In the fluorescent-lit hive of O’Hare Airport, a bartender with a halo of ash for a hairline buys me a drink. Whiskey from the well. Neat. He sets it down with a glass of water on the bar in front of me. Last night I booked a plane ticket, stuffed a duffel bag and threaded my arms through a tweed suit jacket—one I found at a Goodwill a couple years ago, but up until now never had an occasion to wear.
Twenty minutes and I will be on a plane. And then a space of time: taxiing and safety demonstrations and ginger ale in plastic cups. Five hours and I will wave down Hamilton’s dented Prius from beneath the United Airways marquee at PDX. He will drive us across Portland to the ICU, on the way telling me what the hell has happened or is happening or will happen. He will tell me that Stephen’s brain is dead. That they’re running one more test just to see if they can find any activity. Any reason to try and save him.
It will be too soon to figure out what to do now, so we’ll leave the hospital and go to a stupid clown-themed bar called the Funhouse in Southeast Portland, the same neighborhood I lived in four years ago. At the bar there will be the same people from the hospital—I count no fewer than four of Stephen’s own grieving ex-girlfriends, consoling one another. It is some well-meaning idiot’s idea to go to the Funhouse because Stephen liked jokes or because he liked clowns or because he had dressed up like a clown for Halloween once.
Stephen. No. The name is wrong. For more than a decade we have called him the Worm or just Worm because of his long body, the curvature of his slouch. But the name seems wrong in death. Worm: a nickname coined ten years ago by Hamilton and me and Dwight—Dwight, who is also dead, long dead, though we don’t talk about him much anymore, so many years removed, he at eighteen making an ill-advised pass on the crest of a hill, the four of us still going to the same rusted-out high school in the same rusted-out town on the rocky and wet coast of Oregon. When I think of Dwight now he is less of a real person and more a character or a shadow of a character in the short story I wrote about his death. Worm is in that story as well—one of the first I ever wrote—and I wonder if in absence I will now come to conflate him with the character I’ve drawn. Or with the character I’m drawing now.
In the days after his death at twenty-eight, people will call him Stephen, as if they’d always called him Stephen, same as Patty had put on the birth certificate. Hamilton and I will refuse. We’ll insist on flippancy, do imitations of Worm, reaching new levels of irreverence, aping that nasally bass tone—the effect of a deviated septum—and saying things like, God guys I can’t believe I’m really dead.
People will give us a pass on this behavior because if anyone can say these things, Hamilton and I can say these things. In the face of the unfathomable, the idiotic, we will act like idiots.
That first night I’m in town, Worm’s body sputtering out, Ham and I will pull it together, cramming into a wrap-around booth, a thousand paintings of a thousand clowns fitting together on the walls around us. I will focus my attention on the woman next to me, someone I’d dated intensely for forty days when I first moved to Portland, both of us rebounding from break-ups in a new city, both drinking too much—she, using a long straw she’d fastened out of Scotch Tape and two normal sized straws, lashing them together so that they could reach to the bottom of a double bottle of cheap Pinot Grigio. It was the only time in my life I smoked cigarettes. A pack a day for forty days, the duration I lived in her smoked-out apartment, piles of ash rising on the end tables and carpets around us, all of my belongings stashed in the battered station wagon I’d parked on the street beside her building.
She doesn’t drink Pinot Grigio out of long straws anymore. In fact, she won’t drink anything but ginger ale at the Funhouse. I follow her outside to smoke a cigarette even though I do not want one; I want only to bury my face in the nicotine scent of her neckline. She will allow me to come home with her, equal parts pity and care, and sleep under a thin blanket on her cigarette-pocked couch. Her apartment is unfathomably two blocks from where Worm or Stephen or Stephen A. Person—his real name—was pinned in an Astrovan to the side of a creative arts supply store. I like to imagine the smashed and smoking van bedazzled with glitter and tissue paper, a mess of Elmer’s glue coating the vehicle. But I’ve seen the news clips and I know this is not true.
