The Shape Of Ideas

I met J at the University of Nevada, outside the English Department on a winter day, the cottonwoods of the quad leafless, as J cupped his palms around his cigarette to light it and I bummed that light off him.

He took philosophy and literature classes. He wore glasses and a goatee. He was bookish and handsome. His voice was butter, silky and drawn out. He’d say all right, like “aaaalllll riiiiiiiight,” maybe like someone like The Fonz would say it, except J could say this better than The Fonz because there was no affect. He was J being J as J was.

On the steps of Frandsen Humanities — the English Department — there sat a giant concrete urn-like pot and J and I would smoke beside it between classes and we talked about Hegel and Nietzche and Lord of the Rings and Faulkner, all of which J loved.

He got me my job at the Pub n’ Sub, where I met many of my best friends, people who are still among my best friends today. I guess he didn’t get me the job, but when I asked he said that was where he worked, and the idea that I might work there, too, got into my head, for it seemed like a far more fun job than selling suits at the Men’s Wearhouse, which was what I was doing at the time. I’d have to finish classes, change from my t-shirt and jeans, shower, and dress in a suit or sport coat and slacks, with a shirt and tie, and tell people that our suits were the best bargain they could find anywhere in town, and I figured the Pub was an easier sell, convincing people to get another pitcher, or to order a large pizza, or to enjoy the turkey sandwich I made for them.

One time at the Pub J found a baggie full of pot in the backyard when he was taking out the trash and when he came back inside he held up the baggie, shaking it, and said, “Anyone want to get hiiiiiiiggghhhh?” in that way that he had, and Leadawn, the woman who was our manager and whom we knew was a druggie even if she tried to hide it from us (because both she and her brother were obvious tweekers, and meth had popped up and become a problem across the west at the time and sometimes we’d drive past Leadawn’s house on Ralston Street and the lights were on at 4 a.m. and we knew she wasn’t out drinking because that’s why we were driving by in the first place — because, you see, we were out drinking), and she was bent behind the bar storing glasses and she popped up and said, “I do,” and J, who hadn’t known that our manager was even back there, just started laughing as he packed the first bowl.

J had a girlfriend named Tiffany, a little brunette, cute, smart. Though things didn’t work out between them, they went out for two or three years, lived together, and I think Tiffany always loved him and always will.

And I could see why Tiffany loved J, because he was handsome and well-built, with broad shoulders, and a slender waist, sharp features, but soft, sad-looking eyes behind his glasses. He was mellow. He never got animated or excited. I only saw him yelling maybe when the Seahawks or the Mariners were losing a game on television — so I guess I saw him yell a lot. And J was a cook at the Pub n’ Sub, which, as a college hang-out, attracted all the girls, and Tiffany could claim J as her own, and she could also claim the free pizzas and beers that came with dating a guy who worked at the Pub n’ Sub, and also J was smart and caring, a genuinely a good guy, and he cared for Tiffany, and I know this because I saw it.

All this gentleness, and J was perhaps the best fighter I’ve ever known. I’ve seen many a good fight, bar brawls (no bullsh-t, serious, like fifty people all fighting in the Pub n’ Sub), but I’ve never seen anyone get pummeled the way J could pummel a fool. This one time at the Little Waldorf Saloon the guy J beat up was yoked, shaved head — turned out he was a marine. The fight started because this marine guy told our friend and coworker, Cara, f-ck you, after she refused his advances, and J heard him. All I know is that before the bouncers rushed in and separated us and them out, J was crouched like some fighter in a movie, and he worked jabs, left and right, kept his face and his glasses covered with his forearms when he wasn’t throwing a punch, which was for these brief flashes, because the punches kept coming. And that baldheaded marine, he was crouched there, too, trying to get in a shot, but failing, till he fell, and then the bouncers had us all in full nelsons and they dragged us out to the parking lot.

J didn’t always protect his glasses. One time, at Chewy and Jugs, he took his glasses off when the fight started, and after we got kicked out he had to go back for the glasses the next day and someone had taken a nail, or something, and etched “F-A-G-G-O-T” backwards on one of the lenses, so it would be like J would read “faggot” when he had the glasses on. J couldn’t afford new glasses and he wore those, with “faggot” written like that on them, for a few months, not that J cared, because he did not — not about the pejorative, nor about his mangled glasses.

The whole family was great, the Joyners. J’s older brother, Tom, lived in Reno and was a big soccer fan, Manchester United and all that. In fact, all the Joyners were soccer fans, as Tom and J had both excelled at the sport when they were in high school in Winnemucca, Nevada. Tom lived with his longtime girlfriend on Barker Circle, off of 7th Street. J’s little brother, Bill, came into town from Winnemucca after high school (where their parents still lived) and soon he, too, worked at the Pub n’ Sub, cooking and delivering pizzas. I called Bill “Billy Boy” and he’d smile and say, “What you call me?”

And then J and I graduated from college, and we quit working at the Pub n’ Sub, because that’s the kind of thing you stop doing when you’re no longer at college at the University of Nevada. J went to graduate school in Portland because he and his brothers had all been born in Oregon before their dad got his job at the Naval Air Station in Nevada’s desert, and that’s why J loved the Seattle Mariners and Supersonics. J’s reverence for Ken Griffey Jr. knew no bounds. He’d clenched his fists over the ’98 season, as the Mariners slid in at third place in the AL West, back when Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez swung bats for the M’s and Randy Johnson, ugly as sin, slung heaters from the mound. But the Mariners finished eleven games out. Still, better than the sh-tty Oakland A’s who fell in last place. And J loved big conifers, and he’d grown up in the 1990s and his bedrooms were decorated with posters of Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley. J could sport a sweater.

