Creative Nonfiction
Kim Morris

I was on the train, going to work; it was early; I was considering how obviously the blue of my slacks clashed with the black of my shirt now that I was here, in the light of the morning, instead of in the dark of my apartment, and then I looked up and I saw Jake.

I was suddenly eighteen years old again, frustrated, angry, on the verge of crying. He made his way towards me while I told myself that I’m thirty-three, dammit, I’m supposed to be a fucking adult now. But, still.

We started making small talk. Brown Line construction sucks. Where do you work now? And then there was this awkward silence where we just stared at each other.

See, Jake wasn’t really my friend in high school. I knew him because he was a friend of Mike’s, and Mike really was my friend in high school.

Mike and I—we’d known each other since grade school, because we lived on the same block. But it wasn’t until senior year in high school that we became friends, real friends, because we were stuck in these mandatory grief counseling sessions. We had both lost our dads—which is what the grief counselors at school said we should call it, “lost.” Like, “Huh. I put my dad here yesterday but now he’s gone. Where did I lose him?”

The real deal was that my dad died of a heart attack, suddenly, on a really rainy April Monday. Mike’s dad died in the line of duty, busting a drug house. The papers were all over it: Local Hero Gives Life for Safety of Community. Our local paper had a thing for long headlines. But if anyone deserved a long headline, it was Mike’s dad. Everybody loved him. He was
a hero. And after he died, Mike’s dad became mythical.

Mike and I had grief counseling sessions every other Wednesday after school. Just us two, sitting in those chairs that have the desk attached to it on the right side, and by desk, I mean, a tiny table that jutted out from the arm of the chair, that wasn’t big enough to fit a notebook on, and which was obviously made by someone who assumed that everyone was right-handed, which Mike was not. There were cartoon drawings of happy people on the walls. There was a list of the stages of grief: Denial and isolation, anger… I know there are a few more, but really, I never got past anger.

We were taught coping skills, which involved saying things like, “I am sad that my dad died, but I know he loved me.” Or “I have many people around me who love me and support me.” The grief counselors looked at us with wide opened eyes with tons of pity in them. They often said things like, “Aw. That’s okay.” “It’s okay.” “You’re okay!” Mike and I ended up becoming world-class eye rollers.

We’d go to McDonald’s after these sessions and just rip apart everything we were told. This one time, we were sitting in a corner booth and Mike said to me, “It sucks that they’re gone. No one ever says it. But it sucks.” I remember looking at him—his brown, intense eyes, his chiseled cheekbones—and feeling relieved. And connected. Finally, someone said it out loud. No one else ever said it. They always said, “It’ll be all right,” or “Take care of your mother.” But no one ever just looked us straight in the eye and said the truth—I mean, it really sucks when your dad dies. And there’s really nothing else to say other than that.

Another time at McDonald’s, Mike said to me, “You know, you don’t have to talk about it. It’s okay to keep some things to yourself.” We had just come from a particularly grueling session where the counselors were all, “How does that make you feel, Kim?” “What does that make you think?” And I just sat there and stared back at the questions.

I didn’t want to talk about how worried I was that I wouldn’t be able to buy the right present for my mom for Christmas. I didn’t want to talk about how I didn’t want to go to my friends’ houses because they had dads. I didn’t want to talk about how my dad wasn’t going to be at my high school graduation or my college graduation or my wedding or anything else that was going to make me me and I certainly didn’t want to talk about how I didn’t know how I was going to make me me anymore.

But, I could say these things to Mike. And you know what he said when I said these things to him? He said, “I don’t know how to do that either. I don’t think we’re supposed to know right now, though.”

It was like walking into a bubble and sewing up the side, this friendship with Mike. We could sit in there and watch the world, but the world couldn’t get at us. We could just be. Sometimes Mike and I would go sit on the monkey bars at the playground at the elementary school, stare up at the sky, and discuss who we were going to be. Other times, we’d sit on my front lawn and talk about where we were going to live. We’d stick blades of grass between our fingers and blow through them, making an annoying whistling sound that cracked us up like crazy.

And then there were always all those teenagery things to do, which in Bolingbrook, Illinois, in the ’80s, meant drinking and driving. Our drinking revolved around Miller Genuine Draft. Our driving revolved around the back roads. Everyone at school always said, “We should go to the back roads.” It was the response to any question or problem. “I flunked my geometry midterm.” “We should go to the back roads.” “I got my period.” “We should go to the back roads.” “My face is breaking out like a pizza.” “We should go to the back roads.”

The back roads was a stretch of gravel road that dead-ended into a tree. The popular game was Sprints. This game was saturated with teenage logic, by which I mean, dumb as fucking shit. It involved at least three beers, driving your car from a predetermined start line, flooring it to just before the tree at the dead end, pulling a 180, and hauling back to the line. Winners were the ones who went the fastest but also kicked up the most dust at the far end. Mike was the king. Not only could he kick up the most dust, but he could do it in a way that made gravel and stones and dust shoot into the air like a lady’s fan snapping open.