In the morning, this woman who rescued me from the Funhouse, who used to drink double bottles of white wine with me in bed and make us tea when we were hung over and roll a joint and quote Jack Kerouac, this woman who taught me how to French inhale and spoke French to me for forty days will have to go to work early. I will need to leave the apartment and face the gauze of Northwest gray, the sky gesturing rain. I will walk the two blocks to the intersection where people have already started leaving things: notes, a basketball, some photographs—all that will need to be collected by someone at some point, but who? When I come to the intersection where they have built the shrine—where they are building the shrine—I will not stop to touch the pictures, read the letters, bounce the basketball, spin it on my finger like the Worm used to do. I will keep my feet moving.
Die tragically and you’re a celebrity until the end of the month. Even if this is just a video on the local news of your smashed-up car or some article in the paper about the court proceedings that follow: the arraignment for the drunk who’d downed pints of Pabst at Sassy’s, a hipster strip club half a mile from where the evening would end, the drunk blowing a stop sign in his pick-up truck, plowing into the passenger side of the minivan that was taking you home.
Die like this and a reporter will corner your father at the hospital. “To me it’s just like shooting my son with a gun,” your father will say. The reporter will title his article, “Father Seeks Revenge for Son Killed in SE Portland Accident.” He will quote your father, “As far as I’m concerned, it’s cold-blooded murder.”
Die tragically, t-boned into the side of a creative arts supply store, and they will build you a shrine: the letters, the pictures, the basketball, all a hopeless homage, an attempt to conjure the dead. Die like this and people who don’t know you—who will never know you—will find the obit posted by the magazine you interned at. “Atop a lanky six-foot-plus frame sat an ancient face that wore the gravity of late-night restaurant work but the electric blue eyes of a creator obsessed with everything else he was doing,” the journalist will write. And then a link to an article you’d written for Portland Monthly recounting a day you’d spent at the racetrack like you were Hunter S. Thompson: “I expected more hats,” you’d written. “Wacky ones. Big ones. Hats with quirky sayings and hats resembling Henry Moore sculptures. Cloches, fedoras, bowlers, panamas, floppies, and cowboy hats—I expected an ocean of hatted absurdity.”
For a month, people who never knew you—who will never know you—will read an article written about you, another written by you, the tandem struggling to define you.
Die tragically, a mess of smashed metal and screech and smoke and an Internet search of your name will render, the first picture, a shot of you in that brown thrift store windbreaker lifted from Facebook to accompany the obit, your mouth pulled into a grin, probably stoned.
This is the picture that represents you alive.
The second image is of your death: a still from the KGW news crash footage, the van’s passenger side door collapsed, the metal punched in where your body was, the cameras getting there just in time to film the medics lifting you onto a stretcher, your broken body swathed in some Virgin Mary blue hospital shroud, a tube already slid down your throat, a brace on your neck barely visible in the dim-lit film.
Die tragically, your body tangled in a crumpled minivan and there it is, the images, the articles, forever guarded by the thirteen keystrokes it takes to spell out your name.
My second morning in Portland, I wake up on Hamilton and Worm’s sofa. Worm’s guitar is propped on the chair beside me, falling out of tune. I find the French press, boil water, grind beans for coffee. There are three tallboys in the fridge, tethered loosely together by stretched, exhausted plastic. If the beer is Worm’s it is fair game. The dead don’t drink. I hook my finger around one of the plastic rings and shuttle the beers back into the living room. Every Christmas and summer I come home to Oregon. In Portland, I stay with Hamilton and Worm and wake up hungover on this same couch, cracking a beer leftover from the night before with my coffee, always lax on moderation while on vacation. All is fair in grief and leisure and today I balance both.
I write the word “Eulogy” on a page in a notebook I find wedged between the cushions of the couch. It is Worm’s and I think that this is kind of funny—no, goddamn hilarious, absurd that someone’s own eulogy would be written out in one of their old journals like it was just another passage. “Yesterday, I died,” I write on the last page. “I am dead.”
I take a drink of coffee. I cannot keep up this nonsense; there is work to do. A wake to plan. This will not be like Dwight’s funeral when we were eighteen, Ham and Worm and me arriving late, sitting in the back of the church, not even in the pews, on the floor, feeling the pull of grief while listening to Dwight’s brother console the crowd with his eulogy, conjuring images of an endless beach, each grain of sand meant to measure a single day in eternal afterlife.
