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Home, like family, is a mixed blessing.

 

There’s a funeral home near 7th Avenue and Bethany Home Road.

It’s a low and tasteful building from the mid-fifties — back when whole swaths of the American Midwest were relocating to Phoenix. I can’t imagine funeral homes played much on people’s minds back then. We don’t like to think about death in the US, and especially not here in Phoenix. This town is all about eternal rebirth — we presume. When I pass this building distant howls of sadness from years before ring in my ears. Sometimes, those howls disappear as I approach 15th Avenue and remember my brief career as a hair model for Supercuts. Sometimes, they don’t.

In 1995, I realized that I, too, could be used for sex. I had been a pawn in life-plan of a New England girl who just wanted a past to put behind her. I was used for my erectile tissue, then dismissed. In the aftermath, I was emotionally numb, but still horny. Actually, I think “emotionally numb but horny” probably describes most guys in their 20s. But I thought I was a special case.

I looked up from her handwritten letter long enough to say “well, fuck you, anyway” and went bowling, of course. That’s what one did back then.

It was at that bowling alley I met a new girl. She was a friend of a friend. I was struck by her honey-blonde hair, her gentle curves, her open smile, but most of all, that voice. She sounded like a young Carol Channing. I’m sure I was one of the only guys back then who made that association, and almost certainly the only one who’d have been turned on by it. Maybe I was a special case, after all. I was convinced Angie was.

A special case, that is. Angie was a good name for her. She seemed angelic.

We exchanged pager numbers. Back in the Dark Ages we had Motorola Bravo pagers. Only coke dealers could afford personal cell phones. After a day of pining for the angelic Carol-Channing-Sounding Angie and trading pages, we finally made a connection. We’d meet up that Friday night at the Mason Jar to hear some horrible local bands at an all-ages show for a five-dollar cover charge. Because that’s what one did back then.

She was as delightful as I had remembered, but soon I realized she was almost entirely naive. From some small town in rural Utah, she’d come to attend ASU as a freshman. Her girlfriend hung around to help judge my intentions, one supposed. Angie was too young to drink in the bar. She and her friend would sneak out and slosh back some schnapps from a bottle hidden in the bushes at the edge of the parking lot. It made me chortle in some prematurely-aged way.

Still, I was smitten. I was too smitten to tell her friend I’d be taking Angie back to my place and she’d be fine. I had decided Angie deserved better than that. She was boozed-up and wavering, a distant take-care-of-me look on her face as she hung her arms on my shoulders. We made some plans to get together later in the week — without her chaperone. I wanted to see where it would go — just not that night.

The following Monday in my cube at work, I got another page. This was from our mutual friend. Something had happened.

After a Sunday’s worth of drinking and toking in some shitty apartment, Angie and her other naive friends decided to pile into someone’s Mercury Cougar. They needed a Taco Bell run. In the drive-thru, the guy in a pickup front of them was taking too long. Something was wrong in his order. The kid in the Cougar honked his horn and yelled. I suppose others packed in the Cougar cheered him on. They wanted their Taco Bell. The disgruntled guy in the truck stepped out of the driver’s side door, took a few steps toward the Cougar, pulled out his nine-millimeter, emptied its magazine, then ran back to his pickup.

I don’t know if he took his order with him.

In the Cougar, shattered glass everywhere. The bullets had nicked the driver in his shoulder and ass. Someone took one in the shoulder. Another grazed off someone’s rib. They were moaning in pain, stricken, still happy to be alive.

But Angie was quiet.

That voice spoke no more.

I learned so much in the week that followed. I learned almost no one else knew Carol Channing, much less her peculiar voice. I learned it’s normal for kids to think of nothing but themselves. I learned homely college girls do try to pick up grieving guys at memorial services by pretending to be journalists. I learned the dead look nothing like the living, no matter how well-prepared before being placed into caskets.

I learned what a parent’s deep, imponderable, inconsolable grief looks like. I gave them my condolences as we stood near the coffin at that funeral home on Bethany Home Road and we took turns gazing down at their only child. They asked if I had been her boyfriend. I pursed my lips and shook my head. I tried not to think of what might have been different if I had asserted myself that Friday night. Probably nothing. Possibly something.

I learned just how numb I could get.

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My novel: Diamond-T