This one spring day, after one of our grief counseling sessions, Mike and I headed out to the pond in the woods at the end of our street.

“Do you think they’re watching us?” I asked him when we got there. I sent a flat stone sailing across the pond.


“Our dads.”

“No, I don’t.”

“Really? ‘Cuz sometimes I feel like my dad is around. Like he’s standing just outside my peripheral vision, watching out for me.”

“Yeah? I think that’s your mind playing tricks on you.”

“No—tricks would be feeling like your dad was watching out for me.”

“My dad’s not looking out for anyone.”

“Are you kidding? Your dad would watch out for everyone if he could.”

“No, he wouldn’t.”

“Sure he would. He’s probably got some kind of angel police force rallied, with bullet-proof cloud vests.”


“He’s probably figured out how to use harp strings for handcuffs and he’s probably built an express chute to heaven’s jail, which of course is hell. I bet he’s police chief of heaven right now.”

“Kim. My dad killed himself.”

I turned and looked at him. Mike whipped his stone across the water. “Mike, no way. Your dad—”


“But he was saving—”


“Mike, your dad, he wouldn’t—”

“Yes, Kim. He would.”

You know, at the time, I didn’t really get what was happening at that moment. I mean, yeah, I know, we were skipping stones across the pond, I get that. But it wasn’t until years later when I thought about that moment and what that must’ve been like for Mike—saying that out loud, listening to himself say what his dad wasn’t. At seventeen, I didn’t get it. Now, though? Now I know that the weight of information can sometimes be heavier to carry than a house.

We ended up at the back roads that night. It was a Friday. I remember it distinctly, of course, now I do, but at the time, I remember being surprised at how crowded it was. There were about fifteen cars lined up on either side of the gravel road, probably about two to five people and a case or two of beer in each car. People were everywhere. Music was blasting from everywhere.

They started Sprints. First Billy went. Then Tommy. Then Mike went. I could see his car jamming down the road. From where I stood it looked like the tree was moving closer to Mike. The taillights got smaller. The dust from the road was flying around in the air. And then I realized that I should be seeing his brake lights down there, the beginning of his 180. I looked around at the people smoking pot on the hoods of cars, drinking beer while leaning against taillights, pissing in the cornfields. Then I looked back at Mike’s car. There should be gravel now, the lady’s fan, where was it? I heard Led Zeppelin and that stupid song from Dirty Dancing. And then, the world went absolutely quiet. Everyone stopped in midaction, like we were instantaneously frozen. I felt the beer bottle in my hand slip to the ground.

If you had happened upon that scene at that moment, you would’ve been mystified at the tree growing out of the center of that car. It looked more like a science experiment, or like someone at the arboretum got all artsy on Car and Nature Night.

And then there was chaos. I could hear girl-screaming. And crying. I heard a lot of oh shits and fucks. Something smelled like burning rubber. Someone was yelling get help, get help, get help, like the repetition of the demand would magically make someone helpful appear. People were running down to Mike’s car.

I stood there. I stood there staring down the road at my friend’s car smashed into the tree with the long arms and I knew that Mike wasn’t hurt and I knew that he didn’t need help. He was gone. Really gone. That’s when I went numb.

Those good old grief counselors, they beefed up their minions and swarmed the school. You could sneeze and your teacher would send you to the grief counselor. There were so many repetitions of “That’s okay” and “It’s okay” and “You’re okay” going around that I started seeing the words ooze out of the walls. There were reporters asking about what was now called The Accident. There were studies done on the relationship between teens and alcoholism. The Student Government Association launched a colossal campaign telling us how bad it was to drink and drive. There were candlelight vigils and remembrance services and various dedications, most of which involved planting trees and flowers. There were shaking heads and tsking and lots of, “He was taken too soon.” But never once, during any of it, did I hear anyone talk about what I was thinking.

During my awkward silence with Jake on the train, I considered telling him what it was I was thinking during all that shit that happened after Mike died. I think about telling him that Mike could’ve taken that 180 with his eyes closed. That out of all that beer and all that weed at the back roads that night, Mike didn’t have any of it. But, I didn’t say any of that to Jake. Instead, I said, “You know, it sucks that he died.”

“I live in Chicago. I spent six years in a two-year master’s degree program for creative writing because I didn’t want to work in a cubicle farm. As it turns out, the cubicle farm is very grey. I was a bike messenger, a teacher, an elite-level ice cream eater. Now I’m on the story development team for 2nd Story, a hybrid of storytelling, music, performance, and wine drinking. I’m an editor. I race my bicycle. It’s fun.” E-mail: kim_mrrs[at]yahoo.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email