I received an email last week from Judy, an old friend that I've known since my high school days, and the email was blank except for one sentence:
Are you at work today?
There is only one other word on the whole page, but perhaps it is all I require for a clue as to her waiting message.
Seeing his name, my mind had a completely automatic reaction: He is dead.
To be honest, while I had not seen Matt's face for perhaps 35 years, not heard of him for nearly as long, he was a friend not to be forgotten. Always cheerful, jubilant and easy-going, simply put, Matt was one of the nicest people I had ever known. Never had a harsh word to share against anybody, and had a smile for everybody. For reasons that will soon become clear, I never expected him living long enough to celebrate his 20th birthday.
Matt was the only kid in our high school that I personally knew to be regularly shooting drugs, which in 1971 was a minor distinction in itself, though a sad and dangerous one. By this time our bunch were onto a wide variety of drugs, mainly pot and psychedelics, but because Matt had offered me a setup to sample some real "junk", I also knew he was doing heroin, who knows what else. Cocaine had yet to arrive on the local scene.
I dialed Judy and she reported her latest news, and yes, it was about Matt.
But first will come a story of my own, also about Matt. It's a story which would seem to underline his fate from a young age, and those slim chances of him surviving to adulthood that I've already mentioned, smile or no smile.
Picture a Friday night, early winter, and one Matt and I had spent mostly walking around town, just the two of us. Hoping for news of a party somewhere, or at the very least somebody willing to share a joint or maybe a few beers, we'd struck out. Most of the town, it seemed, had packed into the Sedro-Woolley High School gym for that weeks big wrestling match, a bout that Matt's older brother was competing in. On our travels, we passed the gym and paused briefly, gazing in at the tint of the yellow gym lights and hollering crowd, but moved on, hoping for richer fare.
We eventually walked back over to where we'd started, Matt's house, which was on the complete opposite side of town. Matt lived with his folks and his older brother in a modern styled house the likes of which were then referred to as "ramblers". It was fairly new, at least relative to most of the other homes homes in town at the time, many of which dated back to the '20s, or even earlier.
I had never met or even seen Matt's father, but his mother was a very familiar face, since she'd worked for many years as one of the cafeteria cooks at the town's single junior high, just down the street. Like her two sons, she was shorter than average, but her emaciated figure gave the impression of her being even tinier. She seemed quite frail, in addition to appearing prematurely old, the way heavy smoking and/or drinking will make you look after 20 years of it. She also wore an expression of grief stamped permanently across her face. Very sad.
We arrived at Matt's home that night before 9pm, disappointed and dead-sober, turned on a few lights and went into the little den where Matt kept his stereo, LPs and 8-tracks, He slipped on an LP, perhaps "It's a Beautiful Day" (very popular at the time), perhaps not, but something I recall as being "cool" and fairly loud. He handed me his headphones to listen and then drifted away towards the kitchen.
I'd been cradling the headphones (by myself) for about 10 minutes when I realized Matt had yet to return, and slipped off the headphones to go look for him. Instantly I could hear there was some kind of commotion going on out near the kitchen and, rounding the corner, the first thing I saw was pat's mother wringing her hands, weeping. At her feet her husband (a much meatier male than either of his sons) had Matt pinned to the floor with one hand and with the other was punching him in the face, and then trying to strangle him, as Matt struggled to escape. He was screaming at full volume, accusing Matt of being "GOD DAMNED HIGH!", which ironically on this one occasion he definitely was not. Not that it mattered.
I have no logical explanation of exactly how I may have ascertained this, given the riot of swearing, screaming, crying and slapping, but what I believe to had occurred was this: About the same time Matt and I were roaming town, his parents - already drunk - had arrived at the school wrestling match, where they sat and watched as Matt's older brother fought his best fight, but was defeated. Although only a ten-minute drive back to their home, it was amble time for dad to knock back what remained of his bottle. His rage unabated, it might have been pure bad luck that Matt was the first person he spotted in the crosswalk, so to speak. Employing that same metaphor: when he saw Matt, he floored it.
By any estimation, it was a horrific scene, and looked as though his old man was going to kill him, trying to kill him. Matt himself was crying and screaming, trying to fight off his dad while at the same time begging for his mother to call the cops and "have me tested!! I'm not high!!" but she just stood there, afraid to move a muscle. Just like me, cowardly shit that I was.
In fact, I remained frozen and watched for a few more seconds, then just stumbled back into the den, put the headphones back on and proceeded to blank out. When his mother came into the room a few minutes it was to ask me, in tears, to please leave. I can't tell you if there were still sounds of a struggle coming from the other room, only that when I walked out of the house I wasn't sure if I'd ever see Matt alive again or not.
I walked home in the dark and never said anything about it to my mom or to anyone else, mostly out of pure shame. The whole thing still makes me a little dizzy when I think about it, literally.
At that point, on my long walk home, guided by a vanishing point of ragged streetlights, if Matt's deepening submersion into hard drugs had required an explanation, it did so no longer.
The next week I passed Matt in the hallway at school, and later bumped into him in the smoke lot. He never mentioned the previous Friday night and neither did I.
We continued to be friends, but lost track of each other shortly after graduation. While I may have heard brief, unsubstantiated reports of him from time to time, when I did try looking him up a few years back, I hit a dead end. The sweetest kid I'd ever met had dropped from sight, perhaps never to be seen or heard from again.
Now it comes, some forty years after the fact, that Judy has some real news for me: she's talked to Matt.
Matt is alive and well, and very happy. Chased the demons out of his soul years ago and made a real life for himself, a hard-working one. Never married. No kids. Not too long ago drove a full-dress Harley from B.C. to Belize, solo: "No booze, no dope, no women, just the bike." He laughs and his laugh has a familiar, warm resonance. Real. Matt.
When I hear that his dad has passed away, I feel no sadness. That Matt managed to carve joy and a good life out of that mess is to his own immense credit, as well as a measure of his own strength - part of that hard work he mentioned - against all odds.
One of the nicest, sweetest young souls I have ever known. One I judged would never to live even to legal age. But he'd made it. Happy.