I first noticed the kid when he copped the lead role in an original play at the theatre where I work. He was kind of a doofus, the way a kid is when he’s in his early manhood stage, not sure which side of the fence to lean over, the heel-kicking, butt-stomping side or the composed, responsible, few-worded side. Like any kind of doofus, he would alternate.
Since my participation in this production only involved shooting photographs for publicity, I never spent much time with him; and I never sought him out. He would do that to me when he began to hear that I also directed plays in that venue.
I never got the sense that he was trying to seduce me into casting him. He just liked to talk shop. That’s what we did.
After copping that lead role, he also copped a job as a bartender at the bar next door to the theatre.
That’s where I stumbled on him this past Monday. I was early for a noon meeting around the corner and, rather than hanging out in the heat, I sauntered into the place for a cup of coffee.
New Orleans bars are not just for booze, you see. Down here they are social clubs, even rehab centers.
So there I was as he put on a pot to brew. That’s when his cell phone rang, and after a moment he rushed out of the building.
His boss had happened to have just arrived, bringing the kid a Rally Burger. We waited for him to bound back in. When he hadn’t returned after a few minutes, the boss stepped in to cover his absence and serve me my cup of coffee.
I was deep into an article in a local weekly newspaper when he did return, and when he returned, he did not bound, but stormed. His face was flushed. His eyes were swollen from having had a sudden rush of burning tears. He was loud and intense, rushing from one corner of the bar to another, snatching up a glass to pour himself a shot, thinking it over, reneging and putting down the glass, then repeating the action at a different corner.
His boss, the manager, asked him, “Kid, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong,” he shouted. “Nothing. Nothing’s ever wrong. Fuck it, you know what’s wrong? What’s fucking wrong is that my fucking mother drove her fucking car off the fucking road last night and crashed into a tree. She fucking killed herself, the bitch. The fucking bitch.”
The few of us there sat still. We’ve learned to allow the pain, the rage, to roll like waters. We know enough now not to try to step in, thinking we can take control of an occurrence that is not to be corralled. We let him roil and dissipate.
Eventually, the bar manager talked him into leaving, into letting a friend take him home. Alone now, the manager and I, we talked.
He told me, “His mother was the only person in his family he still talked to. The kid’s had nothing but bad breaks. Did you know he has PTSD? No? Yeah, he does. Six years in Iraq, a Marine sniper. He’s tried talking to his father, going to the old man and telling him he needs help. His dad just says to him, ‘I told you not to sign up with the Corps. It’s your life, now deal with it.’ He’s gone to the VA. They just want to give him pills and get him out of the building. He can’t find anybody to deal with what it is that’s eating him alive. There are so many like him walking around today. The military, the government, they don’t do anything to transition these kids. These kids have nothing.”
Over the last few years, a lot of us have learned that “nothing” is what we truly possess. Everything we think we have, everything we think defines us, is ephemera. We are, each of us, alone. We know this now.
We know the certainty of our deaths. We live with the knowledge that our legacies, if there are legacies we hope to leave, will wither and rot and be as forgotten as we will be.
If there is anything left in the bottom of this box we’ve opened - against all threats that we should not have done this - it is a small dollop of hope and a vial of care.
We hope to alleviate one another’s despair. We hope to care enough to stand there and take the punches from our wounded brothers and sisters that are not really meant for us but for "them". And, in our loneliness, we pray that we will manage to be there to reach out to one another and help hold each other up.
Until the end.