Thursday, March 17, 2005


In Which the Alternate Endings Are Not All Happy...

Whoa. Well, that one sailed on me. When I set out to start a series of random anecdotes about odd jobs I've had (defined as anything I did for money. Well, anything legal), I thought they might be one or two-entry deals at most. But eight chapters?

And how 'bout that last ID card, huh? Now there's a face that Bell's Palsy could only improve. I was hesitant to post it, but ah, what the hell? Of course, now I have visions of Shane, my own personal investigator, armed with a 100-mile radius map of the Kansas City area, hundreds of print-outs of my ID, and big plans for his summer vacation.

So, I've told this story a time or two, and whenever I do, there are usually two questions, and of course they've been asked here by a few readers.

The first one is the obvious one: How much of that really happened?

The second one is: So what happened to everyone? That one's a little harder for me to answer.

First, it happened. Telling it in the form of a boy's detective story makes it feel fictional of course, and that being the case, I suppose I should have told it in a little more straightforward manner. In the very first account of this story, I did. Right after we cracked the case (I love that phrase!), I sat down at my parents' old typewriter and did up a case file (you can see it in the Chapter 2 post), included all my interview notes, the diagram of the depot and more. Shawn even got his mom's ancient Polaroid Land Camera and went to Melinda's to take a picture of the dog.

The main case file is a model of brevity, just a page long (and no doubt some of you are wishing I had posted that instead). It pretty much tells the whole story in about four lines:

"...stuffed dog stolen on "Cecil's bus" Bus #4..."

"...old bus broke down and was put at depot. When D.I. investigators realized this, we proceeded to the depot and recovered the dog..."

"...Bruce and sister obstructed investigation..."

"...Mr. Jack Lacey rended [sic] assistance..."

It really doesn't get more detailed. But at the time I didn't think it needed to be (also I was probably afraid my mother would see it and I'd be in deep doo-doo). No one else seemed to care, but Shawn and I would regularly relive the case, and when I moved away a year and change later, I wrote a longer account of it, which I gave to him before I left. As Shawn wrote to me once, years later, "What makes it feel like a detective story at all is the stroke of luck and coincidence that led to the buses being switched and us--okay, you--realizing it when no one else did. Take that out of the anecdote, and you got nothing, really, just a couple kids running around with an Army belt full of stuff."

Of course that's not to say that 25 years haven't warped my memory in favor of self-mythology. And of course there are moments that required some noodling. Most of the conversations with adults, for example, had to be entirely reconstructed. When you're a kid, you tend to remember the gist of what adults tell you more than their actual words. And I didn't think I needed to reproduce all five of the interviews we conducted, especially my transcript of Mr. Hayward's long explanation of the bus-leasing policies of the school district (if I'd included that, Sharfa, you really WOULD rather have had me write about paint drying).

And okay, yes: I might have made Fred the dog a little meaner than he actually was. I really was scared of big dogs back then, and he certainly was an excitable, yappy type, so hopefully you'll forgive me for that. Also, the more I think back on it, I'm not entirely convinced that Jack didn't realize we were in the bus. It would have been just like him to drive a ways down the road with us trapped in the back, just to teach us a lesson (and it worked. We never EVER went hunting for stuffed animals in buses on the backs of tow trucks again).

But otherwise, them's the facts. I went through a period of being annoyed when people questioned the truth (there was a reason for that, which I'll get to), but now I take it as a compliment to whatever meager narrative powers I possess. I've never been good at fiction, so for someone to think I might spin this out of whole cloth is actually quite flattering.

Right, so: what happened to everyone?

Bruce and Dee Dee moved away early the next school year. They ran away from home a few years later and embarked on a cross-state crime spree that ended in a hail of bullets. Truman Capote based his book on hell, I dunno what happened to them. But if Bruce is reading this, I just want him to know there's no hard feelings, and I truly appreciate that he would spend so much of his valuable time perusing my blog. I know most maximum-security facilities only give you so many hours of Internet time per month at the prison library, so it means a lot. Thanks. No really, thanks. DINK.

