This year marks the fifth anniversary of my friend Matt’s death. He was my brother in every sense except for blood, and like siblings, we fought, had misunderstandings, hurt each other and went through periods in which we didn’t speak. We weren’t on speaking terms when he died, so there wasn’t a chance to say goodbye. It was an incredible loss, having known this man since we were first graders and we would walk home from school together. I would often stop in his house for a snack, or to check out his room full of the hippest toys, like Maskatron — enemy of the Six Million Dollar Man — an action figure that came with three interchangeable faces, or leafing through his latest issue of Mad Magazine or Cracked.
Growing up, he was always forward thinking; he had the latest video games and a Commodore 64. You would have thought he’d embrace the digital age, with e-mail making it so easy for friends and family to reconnect and stay in touch. Yet as soon as he set off on his own to live in Seattle, Matt shed most of his earthly possessions and tried to live on just his wits and bare essentials, except for his books and music. He absorbed facts and lyrics like a magnet picking up tiny metal shavings. That’s why his aversion to the Internet always perplexed me: If anyone would have thrived in a world where information was a click away, it should have been Matt.
Then again, this is an assumption based on the twenty years I knew him best. From age 28 until the end, the two of us were awkward when we got together, sometimes like strangers. We’d meet up in some shitty dive bar, get liquored up until closing time, and never really connect emotionally like we did in our past life. If I were to psychoanalyze the Matt I knew late in his life, I’d say that he was depressed over being diagnosed diabetic and being told that he needed to cut back on his pleasures of alcohol, junk food and staying up until the middle of the night smoking and ranting about the world’s shortcomings. Moreover, there was the annoyance of insulin injections.
My sole account of Matt’s final years comes from his younger brother, whom I try to keep in touch with; it’s not always easy. From what I’ve learned, I did not favor well in Matt’s eyes. No need to stir the ashes of resentment by repeating what was said; I’ve accepted how he felt. Whether his remarks were his true feelings or just another rant to get some kind of reactions, I’ll never know until, perhaps, we meet up in the afterlife. In the five years since Matt collapsed in his apartment kitchen late one night, most likely trying to reach his insulin, I’ve been able to move on to a place where instead of dwelling on the loss and regret, I can simply smile and recall some great moment from our past and hold that in my heart instead sadness or anger. One such moment — and it’s been a recurring thought as of late — occurred in the seventh grade.
In the spring of ’83, Matt and I partnered up for an oral presentation on the theme of “horror.” At the time the two of us were avid readers of Fangoria, worshiped the typewriter of Stephen King, and idolized the late Rod Serling. For our speech, we decorated a tri-fold poster board that contained my hand drawn picture of Serling, various grotesque cutouts from our favorite gore magazine, some images of ravens and houses with seven gables representing the macabre fiction of Edgar Allen Poe, as well as realistic images like a nuclear bomb explosion and soldiers going off to battle. Our principal argument was that horror existed not only in the arts, but in everyday life, what with the Cold War raging and the threat of nuclear holocaust prevalent on the evening news. For seventh graders, it was a pretty heady stuff.
On the day of the presentation, we received permission from our teacher, Mrs. Whitwell, a stern English woman with whom I had many confrontations (why she never threw me out of her class is beyond me) to shut off the overhead lights and turn on my brother’s strobe light, a worthwhile purchase from Spencer’s Gifts. As our speech began I began playing the “horror mixtape” I had made for this project. It opened with Bach’s “Tocatta and Fugue in D Minor” and contained some other classical pieces that heightened the eerie mood we were trying to conjure. At the end of the tape was the classic Queen/David Bowie song, “Under Pressure.”
Matt and I were big Queen fans back in the day. While our early exposure to the band was limited to the songs on the radio, our appreciation grew when, in 1980, Matt’s mom took us to see Flash Gordon, that cheeseball adaptation of the Alex Raymond classic comic strip starring Sam J. Jones. Besides thoroughly enjoying the movie’s action, adventure and romance (who can forget Melody Anderson as Dale crying out, “Flash, I love you, we only have 14 hours to save the earth!”), we loved the majestic score by Queen. Matt bought the soundtrack and we would listen to it while reliving our favorite scenes from the movie. When Queen Greatest Hits was released late ’81, Matt bought the vinyl, so naturally I soon had my own copy on some cheap, recycled cassette tape. On the U.S. version of the album, the Queen/Bowie collaboration closed out side one. Neither of us knew who the hell David Bowie was or how significant he was in the world of music, so his inclusion on the song didn’t matter to us. As far as we were concerned, this was classic Queen.
The reasoning behind including this song in our report was based solely on the couple of times I had seen the great video to the song. The images of destitution, death, and destruction had a lasting effect on my 13-year-old mind. Moreover, the use of classic horror film clips really drove home the song’s deeper meaning.
As we wrapped up our report, Matt and I talked about the horror of man while “Under Pressure” played underneath in its entirety. The lights came on, our classmates clapped (some even said it was “cool”) and we eventually received an ‘A.”
Somewhere in my garage is the three-ring binder that still holds the original report we wrote. How I wound up with it after all these years I still can’t recall, but I treasure it. From time to time, when I’m clearing away college mementos that hold no meaning anymore, that binder will find its way to the top of a pile, begging to be read. It always seems to resurface in those moments when I’m reflecting on Matt. In those times, I’ll run my hand over the yellowing paper, trace the black ink of Matt’s perfect cursive writing and reread our simple report. Whatever sadness I may be feeling slips away and all I think about is the love I had for my old friend and oh, what I would give to hear his voice just one more time.