We met for the first time over the phone when I was 23 and he was 13 years older than I was. That was in 1983. He was planning to show a film to a group at his enormous downtown Baptist church, where he was a singles minister. I was a journalist. For the unlikeliest of reasons, he thought a story would be amusing.
He didn’t understand that had he reached any other reporter on the telephone, he would’ve been shredded. But he’d gotten me; I did have to show some professional unbias about That Sort Of Thing. Still, the film he planned to show -- Thea -- portrayed God as a woman, thea, the Greek feminine form of theos. Ballsy to want the mainstream press there, especially if you get a cub reporter. A kid working for a daily newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch.
Notebook in hand and mind as open as the sky, I found this preternaturally attractive young preacher. He was dynamic, alive with humor, simmering with light. My newsfeature story turned out great – he loved it, anyway. I’m not sure I even kept a clip. I remember readers responded positively. He didn’t get into any trouble from the Powers at the enormous downtown conservative church, where he was one of a dozen or so staff clergy.
We became lifelong friends.
He prayed me through my kidney transplant in 1984. He prayed me through celebrations and missteps. I got him drunk the first time.
Once, we once drove up to visit his mom. Somewhere along the back roads, I had to pee. We stopped by the side of the road in cave-dark middle-of-nowhere BigHat-BigStickville. Deputy pulled up behind his sporty little British convertible, top down. Kid, the deputy asked, why you peein’ on my road? that’s indecent exposure. I was fixin’ to say: Exposin’ myself to whom, exactly? At this particular hour? In this, um, necessarily desolate, albeit lovely, wasteland. Rather, I tried to reason with the lawnforcement officer whose gut was out to here and his weapon out to there.
Howsomever, my friend jumped between us and proceeded to plead with his elder that I HAD to pee because, why, look at all his SCARS from the brand-spanking new transplant, Officer, and if my NEW friend doesn’t relieve himself NOW, why, he’d explode and prolly die.
My new and best and most intimate friend saved us from certain incarceration and …
We saw each other over the years and in many, many places. We peeled the Cosmic Onion, layer by layer. We answered a lot of questions, ours and God’s. Asked plenty more. He answered a good bit of them for me; after all, he was my senior, though not a mentor, he just happened to be that much wiser, a man of The Word, the Cloth and a proud and fine family man. Best of all, he was what he liked to call One Of My Intimates. It’s rare for men to have a BFF of that depth and continuity. We didn’t even call them BFFs then. We actually had real conversations and handwritten or long typewritten letters, because we didn’t have texting and such.
Once, I wrote him a 15-page letter whining about something. He sent every page back with one big word in red, circled in red ink, on the first page: BULLSHIT. I was a bit pissed at first, then realized he was right.
He ended all of his sermons: Go in joy. What he really was saying was: Go enjoy. He left the preacherhood after a decade or so, even though he’d been at it since he was 16. He got into another line of work, got into money and his gorgeous family, got into mission work and even started attending my brand of Church – Episcopalian. I like the Church I grew up in. I like the High Liturgy, songs so baroque your tongue can’t fix ’em, incense that gives you allergies, and the tapestroidic history that makes you wonder whether those early Romans really must have thought they were crashing cannibalistic orgies when they showed up during those first-century Eucharists. He loved his new Church, too.
Anyway, back when we first became best friends, his son was six or seven, and used to beat me up all the time. A couple of days ago, his son sent me an email. He told me that on Jan. 6, his dad made the bed in their “museum-like” downtown apartment, took a shower and got dressed. My friend’s son’s mom had gone to work. (He said in his email that his sister -- my best friend’s daughter and her husband and kids -- live far away.) Then, the email said, one of the few men I’ve deeply loved stretched out on the couch and swallowed several bottles of sleeping pills.
What are all those stages of grief? I’m in one – or maybe all -- of them. Sure, I’ve seen, known losses, just like everyone else. I’m just not sure I know one like this.
My first novel was published Jan. 20, after 20 years of rejections piled upon rejections – probably akin to rejections he may have suffered in ways I will never know. Still, he was supposed to celebrate this lotteryesque milestone with me.
In fact, at this moment, I have every expectation of seeing him again. I’m a bit miffed that he did what he did. But we never got around to that question, in peeling the Cosmic Onion, so he never answered one way or the other.
One step ahead of the other . . . I’m trying to promote my novel. All I can say about that is that writing’s a lot easier, and this is the first REAL attempt I’ve made at writing much of anything since … well … since Karin let me blog here last time. Otherwise, I’m busy booking bands at my concert venue, The Handlebar. Which he never visited. (That could annoy me, too, if I get to thinking about it, so I won’t; let’s just say, I’ll give in to some understanding.)
My wife says that you don’t need to be a drunk, angry, angst-ridden, pill-popping, self-absorbed wingnut Artist with a capital Hole to be a Great Writer.
Let me just say it’s total joy to get hungry reading this blog, to read the shavings carved from the lives of these lovely writers, moms who cook and have kids, those who write and don’t have kids, those who write and teach and either have or don’t have kids – and all of y’all are just so damned nice.
Still, my friend’s death provides an Old-School Artist impetus to grease those creative skids. Forgive me …I will move on. Maybe somehow someday I can enjoy again … and BE in joy.
Because that’s all we got.
Meantime, thank y’all for being there for me.
John Jeter's novel, THE PLUNDER ROOM (St. Martin's Press/Thomas Dunne Books) was published Jan. 20. He is founder and co-owner of The Handlebar, where he has the sexiest job: Talent Buyer. Which means he procures the performers among the 2,500 who have played at the Greenville, SC, concert venue since he and his wife, Kathy Laughlin (who also edits his mss.), opened in 1994. Performers have included Joan Baez, John Mayer, Robert Earl Keen, Bela Fleck, John Hiatt, David Sanborn - and will soon include George Clinton & Parliament-Funkadelic. John still has no literary agent. No writing partners (though Joshilyn says he needs one/some) and is trying to figure out the blogosphere, in which to promote his book, his first published.