Q: My first encounter with death?
A: “Did you hear Shooter’s dad blew his brains out?”
Christmas break from school. I was playing in the backyard, listening to a Captain & Tennille cassette tape on my tape recorder—both Christmas gifts from Santa, the year Santa dropped the ball. Mom called me in. I can’t recall exactly what she said, I just remember the news: Matthew’s dad died. He hadn’t come home from work. They found him at his office. She said something about how I should act the next time I saw Matthew.
But I saw Greg Griffin first. “Did you hear Shooter’s dad blew his brains out?”
At 8-years-old, neither of us caught any irony in that sentence. Matthew was Shooter because his last name rhymed with marble, and his size … well, Matthew was a big marble. Like a shooter. And if you’ve never played marbles and have no idea what I’m talking about … What the hell kind of childhood did you have?
“Found him dead in his car underneath the CNA building,” he continued. All us kids knew the CNA building—a downtown landmark we’d all seen out the car window from the highway.
I can see why Mom disliked Greg. I’m sure this wasn’t the time or occasion Mom had envisioned to have to speak to her child about grown-up topics like depression and suicide. Again, I don’t recall the specifics—he was very sad; no one knew; sometimes when people are this sad they aren’t thinking clearly, and …
Mom told me, years later, her real fear was not having to explain it to me, but Matthew learning the circumstances of his father’s death like I did—Matthew’s mother hadn’t told the kids. Mom called her.
It was a while before he came back to school. And it felt really strange. Kids were staring at him. I was staring at him—this was the first time anyone I knew, lost someone; the first suicide I’d ever heard about. First thing that wasn’t stable in my world. Things went from bad to worse; with Greg, they often did—
“Your dad is in hell, now, you know.” The certainty with which he said it … Shooter punched Greg in the mouth. No exaggeration, the kid’s lip ballooned before the he hit the floor. And the SMACK! Ms. Eames heard it and came running.
Word got around the neighborhood parents. Of course, I was forbidden from seeing Greg. This time did feel a little different—like he’d really stepped in it. Usually a few days would pass and Mom would relax the restriction. Had the feeling this one wouldn’t blow over any time soon. Now she had to have a talk with her 8-year-old son about hell. She assured me: Greg is wrong! Bad people go to hell; Matthew’s dad wasn’t bad; he was sad.
Matthew moved away not long after that. Not far. I remember at least one play-date Mom arranged. They had a condo with a community pool. We swam. Drank lemonade. Didn’t talk at all about his dad. That was the last time I ever saw Matthew.
But to this day, every time I drive through Orlando, I glance over where the old CNA building used to stand.