This isn’t my only frame of reference, though. The first eulogy I ever heard was given by Ron Randall. He was my father’s best friend and he’d stayed with my family in the days after my father’s death by heart attack at thirty-six. I was seven years old and I’d played a fun game of clinging to Ron Randall’s leg like a bucket of cement. I saw him two more times after my father’s funeral—once when my sister and I stayed with his family for a week one summer to provide a stretch of parental reprieve to my mother, and then once again at the potluck reception when my mother remarried, Ron Randall arriving late, missing the ceremony, a bowl of ambrosia fruit salad cradled in his arm.
Ron Randall is a comic book artist for Dark Horse in Portland. In his eulogy he spoke about being inspired by my father’s boyhood comic collection, his bedroom at twelve: pathways forged between stacks of Marvel and DC and Cracked and Mad Magazine. I could track down Ron Randall and ask him what points I should make sure to hit. Did he have a copy of his notes still? How long did it take him to write? Did he still think about my father twenty years later?
Sometimes, Ron Randall would probably say. I think about your father sometimes. Not as much as I used to.
Once every few months. First it was every day. Then it was every week. Now I don’t think of him much. I’m sorry. How often do you think of him?
Maybe every other week. It’s been so long.
This isn’t about your father, right now. You know that.
Yes, but if I knew what you said for his eulogy it might be helpful. I could use the same template. I just don’t remember exactly what you said. I was so young.
Whose eulogy are you writing?
I finish the beer and open another. It isn’t Ron Randall I need to talk to. I need to understand this loss. I need to talk to the man who hit the Worm, a man named Nathan Wisbeck. I’m not mad at you, I’d begin. I want you to know that. I just need to know what you remember about that night. I need to know exactly how it happened. Or at least, exactly how you remember it.
Wisbeck’s hair is like Worm’s, a mess of smashed buttercups. I’m blonde too so the three of us might be brothers if you squinted, maybe even the same blurry person. Wisbeck would push all that hair out of his face and tell me, It isn’t fun remembering any of it. I hate it but it’s all I do. Over and over in my head. There is nothing else to do in here but think about it. And before, all I wanted was free time to myself, to be off the clock, to not have to work in the morning. And now all I have is free time and all I do is tell myself again and again what happened—what I remember happening and what the police and the lawyers told me happened.
What do you remember?
It doesn’t matter. It’s done.
I want to know how something like this could happen.
Fine. You want to know what I remember? It was my Friday so I went into the city. I was alone. I went to the Triple Nickel and had three whiskey beer backs and I didn’t talk to anybody and nobody talked to me except for the bartender to ask me if I was doing okay. I go to bars because it feels somehow more productive than drinking at home. After the Triple Nickel, I drove to Sassy’s. I got out eighty bucks from the ATM and I left once it was all gone. I spent most of it at the rack. I paid for one lap dance from a stripper named Thursday. She’s the one with tattoos and big nerdy glasses.
What else do you remember?
I paid Thursday fifteen dollars for the dance, tipped her five, spent my last five on well whiskey, drank it at the bar and left. That’s what I remember.
Wisbeck’s cousin posted a comment to one of the online Oregonian articles. She wrote that he was a sweet, shy man. That he had been having a hard time in the wake of his mother’s death. That he’d been depressed. He was a good person, going through a rough time, and this was all a horrible accident.
First I just nicked a car with my truck. I snapped out of it. There was a metallic screech. I sobered up from the fear. I have a DUI from a couple years ago. I couldn’t get another. I pressed the gas pedal to the floor. I didn’t know where I was going, only that I had to go fast because the car I had scratched was chasing me, honking the horn, revving the engine, honking the horn, revving the engine and then—you know what happened next.
I want to hear what you remember.
My head slammed against the steering wheel. I felt the sting of skin breaking and the dull pain from impact. They pulled me out of the car. They didn’t even unbuckle my seatbelt. The ones who were chasing me. So many hands. They just ripped me out and dropped me on my back on the pavement. They punched me in the head over and over. I don’t remember how many of them there were. I remember the sound of the ambulance sirens after that. The sirens went on forever and someone put me on a gurney. I was at the hospital, but I still didn’t really know what was going on. My head was still a mess. I don’t know if I was drunk from the booze or punch drunk. I remember the police station, all the bright lights. Squinting. I ached and I was angry. They took the mug shot.
