Hi there! Here’s part 3 of a longish short story I wrote about 5 or 6 years ago called On the Way to My Grave.
Part 2 is here.
Part 1 is here.
Where to start? “Ma’am, are you Brett Denson’s mother?”
“I am,” she said. I tried to get a feel for her emotions. Would she slam the door, call the cops, threaten to sue, or tell me she doesn’t know what the hell I’m talking about, Brett’s downstairs playing Grand Theft Auto?
“I’m Tony Bright, the singer and guitarist of a band called Strangle Taffy. Your son. Uh, he was a fan of mine and wrote me a letter talking about his… unhappiness. I didn’t get it until Monday. When I heard what happened I came to express my condolences.”
She stared, dumbstruck. Then a grateful, melancholy smile broke through. “Please come in.”
When I stepped into her humble but neat home—which is a lot nicer than my molding row house—she said, “I can’t believe you took the time to come out here. My son was a huge fan of your music. This is such an honor.”
The phrase, “Benefit concert for Brett,” unfurled like a banner across my mind. I could perform it on Saber Cat field, or whatever they call it.
We hugged, like it was natural, and she offered a Diet Coke.
I said no thank you, and, as if we’d discussed it, she led me to the center of the house. “This is Brett’s room,” she said, touching the door. I didn’t ask her why her 26-year-old son had still lived with his mom. Then she pushed, and before I could check my reaction, I braced myself for bloodstains and police tape. She saw me flinch and said, “It happened in the basement.”
Over the bed hung a Strangle Taffy poster. A record label promo. We never got famous enough to sell posters in a store.
Sharon Denson read me. “Coach gave him that for making the game-saving tackle against ‘Ridge the year we won the championship.”
“Your football coach gives posters of my band to his players?”
Sharon took my arm. “Pounce was our theme song that year. The players took the field to it every game.”
Pounce, like most rock songs, is a thinly veiled metaphor for getting laid. In case you don’t remember, it went (and I cringe): Pounce! I’m cummin’ round. Pounce! You’re going down. Bang Bang. Hey! Bang Bang. Hey! I suppose, if you have an innocent mind, it could sound like it was about-
“Saber Cats,” she said. “Cats pounce. That’s why Coach used it.” She directed my attention to the opposite wall. A framed team photo hung above the dresser. “That’s Brett,” she said, pointing.
The kids all looked the same. Nothing like the beefy, salt-and-pepper haired man standing to the far left in the picture. Coach. The guy who made me a rock star in Collingwood, Pennsylvania for one high-school football season. I should have collected royalties.
“Oh,” Sharon said, startling me. “This is my younger son, Paul.”
A gangly, narrow kid filled the doorway. I could tell he recognized me because I still remember what that looks like, but he bore too deep a wound to conjure a greeting. I could hardly blame him. His brother had blown his own head off less than a month ago.
Sharon put her hands on my shoulders and announced me. He said, “Hi,” and skulked away. His mother was too wrapped up in Brett to notice his misery.
I started feeling queasy. These were real people.
“He’s on the football team this year,” his mother said. “But, honestly, Coach only put him on the roster because of his brother. Paul doesn’t play in the games.”
Awkward silence followed. I was standing in a house of ghosts unable to leave the Earth.
“What really happened?”
She sighed. “Brett’s dad died in a work accident ten years ago. The football got him through. But he didn’t have the grades for college or talent for a scholarship, and I couldn’t afford it anyway. He couldn’t keep a girlfriend or a job.” She looked at the floor. “He was an unhappy person.”
I would not be writing this if I had not said what I said next.
“I think Brett was listening to my music when he did it.”
“I know,” she said. “I was home.” With that, the tears came like a cloudburst and her face pulled back as if a blast of fire was searing her flesh. She fell into my arms and wailed, her face pressed against my shoulder. Between heaves, she said, “I heard the shot.”
I stood there like an idiot, patting her back. “I’m so sorry,” I said at last, clutching her to me because I couldn’t look at her. “I hope you don’t think-”
“No, I don’t blame you,” she said, sniffling and wiping her eyes. She squeezed my arms and gently pushed me away. “But the others might.”
She stared, surprised. “The parents. Of those two boys who killed themselves last week. They were playing your song too.”
~ ~ ~
The forty dollars in my wallet represented the entirety of my assets. My bank account was overdrawn and my credit cards long ago maxed out and cancelled. Did I really plan to mount a career comeback with that?
I’ll just buy a couple drinks, I said. But sitting at the nicked-up table in that gloomy pub, I kept ordering one more.
Staring into my Jack and Coke, I shook the glass and watched the liquid whirl. See that guy, people used to say. He was in a band that had three albums. A real band!
How’s this for real: Three men dead, three families ruined, and a town full of parents terrified their child is next. I wrote the theme song!
With eight bucks left, I finished my drink and teetered to the men’s room. So much for alcohol poisoning. Two more wouldn’t get it done.
When I returned to my table, I noticed a brawny fellow with white hair and bushy eyebrows staring me down from the bar. He marched over and took the opposite chair. “You have a lot of balls showing your face in my town.”
(to be continued)