By all accounts, Melinda blossomed and went on to become one of the hotties in her high school class, (hey, just like me!). Like a lot of my classmates who grew up in that small farming community on the prairie, she got married right after graduation, skipping college and going straight into life as a grown-up. Last I heard, she was still married, had at least one kid, and was teaching Bible school, just like her charmless mother.

Lacey's Garage is still in business (Shane races for an online directory!), and Jack still runs the place, or at least he did, last time I visited. The old Coke machine is long gone (I hope he got a fortune for it from an antique dealer), but kids still hang out on the curb there every day after school.

Mr. Terry became the superintendent of the school district, which really bit into his ability to interfere with kids' daily lives. But last time I visited, the buses still had assigned seating, so his legacy is secure.

Mr. Cecil gave up bus-driving and ended up taking over the town hardware store. The year he did, our little town was the victim of a daring nighttime robbery that involved crooks blowing a hole in the town office wall in order to get into the hardware store, which shared a common wall with the office building. The thieves stole thousands in merchandise, as well as Cecil's cash vault. The store went under not too much later. I always felt bad for Mr. Cecil, and even worse that I had left town before I got a chance to try and solve that case (they never did find the crooks).

No idea what happened to Mr. Hayward. He was still driving the bus the last time I visited, but he was talking about retiring. Of course, he often talked about it when he drove us to and from school, so for all I know he could still be doing his purgatorial job.

You know what happened to me. I never did become a detective, never got into any car chases, never rescued any beautiful girls from locked trunks (except that one time...). My one brief moment of lucid deduction aside, I came to realize that I was no intuitive whiz, and not particularly skilled at putting two and two together. And forget running a methodical investigation or coming up with great problem-solving schemes--that was Shawn's gift.

But I did enjoy the process of tracking down information, pulling it all together. I liked talking to people, feeling empowered to ask them questions. So it was only natural--inevitable, really--that I would end up in a job where that's pretty much what I do.

And Shawn...

After I moved back east at the end of the next year, Shawn and I kept in touch. His mom remarried and had yet another kid, but at least she stayed home more and he didn't have to be a surrogate parent to his siblings as much. This newfound freedom meant he was able to spend two or three summers with my family, and came for Christmas my junior year of high school (where we shared one more adventure. It wouldn't make a good detective story, but it would make one hell of a ghost story. One of these days...).

We wrote to each other regularly and called each other about once every other month. The last time I spoke to him was towards the end of my freshman year of college. He had a lot to say then. He could be a moody kid, and as he'd gotten older, he was more prone to bouts of depression. Sometimes months would go by and I wouldn't hear from him and during those times I'd worry. But this time when we talked, it was good news. He was in therapy now, and coming to grips with a lot of issues. The big one was the fact that he never knew his father, who had walked out when Shawn was an infant. But he was making plans to meet the guy for the first time. I shared some issues related to my own dad. It was a really good talk.

During that call, Shawn brought up our one and only detective case. "Did we really do that?" he asked. "Sometimes I feel like it was all a dream. Well, if it was, it was a good dream. That was just the best time." I agreed. We rang off promising to talk at Christmas, but he never called and neither did I.

I don't know what happened over the next six months, but I do know his meeting with his father did not go well. I'm sure that wasn't the whole reason, but not too long after, Shawn slipped into a serious depression. Some time in the new year, Shawn snuck out of the place where he was under suicide watch and drove his car to a secluded spot. Methodical to the last, he had picked out this spot in advance and had everything with him that he needed. He ran a hose from his exhaust pipe into the car, popped a couple of sleeping pills, put on his headphones, started the car and fell asleep listening to his favorite music. The police found his body the next morning. They said it was an open-and-shut case, no mystery to solve.

But there was, and I'll always regret that I never tried to unravel it sooner.