We always held parties at my family’s cabin in Squaw Valley, near Lake Tahoe, in California, and even after J moved to Portland he’d fly home and meet up with us and we’d all drive up there in the snow and sit around the fire or at the kitchen table drinking beer. Once my buddy from back home in Monterey was up there with us, too, and he couldn’t get over J, how he sat in front of the CD player replaying Alice in Chains’s Dirt over and over, rocking his head as beer after beer disappeared down his throat. J would look at Randy and say, “Right here,” pointing at the stereo, “this guitar right here,” when a thundering chord landed, and he’d bow his head in reverence. Randy said, “I’ve never heard so much Alice in Chains in my life.”

Once, J left a textbook he was teaching to his composition students up in Portland at the cabin and I found it but never returned it to him: The Shape of Ideas by Garrett Bauman. J was taking pedagogy courses as well, and he had a sample assignment from some other composition professor, an assignment that presumably J was learning from so that he might learn how to give assignments, and this assignment sheet was folded in half and stuck in the middle of this book. The assignment sheet was for #3, due 10/25/95. In it the professor talks about quilts that have been handed down from his great great grandmother to his grandmother, to his mother, and finally to him, because he came from a family of all men, and now this nameless professor is learning to quilt. I meant to mail the book and assignment back to J, because I assumed he needed them, but he never called to ask about it, and I never got around to mailing. I still have the book, and the assignment sheet is still folded and tucked in at the page number where J left it. I’m sentimental about such things. And now that’s kind of how I see J: as that book, as if he himself is the book, that J is the shape of ideas. I like to think of the words in the assignment as belonging to J, even though I know that they’re not. I like to think of J learning to quilt his history into permanence.

At his funeral the music matched his decade, except for the Beatles, which were his favorite band. First “Penny Lane” came on, then “Say Hello to Heaven.”

Funny, it wasn’t what you’d think: no drugs, no fight, no bartime mishap. No jealous lover stabbed him in his back. J came into town to visit from Portland and he and Billy Boy went out, had some beers, stopped by the Pub and saw Maggie, went to Jake and Shawna’s house for dinner, and when they left Jake said they were fine, that they’d chilled out without drinking for a long time before the drive back to Winnemucca. It was a pair of headlights that came out of the dark in the middle of the desert, on an expanse of U.S. Highway that’s so straight it could be a massive ruler. These teenagers were out joyriding, their car’s stereo blasting. On this road you can hit more than 150 mph if your car can reach it. These teens were passing a truck and so came into the lane of oncoming traffic. In the wreckage, of all the bodies of those living and dead the police would find whisky and methamphetamine. They say J died instantly and painlessly. Bill was driving.

They say Bill’s BAC was over the legal limit. They say the teen driver of the other car was the Sheriff’s daughter. I hear that those three kids all lived. So did Bill.

At J’s funeral Tiffany tried to talk and almost couldn’t, she was crying too hard. She and J had been broken up already for over a year, since he’d left for Portland. I was living in Atlanta when Bob called to tell me, and Bob, even, was crying — a man who gutted deer, who popped off bunnies as if life had never existed and never mattered — so I cried, too. I came home, and I stepped to the microphone, and I recounted the last conversation J and I had had, over the telephone, just two weeks earlier:

Me: What are you doing?

J: Weeeeelllll, I waaaaaassssss on my way to work. Buuuuuuuut, now I’m talking to you and opening a beeeeeer.

Everyone laughed, and cried. I saw J and Bill’s dad, and their mother, and Tom and his girlfriend, and Jake and Shawna and Mike and Chris and Timmy and Bob and Jasmine and Sharon and Derrick and Cara and Larry and everyone — almost all of my friends from Reno, Nevada, because J had directly or indirectly introduced me to all of them and I said so. I told the crowd how I owed J for everything and everyone I knew and I think that that was true and still is.

Bill was not there. He sat at his parents’ house with his broken leg and broken heart, and when I saw him at the wake he sobbed into my arms. After he cried he smiled. Then he broke down again. I thought of the Oakland A’s and New York Yankees game that Billy Boy and I had attended a few years earlier, the postseason, and how Billy Boy had smiled the whole time and talked to my dad about the game. Now he had two months to heal before his arraignment, and today he’s still in prison today somewhere in Nevada.

I’m sure some people will think that my writing this is insensitive to the Joyner family. It’s true that this ruined them. With J dead and Bill in prison, the parents divorced, as is often the case in families that face such devastating tragedy. Tom and his girlfriend had a baby and I think eventually married, but I have not spoken to them in almost ten years and I have no idea what’s happened to them or their daughter though I hope they are all alive and healthy and happy. But I’m not writing this to tell you a sad story, or to instruct you on the risks of drinking and driving. I don’t want to hurt my friends the Joyners any more than they’ve been hurt already. I just miss my friend, my friend whom I think if he’d have lived might be writing himself, for he was a writer and a lover of literature. I just wish so much that he was alive and Bill were here, too, and not in jail where I haven’t seen him. I wish we were listening to Alice in Chains. At least it’s baseball season. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

image – Lost Highway

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