughter. Both were blonde with curls. He wrote songs about them.
He started going to church, he even joined a Bible Study.
Once, we worked in North Carolina for a week. Asheville. It was late spring. Jacket weather. We had the daytime to ourselves so we went for drives—he couldn’t sit still for longer than a cigarette.
We landed on twelve-hundred mountainous acres that belonged to Billy Graham himself. I drove, he took in scenery. It was the first time I’d known his mouth to run quiet.
A chapel sat on a rocky hill. We stopped. The building was unlocked and empty. Wood floors, maple pews. Billy Graham’s picture was on the wall.
“You reckon Billy Boy ACTUALLY preaches here?” he said.
The chapel had a postcard view, overlooking God’s country.
“You think people who kill themselves go to heaven?” he finally asked.
“No doubt in my mind.”
He spoke of his mother. He was past the crying stages, and he wasn’t angry, either. In fact, he seemed a little hopeful.
He told me about his ambitions, he had several. He wanted to be a songwriter. He wanted to quit playing crummy out-of-state gigs. He wanted to be somebody that made his daughter proud.
He said, “Let’s promise each other, one day, when we’ve finally hit our strides, we’ll mention each other.”
A lot has changed. I’ve grown. He went one way. I went mine. Like I said, we weren’t close.
Yesterday, I took out the garbage. I found a newspaper in the recycle bin. It was several weeks old. A picture of a familiar face. “In memory of…” it began. It was an overdose, I heard. Accidental.
He deserved more than forty-five words in the Daily News. So here are a few he wrote a lifetime ago for his Bible study:
“It’s about love,
It’s about grace,
And all the mercy heaven has for a human race,
Make me like a child.”
I still believe those who kill themselves go to heaven.