I stopped telling people about our detective adventure after that. Too many kept asking whether it had really happened, and the only answer I could give at the time was: If I wanted to make up a detective story, it wouldn't be about a stupid stuffed dog. It would be a story about a guy who realizes his best childhood pal is in danger, 1,000 miles away. The clues have been there for years, unnoticed, but the guy finally puts it all together and races to his friend's aid. The pals are reunited before something awful happens and the suffering friend realizes that he is loved and valued and somehow finds the path to eventual recovery and the happy ending he so richly deserves.

But that's the kind of story that, once you started writing, you couldn't stop. You'd want to keep writing it until it somehow became true. And that would never happen.

So, finally, I thought this tale deserved a more thorough telling than the one-page report I did at 11, than the longhand account I wrote at 12. It's not much, it's maybe even a little pathetic, but it's the best way I can think of to remember that remarkable boy, as he was then, his life already more than half-over. I didn't know that at the time, of course. All I knew was that I never had so much fun as when I got hang around with Shawn.

And though I never said it, I always felt lucky that he had picked me to be his friend.

From Somewhere on the masthead

I will never understand why people have the desire to poke holes in something fun and enjoyable.
(Picking apart some beautiful girl with perfect hair and a perfect bod when you are with your girlfriends is something else entirely.)
As I cry in my coffee for Shawn, I think he felt like the lucky one. In my heart of hearts, I think the happiest times of his too short life were spent hanging with you. Please don't let undeserved guilt take away from that.
Wow. What I had taken to be a light-as-air piece of fond childhood recollection turns on me at the end and becomes remarkably sad and beautiful.

What a terrific piece.
Well I hadn't planned on being teary first thing in the morning! (Blogger was mean and wouldn't let me comment then.)

Sad what happened to Shawn. I've known 3 people who've committed suicide. I wonder if that's a lot.

Love that ID card with the fingerprints all over it. I don't think I'd ever put my 3rd grade glasses picture on the internet - you're braver than me!

Love your stories.

Thanks for sharing your childhood story with us. Your recollection of the past and ability to fill in the spaces is impressive. I contemplated writing a screen play based on childhood episodes, but it proved to be difficult to fill in the blanks.

Anyway, I'm sorry about Shawn. It's always difficult to think of what to say to someone when they lose someone. He seemed like a neat person.
As I started reading this, I planned my humorous response to the jabs at my purported "stalkerdom," but then of course I got to the ending. So, I'll refrain from my Tommy Lee Jones quote from "The Fugitive."

I started reading your detective tale with casual interest. At first, I wasn't sure if it was a real story or if it was an exercise in fiction. I wasn't even sure if you were going to finish it. Then of course, I got into it. The afterword caught me a bit off guard, although after hearing about your friend Shawn, it makes sense. Speaking strictly in literary terms, he's obviously a tragic hero. There are clues.

I'll echo probably everyone else you've ever told the story to when I tell you to stop harboring the guilt over his death. Even if you had flown down there in time and reconnected with him, could you have prevented what was coming? Don't convince yourself that you could have.

On a lighter note, you'll be happy to hear that I've given up my quest for your identity. I googled every combination of editor, magazine, new hampshire, (insert magazine title), and a few other qualifiers that I could think of. I guess I'll be content to read your stories and musings as written by simply, "MM."

(It's so much easier.)
Hey. If Tim O'Brien is right, and I think he might be, a story can save someone's life by bringing them to life on paper (or blog). This story, then, serves its purpose well. You've written a wonderful tale, and shared it with the blogosphere for us to enjoy... and now we can all understand how lucky you were that he picked you.
I don't know, MM. Every time I think I've read something of yours that can't be beat, you top it. This one kept me enthralled and thoroughly entertained for about an hour. I believe. I'd be more exact, but I lost track of the time, which is the best test for whether or not something really got you. This did.

Just an off-the-top-of-my-head wild shot at the "dollar" mystery. Would it have been possible that Shawn himself placed the envelope there, to make your day? He sounds like the sort of good friend who might have done just that.

Thanks for sharing such a good tale.
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