J.T. (A Friend in Memory)


Todd Jones

copyright 1996

The roar of an engine could be heard over the cheering crowd that gathered in the parking lot. The morning smelled of burnt rubber, over cooked hot dogs, and butter laden popcorn all churned together and set free to meander through the Taylor Area Street Rod's annual car show. The owner of a 1969 Plymouth GTX drove through the gate that separated the baseball diamond from the makeshift drag strip parking lot. The car, with its metallic silver lightning bolts airbrushed across the doors and front fender, glinted in the morning sun.

Hundreds of people congregated in the confines of the car show. Some idly walked by cars and trucks alike, while others gawked at the remembrances of youth that the sculpted works of manufactured art brought to them. The Plymouth pulled humbly in line along side other vehicles that formed a wide arching semi-circle on the baseball diamond.

"Look at that!", JT said. "Soon I'll have mine running like that."

JT and I hurried over to the Plymouth. JT also owned a 1969 Plymouth GTX, but it never seemed to run right and the paint looked like someone gave a spray paint can to a sixth grader. Boy could he dream though. He reminded me of a military drill instructor, the way he inspected car; "The steering assembly isn't original.", "The interior's pattern is all wrong.", and "The chrome air-cleaner needs to be buffed." Automobile restoration is a passion that many share, and JT is one of them. He loves his car. JT always talks about what we will do when he gets enough money to restore the thing. The way he weaves pictures of the future always seems to draw me in with him. We are the best of friends and do almost everything together.

Automobiles of all types continued to roll through the gate, where they took there place in line on the wet grass. It continued to be a wonderful day for a car show. Another vehicle caught JT's attention and we were off. To see his enthusiasm made both the show and our brotherly bonding all that much more enjoyable.

The grass still sparkled with the morning dew as we trudged across the field. I could feel my feet as the dew soaked in. The water seemed to saturate my shoes, then my pant cuffs, and finally I woke.

Water splashed over my jeans as the morning tide came in. Rolling over merely awarded me with a mouth full of sand.

"What the?" Bits of sand sprayed from my parched lips as I spoke. I still clutched a bottle of vodka in my right hand and my head pounded incessantly. The first thing my eyes attempted to focus on was my friend Rob.

Rob crouched near the bonfire pit. The blaze that had burned so bright last night, guiding our party, had resigned to a pile of ash that smoldered in the morning haze. Rob looked out over the water, deep in thought. Another wave swept up the beach and I scurried out of its way.

"Why the hell didn't you wake me!" My head pounded. I toned the volume down a notch. "I could have drowned."

Rob looked at me vacantly. Yesterday's news must have worn on him too.

"That was some party last night.", was all he could come up with.

I scanned the beach, empty bottles of Mohawk vodka, Busch beer, and even Mad Dog 20/20 liquor littered the area. A broken bottle of Jack Daniels laid at the base of a sign that read, "Alcoholic beverages are prohibited on the beach."

"I guess it must have been. I can't remember much of it."

"We better get going, if you want to see your brother.",

The fog in my head lifted at the mention of my brother, but it did nothing for my mood. I felt like crap. I took a swig of vodka, swished the fluid around to break through the horrible pasty taste in my mouth then threw the thing in the trash. A shiver raced through my body as the liquor found its way down my throat.

"That's some potent stuff."

"You ought to know, you drank a fifth by yourself, among other things, last night." Rob chuckled, but immediately grimaced and clutched his head. He settled for a grin that came across more like a sneer, but I got the point.

"We better get going."

Rob and I gathered our stuff and jumped into Rob's Jeep. My head began to throb, again. I leaned the seat back and stared at the Jeep's roof. Swirls of black lines patterned the head-liner. I tried to focus on one, but the black on black pattern forced my eyes to cross. The effort was disorienting. I closed my eyes in defeat.

"Come on in, the water's great.", JT said.

Diane, JT's long standing girlfriend, emerged from the house with a cooler of chilled beer. She always seems to know the right thing to hit the spot. Perspiration dripped down my face. As I reached for a cold one, JT reached for Diane. He pulled her into the pool, kicking and screaming, clothes and all. They splashed around like little kids. I guess that's what love does to you.

"Get over it already and come on in. The water's fine", JT Said.

I hadn't been in our pool since shortly after our father died. For some reason, that sounded like a good idea those many years ago, I had decided to walk the rim our pool. Invariably I had slipped and fell in. All I can remember after waking in a pile of snow with a pounding headache was seeing JT hovering over me, dripping wet.

I wiped a tear from my cheek as the black head-liner came back into focus.

"Life isn't fair.", I said under clenched teeth.

