The anniversary of his death is the cruelest fishhook. Yanking us back, violently. When the days turn crisp, as they have now, when summer fades and autumn crawls into our tiny farming town—that’s when we most grieve our fallen classmate. One year we tried to ignore the date, but the hook came anyway and somehow was even more brutal. So now we meet it head on: we make a day of it. The downtown is strewn with somber-black ribbon. Coffee is shared and then, later, whiskey. We pass the yearbook, we muse, we moan. If a stranger such as you wanders by, the story is told in fullest detail.
Remembering is honoring, isn’t it? We pray so. Here’s what happened.
Danny Petoskey, star quarterback at our high school, sunny-smiled, popular but sensitive, with a quirkily endearing love of sculpture and origami, was widely predicted to be voted homecoming king over the two other nominated seniors. When Greg Putnam, the stringy-haired soccer captain, was announced during Friday pep rally as the winner, and cruised unsurprised and high-fiving down the gym bleachers, Danny visibly slumped. His disappointment, no doubt, was a contributing factor to his uncharacteristically poor performance in the homecoming game the next day. After the team’s defeat, 0-17, with no completed passes and several interceptions, his teammates told him not to sweat it but Danny only winced. Shame puffed his eyes. He told his dance date, Becky Tompkins, a color guard flag-spinner, that he had to cancel, then went to the liquor store and filched a bottle. He disappeared into the woods, drinking, staggering around, making origami out of litter scraps, finally arriving home on Sunday morning reeking of vomit and pinecones.
Mr. and Mrs. Petoskey, loving but strict parents, made a bold and perhaps overreacting move. Given a few previous minor drinking episodes and now this major one, they decided to admit Danny to a teen rehab in the city. The facility, the only one that would take him on short notice, verged on ramshackle. Danny, bleary-eyed, silent with shock, lurched through the grimy halls, going in a daze to group therapy, to psychiatric testing. In his free hours, he sat mutely in the dayroom while Herbie, another patient, ranted about government conspiracies. Shock faded. Sadness bloomed. When Becky Tompkins, showing up on visitors day, delicately mentioned that Greg Putnam had been suspended for stuffing the ballot box, Danny merely shrugged. Then came the results of the psychiatric tests and a fresh shock: Danny was schizophrenic. His parents, aghast, not knowing what else to do, initiated the paperwork for his transfer to a mental asylum. Danny became vocal, objecting vociferously, insisting that hell no he didn’t hear any strange voices, or see any weird visions, were they freaking kidding, but rehab staff took this as a sign of psychotic aggression and quickly administered a shot of sedative.
We pause at this point, always. For a deep breath. For a gulp of whiskey. Because even now, after all these years, we ache for Danny. How scared he must have been! How lonesome! We feel like screaming, in anger, in sympathy, in protest. Stranger, we confess it: sometimes we do scream. Oh, Danny! we cry. Stay strong! Hold on for just one more day. But the past is a bushel of corn gone bad, the crunchy-sweet ripeness turned sour and maggoty and rotten. The past can be avenged, maybe, but never can it be reversed.
Rehab staff discovered Danny’s body curled up and bled dry on the floor of his room. He had sliced deep into his wrists with the tip of a wire hanger. The gouges were gruesome. The hanger was fully straightened but with one end partially spiraled, as if Danny had started it as a soothing art project but soon got other ideas. Mr. and Mrs. Petoskey, hearing the news over the phone, pooled to the kitchen floor, sobbing. When Becky Tompkins and her color-guard friends, buzzing through the halls like happy bees, heard the news on the school’s loudspeakers, their bright, rosy faces went starkly ashen. The cruel kicker arrived the very next day: Danny’s psychiatric results were wrong. Or rather, they were right but not for Danny. Somehow he had been mixed up with ranting Herbie, whose parents had been vastly relieved to hear that Herbie was relatively normal.
The fallout was a hard stupid rain. Mr. and Mrs. Petoskey, dear friends to our parents, abruptly moved away. We sent nasty letters to the rehab, even to Herbie, that left us feeling pleased and ashamed. When Danny’s teammates cornered ballot stuffer Greg Putnam outside the pool hall, Putnam fought back viciously and injured them as badly as they injured him. Many argued for further retribution, but Becky Tompkins intervened, waving her color-guard flag at them in fierce warning, saying that you can’t get even with fluky fate, don’t be stupid, leave it the heck alone. Still, as the decades pass, even the most reasonable among us, even Becky, have grown more enraged. But who with? We don’t know! At last year’s ceremony, we drove a new car into a brick wall. This year, we plan to douse a ripe wheat field in gasoline and burn it to ashes. Our lives are ashes. None of us has a good job or a stable marriage. The glow of our cherished past, our beloved Danny, holds us in sick thrall. Even summer makes us sad. We’ll be lost wasps forever.
Mark Benedict is a graduate of the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College. He has previously published in Columbia Journal, Hobart Online, and Menacing Hedge.