The Sound of Skateboard Wheels
Grief is a reminder of how small we are compared to the vastness of what life has in store.
Sometimes, it feels like staring into the sun is probably the easiest answer when trying to make sense of my life. Fuck it, we’re doomed, why not burn out my corneas? Life is a weird-ass ride. People change, they grow apart, they start thinking Alex Jones is sane. It’s a straight up circus out there, and we’re all under the big top.
As I get older, life’s only turned out more bizarre. I stopped trying to understand culture, and instead, simply observe it. Watch with intent. I have no idea who any of these popular motherfuckers are, anyway. I’m no teenager. I don’t want to get caught up, either. I plan to keep reading books from people who’ve been taking the dirt nap since Eisenhower was in the Oval Office.
A few moments made me conscious of the mortal coil, but the big two were becoming a dad and my friend Matt’s suicide.
I never wanted to get married or have kids. I figured I’d roam the earth like Caine in the movie, Kung Fu. But now, I can’t imagine my life without my two gremlins. Fatherhood is my north star, my bright spot. I know I’ve made a lot of mistakes and taken a lot of L’s over the years, but those little dudes are two of my unfuckwithable wins. It balances out the darkness, most days. But with the love, there comes a lot of loss.
This is how I found out Matt killed himself: I was scrolling through Facebook and kept seeing people from my old neighborhood posting things like, “I can’t believe you’re gone” and “I wish we could have known.” Bad shit. A surge shot through me as I traced the links, and saw my childhood best friend’s name, popping up over and over. I called his phone. I called his mother. When she had a moment, she called me back to tell me about Matt.
We talked. I listened, and I didn’t cry. In the moment, I didn’t fully process it. It was like hearing dialogue from a movie. I told her I’d be at the funeral and promised to “write him something nice.” What the fuck else could I say?
Matt was my best friend when I was twelve, and we’d been tight since we were 4 years-old. The sound of our friendship is skateboard wheels hitting concrete, 1990s punk, janky mixtapes and the hustle of scrounging up a couple of bucks for a chili dog. For 34 years, our matching White Sox hats signaled a deeper love than being mutual fans of baseball team. I can’t remember life without Matt. He’s embedded in my memory, woven into the fabric of my being.
When we discovered skateboarding, we begged our parents to buy us flea market, garage sale, second-hand skateboards—cheap, didn’t matter. We’d ride anything with four wheels and the ability to ollie. We took scrap from dumpsters, new houses. We stole anything that wasn’t locked down and built the worst child-mangling ramps we could put together. (Don’t judge, it was a different time!) Matt and I sucked. But we were obsessed anyway, trying to land the big tricks and failing every time.
Once, we were in downtown Chicago near a hotel where the bottles all faced out in a giant, glittering wall of glass. It was beautiful. We were trying to kickflip over the curbs when legendary sportscaster Harry Caray stumbled out, drunk as a skunk. We yelled his name. Being a man of the people, Harry gave us a one-armed salute with a roaring, intoxicated “Hey, hey!” just before he fell into his cab. We hated the Cubs. But we thought it was the coolest thing ever. We’d never seen a “famous” person before.
Above all, we loved the White Sox. By the time we were 10 years-old, we were trading with every kid in the neighborhood for White Sox cards, always ditching Cubs players before they poisoned our collections. We went to a lot of games. We saw Ventura, Thomas and Ozzie. And when the White Sox won in 2005, we called one another. Our team finally did it.
Back in those days, Matt, me and my Grammie were a trio. Matt was family, and the women called him “red-headed Matt.” Grammie took us everywhere. Someone hooked her up with a cheater box—an illegal descrambler which would allow you to get cable channels without paying—a dude in the hood would climb a pole and give you cable for $50. Most weekends, Matt and I would sit up all night watching R-rated movies while everyone else was asleep.
In high school, we used to do one another’s homework. We were yin and yang with school. I crushed English and sucked at math. Couldn’t do the essential times tables. Matt was the exact opposite. The man couldn’t spell “the bird is in the cage,” but could he figure out your taxes on a diner napkin like he was tying shoes. Once, he did my math homework for me. I got an A+, and my teacher was so excited. She thought I’d had a breakthrough in pre-algebra. (I was a senior. It was so sad.) In exchange for that A+, I’d written Matt a paper. Only his teacher asked him to stay after class. He knew immediately Matt didn’t write it and made him do it over. After that, I learned to make mistakes on purpose.