You look mean in the mug shot. So void of remorse, so full of hatred and arrogance. I will go to your arraignment because I want to see if I got it wrong and there really is a modicum of apology in your face. Will there be?
I have nothing to say about that.
At the arraignment you will appear via satellite from your jail cell. Your eyes will look red, like you are tired and have been crying. It will satisfy me.
Killing your friend is not something I’m proud of. This is not something I can change.
The beer is gone so I pour another cup of coffee. I need to find the driver of the car who chased Wisbeck and ask why? Why wouldn’t you stop when the 9-1-1 operator told you to? They already had the license plate number. How did you think you could catch Wisbeck? You knew this was the only way, Wisbeck crashing into something. You dragged him out of his truck and punched him until he blacked out while my friend sat smashed and dying inside a minivan.
Your friend was already dead when we punched Wisbeck.
He was not. He was still breathing. He died two days later in the hospital.
His brain was dead. The paramedics got him breathing again. The machines at the hospital kept his chest going long enough for you to fly in and say goodbye amidst the pumps and tubes and that metal rod stuck into his skull to relieve the pressure on his dead brain. Your friend was dead before your plane even landed. Dead before the first punch found Wisbeck’s face.
This is your fault. My friend is dead because you wanted to be macho and beat up the drunk guy who scratched your car. If I were there that night I would have pulled you off Wisbeck. If I were there I would have beat your face into the pavement until the blood came and my hands were slick and red.
Your friend would still be smashed dead in the van beside us.
The basement of the house is cluttered with Worm’s things. Nestled amongst the amplifiers, the drum set, the tangle of electric guitar umbilical cords are cardboard boxes and plastic garbage sacks filled with winter clothes, fifteen years of school work, trinkets and heirlooms. I sort out a few cardigans I want. Worm and I held the same lank in our slouched frames. There is a vintage, olive green suit jacket that would have been as small on him as it is on me, the cuff reaching to my forearm. I will take it back to Chicago with me anyway.
Hamilton and I organize. There is a box for Worm’s mother and one for his father; the pair divorced on ugly terms. We are the rational party who must decide who will get Worm’s Boy Scout medals (his father) and who will get the aged eelskin bible (his mother).
Worm was not religious, but he was sentimental and he liked old things. His mother is a Christian, born again years ago. The bible will mean something to her. She will accept it in the parking lot before the funeral, taking it as a sign that her son wasn’t an atheist like he’d told her, but in fact a Christian deep down. She will hold it up during the service when she stands to speak at the end, fast and hoarse in circuitous sentences, her voice weak from the cancer she’s fought and won, the cigarettes she still smokes. Twice the pastor will try to take the microphone from her when she seems too exhausted to continue and both times she will turn away from him, guard the microphone with the small slumped shell of her body, curved like the bible itself. The third time he tries, she will let him take the mic from her fingers, let him guide her by the elbow back to Bill, Worm’s kind-hearted stepfather, who will pull her under his arm and pin her to his body to keep her from melting into the white linoleum.
In the basement we make a box for friends, keeping track of who will get what with Post-it notes. Worm hoarded letters, notes, little cartoon sketches anyone gave him. Now these all must return to their creators. We make an ex-girlfriends’ box, filled with love notes, mixtapes, a Valentine from a girl he’d dated in college: a construction paper heart inlaid with a doily framing a Polaroid of her and Worm standing in a doorway, facing the camera, Worm wearing a red pearl snap Western shirt.
Next we go up two sets of stairs to Worm’s room where more things wait to be sorted.
Ham stops halfway and retreats back to the living room. But I continue. I need to see it exactly how he left it before it is dismantled. Tonight Worm’s sister will come to the house, the first ambassador from his family to face all that he accumulated in life. We will have a barbecue out back, inviting as many people over to the house as we can, unwilling to be alone in it, feigning some semblance of normalcy. She will take two beers up to Worm’s room and sit on the edge of his bed and have a drink, just her and her brother’s things, rising to touch the collared shirts that still hang in the closet, cuffed at the elbow from the last time he had worn them, still smelling like sweat and Speed Stick and the old mothball scent of the closet. She will finish both of the beers and set them on the nightstand and get under the blankets, close her eyes and sleep with the overhead light on, in the morning only distantly remembering the moment at which she woke and rose to turn the light off before returning to hard sleep in the lampblack room.