Rob pulled up to his house. Both of us could use a quick shower, some fresh clothes, and some much needed aspirin. Rob couldn't know how I felt inside about my brother, he was an only child, but he offered to come along anyway. I needed that.

"What are friends for?", he shrugged.

I didn't feel like talking much so I merely nodded. We set out to visit my family in silence. My headache had diminished, but the rough ride of the Jeep didn't help matters. I leaned my head against the side window and peered out in silence.

We passed by two kids fighting on the front lawn of a gray bricked ranch style home with other children crowded all about. The spectators probably didn't even care who the victor would be, just that two kids were pounding on each other. "Nothing draws a crowd, like a crowd.", JT used to say.

"If someone picks a fight with you and you're sure there's no way out of it, then you have to fight.", JT instructed.

It was an obvious statement I thought, but let it slide.

"When he pushes you, don't push back, punch him in the face. Hit him right under the nose as hard as you can. Don't even wait for the results, if he isn't already on the ground get him there."

JT tackled me. It was his was of getting the point across. Being two years older than myself he was always looking out for me. But now…

"What the hell are you doing! Crazy woman driver!", Rob yelled as he screeched into the parking lot.

The pain was back, it wasn't from the liquor though; we had reached our destination. Rob and I walked in. The rest of my family had already arrived. I was late, like usual. Nobody seemed to mind, they were all wrapped up in their own little autonomous groups chatting away. Some of my cousins were talking quietly in on of the corners while other members of the family, those you only see at funerals, were scattered about the room. My grandma spotted me from the other side of the room and rushed over as soon as I walked in. Her arms were spread wide. She hugged me like there was no tomorrow, but I didn't seem to bother me like it normally did. There was a sense of security in here arms that I needed. Over her shoulder I caught a glimpse of JT.

I numbly walked to my brother's side, not even noticing that I had left my grandma. He was laid out in his favorite black pin-striped suit and blue tie. Above the casket hung pictures of him: next to his car, with Diane, in our pool, at his high-school graduation, and a collage of others that spanned his short lifetime. One in particular caught my eye. It was one of him and me leaning against my 1953 Chevy pickup. The look in his eyes… A muttered cry-laugh softly escaped my lips. The look was one of joy and togetherness. They were full of life. The picture captured him in his true nature; a person that lived day by day and was just out to have a good time. Now look at him.

I couldn't help but think, "How could he do this to me?" Rage filled me and I hated him for dying. My hands involuntarily clenched into fists so tight my knuckles turned white and my nails dug into my palms. My eyes clamped shut, squeezing the tears from them. "It isn't fair.", I said to myself under clenched teeth. It wasn't fair and I knew that, but I took a deep breath and let my arms fall limply on the casket. I never thought I cared this much for anything. I couldn't change things. The liquor last night only helped to push my feelings deep inside, but when I looked down at JT, lying cold and pale against the blue cushioned oak casket, I couldn't suppress them any longer. He was my older brother. My only brother. Another part laugh, part chuckle, part sniffle was back, then it was like I was hiccuping tears. They streamed down my cheek, one after the other.

"It'll be okay.", Diane said as she wrapped her arms around me. I found myself instinctively clinging to her. I blocked out everything around me. I didn't care that I was crying, who was watching, or how I looked. I just stood there and bawled. Memories of JT poured through me with each tear. The pictures in my mind of him came and left so fast I didn't have a chance to lament on any particular one. So I cried for all of them, and they flowed on, tear after tear, thought after thought. I had to get some fresh air.

Rob met me outside a little later. He made some comforting remarks, but I wasn't paying any attention to him, or anything else. Cars zooming by on the street, people huddled about smoking cigarettes, rob sat next to me, the sounds were just background noise to my thoughts. I remembered just last week, JT and I were at a party together. Now he was gone. It was so fast. He was only nineteen. It wasn't fair. If only I could turn my emotions off as easily as life could be extinguished, it would so much easier. But I could not. "It would get better, wouldn't it?", I thought.

When we were younger my mother used to tell us a stories like when our grandpa died, "Grandpa has moved down south and will not be coming back to visit us any time soon.", to spare us this emotional grief. A story wouldn't alleviate the pain this time. How I wished it could. I was alive and my brother was not. I understand the concept of death, but I could rationalize way it happened. I just knew I fear it. I don't think anyone can prepare themselves to handle it emotionally, even if they can face the facts that all creatures must pass in time.

Rob and I left the funeral parlor. I didn't even say goodbye to my family. I couldn't bring myself to reenter the building. My family would understand. For the first time in my life I was on my own, without my brother to guide me.