After we got our driver’s licenses, Matt scored a broken-down minivan, and my God, did we think it was the coolest thing ever. Other kids had these crappy little cars. Matt had a van. We could fit so many people in that thing. We’d cruise around the South Side, blasting Misfits tapes and acting cool—Matt behind the wheel, me riding shotgun.
A few years later, we discovered Jackass. Whatever they did, we groaned, “We coulda got paid to do that?!” And, just like all the other dudes who saw the show, we eventually accepted the fact that we could probably take a swift kick to the junk, but not handle doing a swan dive from the roof onto a glass table. We tried the smaller stuff instead.
One day, we were hanging around at my friend Eddy’s mom’s place. Matt and I had heard about “the milk challenge,” predicated on the idea that the human stomach can’t handle a gallon of milk. Chugging that much was a guarantee you’d puke—a lot. I remember it was a summer night: us two jerks were spewing hot milk puke all over Eddy’s mom’s flowers. And her garden. And the grass. She came out screaming. We laughed so hard that we had tears in our eyes while this poor woman was freaking out. We ended up having to clean it all up with Palmolive and a garden hose.
I took those silly moments for granted. There’s so much left unsaid, so much time wasted. I have my sweeter reminiscences, too, but the fact is that Matt was fun. We were good together. We got up to shit I couldn’t imagine doing with anyone else. No matter what I was into, what stupid thing I was working on, Matt was there for it. He never wavered. He was my rock, always there. He told me how proud he was when I released a book. When an article went live, he’d share it, say to his friends that he had a friend who was a writer.
That touched me. I wish I’d seen him more. I owe a lot to him for being my friend, and it didn’t dawn on me till I read a lot of these memories as I gave his eulogy at his funeral. Those small moments of truth wrapped in love.
Over the years, we grew apart as life happened. I moved to New Orleans and then to Austin. Matt became a millwright and moved to Indiana. But we never lost touch. The thing is, I don’t know if I ever told Matt how much respect I had for the life he chose. I think I’ll always regret that. Thing is, we’re from the South Side. Our people work with their hands, and Matt followed in that tradition. Tradesmen like Matt built Chicago by doing the jobs that mean something for the infrastructure of our world. We never let distance or time affect our friendship. We texted, and any time we saw one another, it was like we’d never been apart. We never lost a page in the book, even if it had fewer entries lately.
After his son died unexpectedly, Nick Cave described grieving as feeling like “tiny, trembling clusters of atoms subsumed within grief’s awesome presence. It occupies the core of our being and extends through our fingers to the limits of the universe. Within that whirling gyre all manner of madnesses exist; ghosts and spirits and dream visitations, and everything else that we, in our anguish, will into existence. These are precious gifts that are as valid and as real as we need them to be. They are the spirit guides that lead us out of the darkness.”
That was how I felt about Matt. When I love, I know that the other side of that coin is grief. When I give my heart over to someone, it’s part of the unspoken deal that while I have you right now, later on, I will mourn you with an ache that stings. Grief is a hideous reminder of how small I am compared to the vastness of what life holds in store.
* * *
When I got to the funeral, people I hadn’t seen in decades were surprised to see me. They acted like I was a ghost who’d blown in to bury another specter. I gave Matt’s eulogy, and I’m glad someone could speak up for him, because the priest didn’t know what the fuck he was saying. That was just words, throwaway lines from his notes. I’ve given a lot of final words over the years, but this time, I gave it my heart. It was the least I could do.
I felt the weight of Matt’s body when I carried him home on my shoulders with the others.
After the service, we racked up hefty tabs down at the tavern. I drank till five in the morning and my brothers and I talked shit till the sun peeked through the clouds. We did it because it was mandatory. That’s how we do memorials: swapping stories, talking about life and wondering about where the road would take us.
I think about Matt often as things change in my life, as doors open and close. When he took his own life, I had a ton of questions. Why did he leave us? Couldn’t we have talked it out? What about his family? What about our friendship? None of these things matters now. All I can do now is remember when it was awesome. I don’t dwell on his absence. I remember the redhead at the end of the ramp, and how eager we were for our skateboards, looking out at a world of possibility.
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