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Sunday, May 1, 2016

Chapter Ten - Alphabetical Order

***

Flashback to April 1, 1989. Think big hair. Sunglasses at night. Whitesnake on cassette. My ride is a fern-silver Camaro Z-28 with T-tops. Life is good. Mick and I (among others, including his bride-to-be, Mary) are all cohabiting a two-bedroom apartment near the WMU campus, because it's just cheaper to live that way.

It's very early in the morning, and the telephone on the nightstand next to my head rings. Obnoxious: My phone is made out of shiny golden plastic, and it is actually shaped like a sports car.

"Mnmnnn..." I say, "Hello?"

It's Jamie Houston, another of my boyhood best friends. When I was in third grade, the Houstons moved into the house two doors up from us. He wound up to be, literally, a giant of a man, standing 6'8" tall, built like a Sequoia. But I still see him as he was on that first day we met, the tall, gangly kid who came riding down to my house on his banana-seat bicycle, wearing (for reasons even he cannot clarify) a karate gi.

"Hell-man," his voice comes through the receiver with the whale-tail spoiler, "Are you sitting down?" I inform him that I am in fact lying down.

He says, "Good, 'cause I got some bad news, man." A pause. "Brady Gallagher died in a car accident last night."

"April Fool," I mumble. Hoping to God. That big man's voice cracks as he replies, "Oh, man. I wish..."

I'm 21 years old. Not even four months into my official drinking career.

***

It is impossible to understand Charlie's story without knowing certain things about Kalamazoo, Michigan. Until the late 1960s, this place was one link in a long chain of industrial cities that powered the postwar American economy. Tree-lined streets, verdant meadows, lakes and streams, ranch homes... This was the home of Gibson Guitars, Shakespeare Rod and Reel, Checker Motors, Statler Brick, James River Paper, many others. We even had a General Motors plant here.

That's all gone now. Now we're a college town is all, with Western and Kalamazoo College. We have Pfizer in Portage (Big Pharma). There's still Shakespeare's Bar downtown. Our more reliable employers are the two hospitals, a few plastics factories and a med-tech company named Stryker. The rest of us mostly work, or don't work, in the service industry.

When you think about what happened here, what should have happened, what didn't happen, you understand that this town is no stranger to heartbreak. You could ask the Gallaghers, except that you can't.

Some years after Brady died in that rollover during his sophomore year at the University of Michigan (he was a passenger), his little brother Patrick ended his own life. He really loved his big brother, I remember that much about him. Not long after that, unable to bear the weight of misery, their mother also ended hers.

That's how it often goes when a young person dies in a terrible accident. The other dominoes tend to fall.

I knew Brady from Loy Norrix High School. We were in Drama and Forensics classes together, along with another of our wise-ass friends, Milt Houghtaling. We were somewhat inseparable due to the phenomenon of alphabetical seating - Gallagher, Heller, Houghtaling.

Jamie knew Brady even better than I did. He was naturally funny, as in he didn't ever really try to be, he just was. We hung out a couple of times in the year after I graduated. Then we all went off to do our things. Not boys anymore, young men, off to our futures, whatever they might be, however long they might last.

***

Fast-forward to November, 2006. I have received an invitation to my high school's 20th reunion. They're doing it at Thanksgiving, at the Radisson downtown. I had to climb all the way to the top of Heller Mountain to write a column about it.

That's just stupid, I say. I'm not coming up to the Hinterlands in late November, not when I could be golfing for the entirety of the four-day weekend. Holiday travel isn't any fun. Besides, they included a list of people who they had been unable to locate, and they of course asked if anyone could provide info on their whereabouts.

Scanning that ledger of names, I wrote, confirmed my decision to skip it. Most of the people on the Missing Persons list were the only ones I would want to see anyway, I said. If Jamie Breyfogel isn't going to be there, if big Jim McAnaw isn't, if Milt Houghtaling isn't, then the only ones who would be in attendance were mostly people I didn't know or like anyway.

I published that. It was one of the lesser-visited pieces out of the thousands I wrote back in that bygone era, from the comfort of my Biltmore-area home with the little rock fountain that burbled into the swimming pool all day, back when the economy was flush with equity-loan money. My ride was a late model Mustang convertible. Life was good.

A couple of days after that one went up, though, I got an email from another Knight from the Class of '86, Lori Mackey. Everybody liked her - especially Milt; they would go on to be engaged later, but it didn't work out.

Lori, who I'd not seen or heard from in 20 years, told me that she was not going to the reunion, either. Nor would Milt... Because he had died just a few weeks before. Whatever the reason, however it happened, he shot himself on Halloween.

You know he wouldn't have gone anyway, she told me. Milt was always too cool for school.

Gallagher. Heller. Houghtaling.

***
Every year, a $2,500 scholarship goes out in Brady and Patrick Gallagher's names to an outstanding senior at Loy Norrix High School. That amount would represent a reduction, of course, in the college tuition obligations of the Kalamazoo Promise.

pH 5.o1.16

Next Week: Chapter Eleven - "The Boxer"

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