When Anthony sent me a message that he had tried killing himself, I put all my plans for the day aside and dedicated myself to a visit with my friend.
The drive was lackadaisical. The air cold, but not frigid. The sun bright and unobscured by the white wisps of cloud. Life seems somehow friendly, which is very unusual for mid-December in Wisconsin. I buy some junk food at Burger King and attempt my best to drive and shovel food – French toast sticks with syrup – into my mouth at the same time. I am only partially successful, occasionally spilling syrup from the little plastic container onto my flannel and jeans.
As I drive the hour there, I gaze upon the country side, trying my best to be present and aware of my surroundings. The fields curve and dip as I pass them. There is a lite coating of snow upon the ground, but today, most of it is melting. I take all the main roads, zooming through the landscape with Tom Waits blasting through the stereo.
As I approach Knapp County, the sky seems to take on a sweeter quality and the trees seem to spread their barren branches in welcome. This sky is my home and these trees are more closely related to my identity. They are the same ones I gazed upon as a child. I think back to my young, impressionable mind, influenced by the Midwestern landscape of green hills, ochre fields, endless corn rows, birch and pine swaying in the wind, and the eternal sun, rising and falling upon the horizon with all of the world’s ancientness.
When I arrive, I get out of my car and stare up at the old farmhouse for a while. It is the place where Anthony and I spent much of our time growing up. We always spent more time at his house than mine. Mine used to be located down the road. It had been burnt down a few years back.
The paint upon the boards are chipped, leaving autumnal edges to every side, corner and shingle of the house. The garage and barn are still there, as is the rusting, creaking windmill. One can no longer read the writing upon its hub – the letters have faded with the endurance of too many seasons.
I am fumbling with things in the backseat of my car, trying to decide whether to bring in my guitar, amplifier, journal, or just leave them when I hear his voice.
“Hi, Tylor! I’m doing a lot better now.”
I turn around, slightly disoriented. There he is, walking down the front stoop. His hair is a long again, nearly to shoulder length. His face is scruffy. But he looks like my friend, mostly as I remember him. He is dressed in his usual black attire, with a shaggy hoodie draped over him.
When we enter the house, he offers me some coffee and I accept. He pours me a cup and when he hands it to me, I give him a hug and let him know that I’m very glad to see him. His hugs are always very tight. He is a man whom always puts an effort into an embrace. I cannot say his hug is cozy, as Anthony is a very scrawny man.
“We just cleaned the house yesterday,” he says. I look around and the floor space is perfectly clear, but everything – the floor, walls, doors, windows, are very grimy and dirty. I go into his bathroom and kick a pee-loaded diaper out of my way as I make use of the toilet.
His sister, Shaina, is there too. Says she is on her way to the college to attend a speech of one of her peers. She is nearly finished up with the semester there. Anthony paces back and forth and around the house. He smiles, makes conversation, is genuinely interactive. I was prepared for the worst. I was prepared for him to be in very bad shape, to be gone, to be insane – like he was last time. Yet to my delight, he seems to be doing okay.
There is a constant whining and shuffling from the corner of the kitchen. I look over and down and see a little kennel with a Pitbull in it. The Pitbull is neurotically clawing at its cage, crying, making a scene. Shaina explains the dog is being kept in the kennel because she gets excited and…likes to nip.
Walking about the first level of the farmhouse, through the kitchen, the dining room, around the bottom of the stair case, memories begin to drift into my mind and settle like dew. Always Friday night pizza, pop and card games at the kitchen table, which is now gone, leaving the old wood floor naked and exposed to the sunbeams gleaming through the large windows. It is a house of windows. The emptiness and degradation of everything at once saddens and awakens me.
As I am talking with Shaina in the living room (while Anthony paces, paces), I spill some coffee from my mug onto the floor. “I have a hole in my lip! Sorry.” She laughs, says it’s no problem, grabs a towel and wipes up the mess for me.
Anthony and I head outside. I grab my guitar, amplifier, and drum machine from my car and bring them into the cold garage. We set everything on the messy, tobacco covered bench and plug in. He hands me his cheap electric guitar and asks me to fix it. “The top two strings sound good but the rest of them sound like shit!” he says. I look down at the strings and I can see why. They’re coated with a heavy rust from being kept in the garage all year. I recommend that he store the guitar inside the house and to change the strings whenever possible. Sometimes he looks up during our conversation and I see his father glowing through is blue eyes.
Pretty soon we get to making some music – well, some noise, anyhow. Anthony on the drum machine. Myself on his $89 guitar. There is one moment during this messing around which I shall treasure for a long time: for about a minute, my guitar riffs and his drum beat fall into perfect sync. We are playing something which is recognizable as music! Anthony looks up at me with a mischievous grin – his particular expression of joy. I can see my friend, the one I grew up with, in that grin.
After a while, we grow tired of making noise and head back into the house. I sit on the dirty couch and he explains to me a bit of what happened. He had become depressed about a woman he was talking to online (he is always talking to women online, and leaving the state to go meet them – but he always comes back, disheartened). He had great doubts as to if she were real or not. He had been chatting with this woman over the phone, on video chats, over text messages for nearly every day over the past three months. He tells me he became paranoid that she was an impostor. He began suspecting all the photographs and videos of her as belonging to someone else. He had planned to take a bus to her home in Pennsylvania, to live with her, to have a relationship with her.
He “fell into a dark spot”, he says, and took a razor blade to his arm, began cutting vertically. When Shaina and her husband discovered the cuts, he was taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he stayed in recovery for a full week. I am only grateful that his cuts were shallow. My friend has always been incompetent. At last, his incompetence had literally saved him.
“I’m not ready for a relationship now,” he says suddenly, planning to stay away from Jamie, the woman from PA. I tell him that I agree, that I think he has much work to do on himself before romantically sharing his soul with another. “Yep,” he affirms.
I hand him a book – The New Earth by Eckhart Tolle – in the hope that he may adopt a more positive existential outlook and an ability to cope with his darker sides. Perhaps I am foolish in this hope, but all the same, where is the harm in giving away a good book? Before handing it over, I grab my pen and scribble on the inner cover: “To my best buddy. Merry Christmas. Love, Tylor.”
“Oh, man,” he says. “Thank you. I don’t have a gift for you. I wish I did have a gift for you. I’m sorry.”
I tell him it’s no matter, that I don’t need anything, just his friendship, and his health.
Soon Terry, his social worker, arrives. She is asking, “So, Anthony, tell me what happened?”
I give him another solid hug before leaving, letting him know he can call/message me anytime he needs to talk. I am currently writing all of this at the Hilltop Bar and Grill in Woodville, WI. Three regulars are lounging at the bar, making small talk, and I have some coffee and a novel in front of me. Many One Dollar bills are stapled to the ceiling, hanging in loose flaps. There are inscribed many messages and obscenities from drunks on these bills. All of a sudden I get the impulse to pay my tab and leave for home. I intend to leave behind the drunks, my half-finished cup of coffee, the dimly lit bar. I think of passing the peaceful cemetery on my drive home. I think of the blue sky with the sun setting, and the white plumes of clouds drifting across the expanse. The road calls me…back to it.