With just the right amount of momentum, you could go tearing down Westcombe, jump the curb into Mott Park, blaze across the rickety footbridge that spanned the Flint River and make it halfway to the golf course clubhouse without pedaling. The tricky part, of course, was in safely clearing Sunset Drive; a 25 mph street, which ran perpendicular to and had no stop signs where it intersected with Westcombe. I’d done it once before and what a rush it had been. Descending Westcombe’s steep incline (the longest steep street in Flint) was like skydiving with a Huffy bike. But unlike my friend, Jason, I was cool with having tried it just once.
Every day after school, we’d ride our bikes from where we lived on Bagley Street, cut through Mott Park, and huff our way up Westcombe to its intersection with Beecher Road where we’d play a few games of Double Dragon at a party store. So absorbed were we with our daily dosage of video animated violence that we once played on obliviously while the store clerk was being robbed at gunpoint.
Let’s face it: Jason wasn’t exactly the kind of kid you’d ever spot at a Mensa Youth Scrabble Meet. He looked and acted like a young version of Axl Rose from the Appetite for Destruction days and would stare down total strangers without provocation from the passenger seat of his mother’s car as he passed them by. The undefeatable cowlick in his red hair frustrated him. He had an allergy to breakfast cereals and misinterpreted the shit out of the most basic song lyrics. He stole cigarettes from his stepfather, inexplicably called his mother “chon-chon”, and, at age 12, got caught shoplifting a box of condoms from a pharmacy by an off-duty cop. We knew where to buy illegal fireworks and knew the best hiding places to snowball cars from. We hopped trains to the Genesee Valley Mall and got banned from the campus of GMI. We discovered the Beastie Boys together and watched Friday the 13th together and although I can’t be certain, let’s just go ahead and say he was the first guy I ever smoked weed with, too. In other words, we were perfect for each other. But as if not trusting his own ability to filtrate trouble or danger, he almost always deferred to me when it came to considerations that required some element of sensibility. So when he quietly nodded when I told him I wouldn’t be taking the “Westcombe express” anymore, I took it to mean that he would give it up as well. So I was a little more than surprised when suddenly, after flashing a quick, reptilian grin, he shoved off, waving a two-fingers-and-a-thumb devil’s salute up into the air as he quickly shrank away and disappeared down Westcombe.
Jason moved onto my street in early summer of 1983. I was ten and he was nine and like most every other kid who encountered him for the first time, I couldn’t stand him. Even at that young age, he was full of attitude. He picked fights with anyone who so much as made eye contact with him and he did this infuriating thing where he would call your name from all the way down the street just so he could flip you the middle finger when you looked his way. We were enemies in June. But by July, we had somehow become the best of friends. I learned that he had moved to Michigan from Louisiana with his mother following his parents’ contentious divorce. He was one of the first kids I knew whose family owned a VCR. Most surprisingly, he possessed some of the greatest natural athletic ability of anyone I’ve ever known. He was as quick and agile as a jackrabbit on the soccer field and was lightning fast and damn near untouchable on ice skates. He used to tease the hell out of me as he watched me lumber around on my own skates, ankles wobbling and arms flailing like a guy trying to sturdy himself on a tightrope. But on a frigid afternoon in December, he called me up and told me to come down to his house.
“Bring your skates,” he’d said.
When I arrived, I found that Jason and his stepdad had converted a section of their backyard into a miniature ice rink so that he could spend some time with me teaching me how to be a better skater.
The pivotal event in our lives happened when we were 14 years old. Jason and I had started hanging around with a new group of kids from across town. We spent our summers at a weed-overgrown park off Bradley Hills doing all sorts of naughty things and shooting hoops. One morning, we all met up on some railroad tracks near Bradley and Court Street. Within minutes, four Flint police cars swooped in and we were forced down to the ground at gunpoint. In a flash I was lying facedown, handcuffed, with a boot planted on the back of my neck. When I meekly asked the officer what was going on he ordered me to shut-up. I did. But Jason didn’t. I watched as the cop hauled him up from the ground then slammed him back down over a track rail. Unbeknown to Jason and I, two of the older kids in the group had robbed a party store about a half-hour earlier using a toy gun. We were all hauled away to the youth home on Pasadena Road where we remained until the matter could be sorted out. When it was ultimately determined that Jason and I didn’t have any involvement in the incident, we were released. I quit going to the park after that but Jason didn’t. And when the school year picked up again, we gradually began to fade from each other’s lives.
During a brief stint of academic eligibility, Jason made an appearance in our high school’s hockey program. During a halftime team congress in the locker room, Jason and I had words with one another. Given our mutually vitriolic demeanors, things quickly devolved into a fistfight between us. Grabbing him by the collar of his shirt, I repeatedly pounded him in the face until my teammates pulled us apart. By the next semester, his poor grades had forced him off the team and within months, he had dropped out of school altogether. At some point, he and his mother moved away.
We never made peace with each other.
Just a day before Christmas in 2012, my mother called to tell me she had happened across Jason’s obituary in the newspaper. It contained a recent photograph of Jason. Fuller in the face and sporting a mustache. He still had his cowlick. I was happy to read of his life’s accomplishments and aspirations. His goals and interests. He had a daughter named Jessica.
On a blustery, snowy afternoon, my wife, daughter and I made the drive to the O’Guinn Funeral Home in Clio so that I could pay my respects to my old friend. His mother, ever sweet and warm, embraced me and, with tears in her eyes, thanked me for making the visitation. She was surprised to learn that I had become a police officer.
“You always did know when to keep your mouth shut,” she said. When I asked her what had happened with Jason, she told me about his lifelong struggles with addiction and how he had, just within the past year, overcome a lengthy alcohol addiction. But one addiction soon gave way to another and before long Jason began abusing prescription pills. “He always needed a high,” she told me, shaking her head.
Standing at his casket, I took his hand into mine and said the words I wish I had said to him so many years before. I apologized for how things had ended between us and for the years of distance and separation that had grown between us. In some ways, I suppose I knew that the separation had been necessary, at least at that particular time in our youth. But I couldn’t help but feel guilty that I hadn’t tried harder to get him to once again follow my lead, just like he had so many times before, only this time down a better path. It occurred to me that if his essence was present there in the room, he was watching me with his characteristic smirk and making fun of me for showing up in a suit. It would have been his way of expressing forgiveness.
I found his daughter and introduced myself, offering her a few anecdotes about the youth her father and I had shared. Then, giving his mother a final hug, I scooped my daughter up into my arms and gave her a kiss.