I’ve mentioned in the past that I spent an amount of time in solitude in my younger years that most people would regard as unhealthy, punctuated by deep friendships, people I trusted not to make my home situation public (and, in so doing, potentially making it worse). That bizarre situation, of being a teenager with a family-sized house to myself for long stretches, didn’t end at graduation; I was still living there and they…well, they were still gone. I got to where I was okay with that. I had a radio job, I was attending classes at the local community college within ridiculously easy walking distance of my house… now that I was out of “minor” status and didn’t have to try so hard to melt into the background scenery. I still didn’t exactly advertise the perceived vacancy; if I didn’t want to invite my entire high school over to party, I didn’t want to invite all these new classmates either. My best friend moved off to college; I stayed put.
I had a new circle of friends who seemed to have one curious thing in common: they were all younger than me, by one year or several years. Mike would bring his guitar over and we’d jam out, write a few songs, and have a go at recording stuff and trying to make ourselves sound “big”. I had another friend who was, when I first met her, a girl who called radio stations to talk to the DJs – there were a lot of those, actually, but this one I actually kept talking to because I could tell she was a bit off-kilter like myself, and not actually trying to get into my pants. Taking a chance on meeting her in person confirmed this lack of pants-related ambitions, and we become close friends. And there was Mark, who had, like Mike, been a year behind me at Northside. I had joined Mark’s role-playing game group in high school (and as much of a cut-up as I was, he quickly earned the distinction of being the gamemaster who put up with my crap the longest!). He was a Trekkie, a Doctor Who fan (rare back then in this part of the States), a gamer, and an all around good guy. He had a crazy sense of humor.
All of my new friends seemed to have one thing at common: trouble at home, recent tragedies, restlessness, and they all had their own ways of defusing the frustration and anger that naturally arises from those things. It was the last part of that equation that I had trouble with; I think I may have unconsciously surrounded myself with these people because I wanted to learn from them. All of my younger friends who were far more mature than I was (probably still the case today), but all hurting in their own ways. And we all had another thing in common: my frequently-empty house was a safe haven anytime they wanted or needed to come over. These were friends I trusted not to over-indulge in anything that would bring unwanted attention; if they did have that tendency, honestly, I probably wouldn’t have been in their vicinity or they in mine. They were always welcome in my world.
Mark was having some serious trouble at home and he took me up on that, frequently. Sometimes he’d get off work and just come over and crash, hard. I was always cool with that. I wished I’d had that on those occasions when my dad and his wife at were home and not on best behavior: an escape route. For my junior year of high school and part of my senior year, I’d had my grandmother’s vacant house. Even when the power was shut off because there was no longer anyone living there, there were times it felt safer than home did. When that house was emptied out and put on the market, I was down an escape route. If I could provide that for my friends, this, it seemed, was the best use for the house I increasingly occupied by myself.
Mark got roped into many of my goofy creative projects, from Jump Cut City to the Satan Brothers to my bulletin board system and beyond. He was probably in the room when I had the idea for the LogBook. He’d fall asleep while I was cooking or loading the dishwasher, usually with something on TV like Space: 1999 or Robin of Sherwood or those tapes of Red Dwarf that I’d gotten copies of because it wasn’t being shown in this part of the country yet. One time he was awakened by some noisy-ass battle in an episode of Robin of Sherwood – probably because swords clashing against swords were just his kinda thing and he was hardwired to wake up to that sound – and saw a bunch of knights in ridiculously high-domed metal helmets and proceeded to exclaim, in his best British accent, “Look out, sir! Penis-heads!”
You kinda had to be there. I think we laughed for about 45 minutes, or until we couldn’t breathe, whichever happened first.
In our goofy sci-fi fan film spoof project, Mark was down for anything. Run telephone cords down a black sweatshirt and be our knock-off Borg? Yes! Say everything in a throat-rippingly low register that no human should be able to muster? Yes! Assimilate the fiddygibber and make him wear a “Borg helmet” that used to be part of a model of an Apollo command module? Absolutely. On tape, Mark would randomly shout things in the background of the cassettes attributed to the “Satan Brothers”, a deceptively-inoffensive-in-every-way-except-the-name quasi-band of which I was a founding member. My favorite non-sequitur exclamation had to do with penguins and prophylactics.
You kinda had to be there.
When I caught wind that my adopting two kittens was about to cost me my first apartment, Mark swung into action, almost single-handedly moving my copious amounts of crap across town to a new apartment. Because my apartment was still his crash pad at times; no way was he about to give that up.
But work caught up with me. Double shifts routinely running to 16-18 hours, me staggering home at weird hours and crashing on the couch, not even conscious enough to make it to bed…stuff happened. We drifted apart. And then I succeeded in leaving town.
When I returned to Fort Smith a few years later, I made a grievous omission: I failed to get back in touch with Mark. It wasn’t until several years later, when telling my wife about him, that we realized we both knew the same person. Out of the blue, on the off chance that he, too, still lived in Fort Smith, we looked him up in the phone book and called him, fully aware that this might be some other Mark.
It wasn’t. And it totally blew his mind that we’d gotten together.
We meant to stay in touch. Work kept happening. Kids kept happening. Hard times coinciding with me being out of work and looking after kids happened; we just neglected to think of it.
Today I found out that Mark died last week, only 42 years old. Far, far too soon.
Here’s to you, man. To all the prophylactic-wearing penguins (and, dare I say it, penis-heads), to Bubba Buh, and to the monster who savaged our party after I dared it to charge through the wall of the tavern like Kool-Aid Man.
It was always a blast. And you were always welcome in my world.