I too spend time in Worm’s closet, touching his shirts. I smell the ones I know he’s worn and not washed and think how strange it is that someone can be dead, burned up into ashes and still their smell remains trapped in fabric. I find the red Western shirt from the Polaroid Valentine. The shirt I’ve always liked. The shirt that is mine now. I pull the pearl snaps. I peel my T-shirt off and toss it on the bed. I thread my arms through Worm’s shirt and unfurl the rolled sleeves, regretting it immediately, thinking how the shirt is hallowed now and should stay forever rolled up to the elbows, the way the Worm left it, the shirt framed in some sanctuary, the mixture of sweat and deodorant analyzed by scientists, reproduced, bottled and delivered to each of his ex-girlfriends and to me and to Hamilton and to Worm’s mother and his sister.
And then I think we should burn the shirt and bury the ashes. And then I think we should burn Worm in the shirt and scatter the ashes in the ocean we all grew up on.
I watch myself in the mirror as I walk around the bedroom. Worm and I shared the same Sasquatchian gait and so, in the mirror now, I pretend it is he and not I skulking around the gray-lit bedroom in that red Western shirt, the overcast sky outside offering only a few shafts of ashen light.
Next I sit at Worm’s desk. I find his journals in the drawers. I take them down to Hamilton but he doesn’t want to look at them. I do. I think there might be something I can use for the eulogy.
There are nine of them. Mostly spirals except for two worn black moleskins, the kind that fit in your back pocket, still molded into half moons of black leather. Part planner, part journal, part poetic musings. Also part phone book, part sad sack ramble in the wake of break-up, a catalogue of the melodrama and the mundane of life. I find a stupid rap he’d written. A dis rap he’d penned in college against the rival conservative campus journal—Worm, the publisher of the liberal-bent Oregon Voice. Many people he’d worked with on this magazine would be at the funeral and they would find this funny. Keep the eulogy light. That’s what everyone was saying. The Facebook invite instructed everyone to wear bright clothes. Ham and I had made it, working off the wishes of the family. It was to be a celebration of life. There would be a potluck. The body would not even be present. Nor would the ashes, which I’ve been told will look less like the fine gray powder of spent campfire and more the inky ash of charcoal briquettes before the charred bone fragments are extracted and put through an industrial strength grinder.
When I was a banquet server in Portland I worked with a kid who had a second job working at a mortuary. He said when you cremate a body it’s like frying a burger in a George Foreman grill, all the grease draining off, the unctuous residue of the deceased collecting in a trap, which this kid would empty and clean out every night. There was decent money in the cremation game.
These furnaces burn two-thousand degrees, the kid told me. It takes a couple hours for each body. I want to be buried when I die, he had said. So much of the body gets all mixed up with other bodies and then it goes in a barrel and the city collects it same as if it was grease from a McDonald’s deep fryer. You could probably even run a biodiesel car on it.
I will not share any of these grotesque facts when I’m up there on the altar looking out at the pews, a couple hundred mourners focused on the podium, focused on me because there is no casket. Our friend Korey, a master of ceremonies type, a man with a voice like a megaphone, will join me on the altar. He was a cheerleader in high school and he wears designer framed glasses and a dressy vest, no suit jacket. He is garrulous, charismatic. He projects well. He is perfect.
On the day of the funeral, he and I stall while we wait the hour for Worm’s father, Ken, to arrive, a grizzled Vietnam vet who wears a bolo tie and a black leather vest, hunched in a wheel chair from a botched back surgery.
To stall, Korey and I invite people up to tell anecdotes about Worm. We keep it light. I talk about freestyling with Worm in his basement, putting the beat through the bass amp, the two of us sharing a dented RadioShack microphone. I read the rap I found in his notebook to the crowd. The crowd laughs.
