I was watching cartoons one morning about thirteen years ago when the phone rang. Naturally, I was hesitant to answer, thinking it might be a bill collector seeking to address the small matter of my then- unpaid student loans. I winced but picked up anyway.
The caller asked for me by name.
“Speaking,” I replied, bracing myself for the barrage of script-driven guilt while preparing a litany of excuses as to why I still hadn’t made good on my debt.
There was something different about the speaker’s voice. It was slow and heavy, as though laboring beneath a weight. Like a man who’d lost something very dear to him.
“This is Chad Matteson’s father. We got your letter a few days ago, and we read it. I’m afraid Chad’s not going to be able to get in touch with you. He was killed in a motorcycle accident back in October.”
My legs went all noodles and I slid down the wall; receiver in one hand, the cradle in the other. For a moment, time stood still.
Randal was dead.
With his stoner shuffle, perpetual squint, high-top Nikes, feathered hair, ever-present blue flannel shirt, and Ugly Kid Joe ballcap turned backward on his head, Chad Matteson was the spitting image of Randal, the wise-cracking, über-slacker from Clerks.
And he was one of my best friends.
Here are a bunch of facts: Chad and I had served two years together in the Navy as Minemen while stationed in Macrihanish, Scotland. The era was 1992-93. I was working in the component test facility on the far side of a Royal Air Force compound, testing Cold War instrument racks and batteries for underwater mines. Chad worked in the supply department in a separate part of the base, a job which gave him the time and means to wander.
Don’t get me wrong. Chad was a damn hard worker, and we both understood the importance of pulling our weight. But life is short and there are far more important things than work. Like joyriding around the base, sharing a box of microwave egg rolls, and blaring Pantera CDs from a boom box strapped between the seats of a surplus steel pig. He’d pull up in the deuce-and-a-half stake truck on loan to us from the RAF and feed my supervisor some bullshit story about “needing my help for some unspecified job somewhere on the compound.” That was pretty much the morning wasted. Used sparingly, the ploy always worked – which meant we didn’t always have to.
Life was simple then. We’d show up to work, do our jobs, knock off at 1600, and head to town for drinks. In the lull between paydays, we’d go for a drive in his piece of shit Honda, a rusted out freedom bucket in which was installed a CD player that was worth three times the value of the car, which was eventually pushed off a cliff when he couldn’t find a buyer to take it off his hands when he was transferring to Hawaii.
Wait a second. Focus. Randal is dead. This is important.
I’ve got a terrible memory, for whatever reason. I should be paying very close attention to what his father’s telling me. This is, after all, the single most important phone call taking place anywhere on the entire fucking planet at this instant. It’s bigger than atomic secrets, the price of tea in China, the questionable mating habits of venture capitalists, the location of compromised Russian launch codes, or whether Van Halen really hired teenage girls to pick out the brown M&Ms. (That’s half true.)
The voice on the other end of this line belongs to the man who first sired, then raised, then buried one of my best friends and, was gracious enough to pick up the phone and relate the very personal details of his son’s demise to a complete stranger. But there are memories blocking my ears, preventing the facts of the matter from taking root. Was this some form of denial?
Randal is dead. I mean…
I should be paying very close attention, but right now all I can think about is the five-day road trip to Glasgow that Chad and I took with fellow cohort-in-crime Ian Conway to see Tool open for Rage Against The Machine, and also to catch up-and-coming Blind Melon in a tiny venue called “King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut.”
(Did you hear what I just said? Did we even bother to pack? We filled the backseat with Doritos, Jim Beam, and a few paperbacks. I seem to recall bringing a toothbrush and using my leather jacket as a pillow.)
Remember standing in line for hours to see Rage, fending off hackneyed scalpers, and having an all-around hellacious time? (It was my first time seeing Tool and they blew my mind from chord one. I’ve been a fan ever since.) And remember how, just a few days later, we met Blind Melon and got our CDs signed by members of the band?
Remember it? Jesus, we didn’t shut up about it for days!
Remember the time I turned Chad onto industrial act ‘1000 Homo DJ’s’, and he dragged me all over Glasgow on a holy quest to find the ‘Supernaut’ CD single?
Remember the weekend the three of us drove to Glasgow for tattoos? I got my first piece, the spiderweb on my left elbow. Afterward, Ian and I watched a poor, drunken-down wretch piss herself on a street corner in broad daylight. Be careful what gets into your head, little ones. It’s not easy to get those things back out again.
Remember the time Chad got turned around in UK city traffic, misjudged a turn, and entered a one-way street? Instead of turning around, he gunned it, heading straight down the throat of the beast – 50 mph headed south in a northbound tunnel in the heart of Glasgow during rush hour traffic, cackling his fucking head off, white-knuckling the wheel and swerving to avoid some very pissed-off drivers. I thought I was gonna die right then, sure as shit.