Before the funeral, I told Hamilton he didn’t need to say anything but he still he thinks he has to. More fidgety than shaky, he waves the mic toward and then away from his chest. I don’t know, is all Ham can say. Korey walks toward him, the loquacious savior. But Ham shakes him off and points the mic back at his own mouth. I don’t know, Ham says again and his voice sounds like an amp feeding back on itself against the cramped cement walls of some basement we used to all play music in. I walk over to him and he hands me the mic and walks off the altar and out the door, back into the lobby of the church and to the restroom to drink water and look at his face in the mirror before returning composed, finally, my portion of the eulogy already come and gone in a smudge of twenty minutes, the priest wrapping things up now, instructing the crowd through an Our Father.
Then Patty stands with Worm’s bible, gives her shaky speech, and loosens the ground between the church and hell below. It turns out the old bible that Patty holds, that old bible that I’ve given her for comfort—a testament that we are keeping things together here and doing right by Worm—had belonged to Worm’s great-grandfather on his dad’s side, an heirloom now possessed by the poor crumpled vet’s hated ex-wife. And so after the service Worm’s father steers his wheelchair toward Patty outside the church and demands it back.
This is my son’s bible, she says. She has already locked it in the car so it is safe, the book sacred, the one thing keeping her knees from buckling. He absolutely can’t have it.
We’ve got a box of things for you back at the house, I tell Ken. There is so much stuff for all of you. We are sorting through it.
You don’t understand, he barks. My only son is gone. There goes the lineage, my family name down the drain. My name is dead. He says it again. My name is DEAD. He waves for his nurse to come and steer him back to the car, the woman lifting his thin, bent body back into the passenger’s seat before collapsing the wheelchair.
After the funeral—no, we were calling it a celebration of life—people pile Styrofoam plates with potluck food. Pallid mounds of macaroni salad, cubes of cheap cheddar, congealed enchiladas, a broccoli and pea salad. I don’t eat anything. Instead I chug two beers in the back of Hamilton’s car by myself before walking across the lot to find a cigarette. Ham is smoking with a circle of people we went to high school with who now, a decade later, are unrecognizable. He looks me in the eye and starts in with that Worm imitation. He says, I’d really prefer it if you would not drink beer in the back of Ham’s car at my funeral.
I drop my voice a couple registers and in Worm’s pinched tone say, This is a very solemn occasion and I really don’t think you guys are showing me any respect. We both laugh like idiots. We will meet an ocean of absurdity with the even more absurd.
The circle disbands. Ham says he’s sorry for leaving Korey and I there on the altar. I tell him it was perfect, that his inability to articulate the loss was powerful. That it was better than what I’d ended up saying.
What did you say? Ham passes me a cigarette.
I take a drag until my head feels detached and the ground begins moving in concentric circles. I talked about going through all of Worm’s stuff, I say. And how we kept finding those notes he’d saved. Little drawings or letters or keepsakes from friends. Things that people made for him that he’d kept. All those concert posters of his friends’ bands. And then I said something like how it was a testament to how much we all meant to him. And then I said something cheesy about how everybody here today represented how much Worm meant to so many people. Except I didn’t say Worm, I said Stephen. And then I told a joke. I said, Stephen Alan Person was, as he always liked to say, a people person. And everyone laughed.
You kept it light, Ham says. You read his rap to everyone.
I thought he would have wanted me to, I say. And then I force a loud “ha.” Ham laughs too. Then I get the journal out. I want Worm to speak right now in the parking lot in the shade of a Douglas fir tree, its pitch sticking our shoes to the pavement. I pull the notebook wide to a random page in the middle. Worm has written a list:
Sleeping in cars
Thrift store finds
The beach in the early morning
Rowing a boat
Getting up and having nothing to do
A well thought-out building
Riding the bus at night aimlessly
Walking through big cities
Following things through until the end
Watching the Portland Trailblazers
Ferris wheels and being on top of them
Cutting into construction paper.
The list goes three pages. I shut the notebook and put it back into my pocket, its bend already agreeing with my hip. In a week, when things are settled here, I will take it back to Chicago with me in a suitcase with the red Western shirt and a poster of the desert that hung over Worm’s bed. In Chicago, I will wash the shirt and wear it that New Year’s Eve, dancing myself sweaty in it. I will hang the desert poster over my own bed. Worm’s journal, I will keep in the top drawer of my desk with my own notebooks and someday, when it becomes someone’s work to sift through my things, it will be difficult to tell which words are mine and which are his.
Author’s note: Some names have been changed to protect privacy.
All photographs provided by author.