When we got the word from on high to close the base, we spent hours throwing rocks through the windows of the now-empty warehouse where he’d once labored. Like the Babe Ruth of vandalism, Chad could hit any window he called. We grabbed the keys of the 5K diesel forklift and rammed the tines into the side of the rain-soaked blast revetments, chalking off our best depths and earning points for records bested. We got the CO’s ‘personal’ vehicle stuck atop one of those revetments and had to jump out quick like a bunny to rock it loose before someone saw us. Youth is full of dumb moments.
The Randal I knew wanted nothing more than a hut on the beach, eternal sunshine, pretty girls, his motorcycle, his CDs, and his surfboard. “All day, every day, end of fucking story.” Maybe he would’ve wised up and gotten serious later in life; less Randal, more Chad. And maybe Chad would have left the beach, got a job, bought a truck, found himself a blue-eyed girl, and raised a family. Maybe not. I guess we’ll never know either way. Maybe it’s not even fair to think of him this way; stuck in time, forever young, perpetually partying, and eternally laughing. Seems kinda one-dimensional, if you think about it.
No parent should ever have to outlive their child. Time goes by, you do some healing. Then out of nowhere you get a call and have to explain things all over again. How Chad had found the love of his life, how his high-speed son was inexorably drawn into motorcycle racing, how “faster” was his greatest passion, how he lost control on a qualifying run and laid his bike down on turn 10, and how his injuries sent him into a coma from which he never awoke.
This flashback takes place while Chad’s dad is still talking. My eyes are watering, and my throat feels like it’s been bricked over, but I need to say something appropriate, only I don’t know what.
Struggling to speak, I told his dad how sorry I was. “I’m.., *ahem*, I’m really very sorry for your loss, sir. Chad was a good kid, uh, the best, a really good friend.” I sounded like a babbling jackass and made little to no sense. I wanted to be able to say something meaningful, something appropriate. Something that summed up all the good times and laughs I’d had with his son. I owed him that much.
Come on! We’re talking about “Front-flip-down-the-sand-dunes, got-your-back-in-a-barfight, more-girlfriends-than-I-can-clearly-remember, bourbon-swilling, whip-your-ass-at-pool, speed-metal, laugh-now-regret-later” Randal!
“Yes, sir. Chad was the best.” The best? What the fuck does that even mean? I hate it when people end letters with ‘best’. It seems a lazy, Los Angeles, phony-baloney sun tan sort of thing to do, yet it was the only sentiment I could offer.
It suddenly occurred to me how cruel the whole thing was. You get a call, your child’s been injured. Wait by their side, hoping they’ll wake up from the coma they’ve lapsed into. When they don’t, you make a very painful decision and watch your flesh and blood being lowered into the ground.
Randal is dead.
I’m barely aware of the fact that my mouth is still flapping, but my brain’s not engaged. I have no idea what I’m saying. Hopefully, I’m not making an ass of myself or sharing uncomfortable intel. (Did you know your son could turn over a bottle of Jack in one night? Did you know he had two beautiful girls in his birthday bed while we were roommates in A-School? Do you know how generous a friend he was, and much we’ll always miss him?)
Meanwhile, Chad’s father continued to speak. “Yeah, we heard about the time he and Ian rolled the car.” He gave a weary but admiring chuckle for his son’s misadventures. (What am I thinking? He probably knows way more about the real Randal than I ever will.)
They were coming back from seeing Faith No More at the Barrowlands. It was two in the morning, and Chad was drinking hot salsa straight from the jar in an effort to stay awake. Exhausted, he nodded off. His driver-side mirror high-fived that of a car headed in the opposite direction, and suddenly they found themselves upside down in a ditch. Dark of night, and who knows where? When Ian told me the story later, he said Chad looked around, sniffed once, and said, “Right on. Got a cigarette?” They laughed about it, mentally adding it to their litany of good time stories to be recanted later, like epic tales related by helmeted heroes seated around an oaken slab in a modern-day Valhalla. Or something.
The call wrapped to a close. I thanked his dad for his time, put the phone back in its cradle, and just sat there for a while, staring at the television. The sound was turned way down on a cartoon mouse eviscerating a cat. The light licked the walls and cast contorted triangles across the ceiling. Outside, a bird made some stupid noises.
Randal was dead.
Tears blurred my eyes, and my throat was still constricted. Which was good, seeing as there was no one to call, no one who’d understand. I got up, fixed myself a very strong drink, and went back to watching the cat get his revenge.