Have you ever had one of those situations where someone considers you his (her) best friend, but you didn't feel that way back? Sure, that person was a friend, just not your best friend. Kind of like the whole thing with Barney in How I Met Your Mother. Ted and Marshall are best friends, but Ted is also Barney's best friend; it's just not reciprocated, because Marshall is Ted's best friend. Yeah, those things can be awkward.
In the early 90s, I had my own comic book business. This came about in part, as I mentioned here, because of the death of the owner of the used book store I worked at. This was one of those sudden deaths that you don't see coming.
I was leaving work one day, and he was out working on his junk heap of a van, a not uncommon occurrence. He kept a handkerchief in his pocket for dealing with his nose and sinus issues, and, when he worked on his van, he'd get oily gunk all over it but would continue to stick the thing up his nose anyway. It was a habit of his that really grossed me out, and I'd asked him several times whether he was worried about catching something from doing that. He really wasn't. I suppose when it's a habit you've had for 40-odd years, you really aren't worried about it. So I told him I'd see him tomorrow and headed back to school.
The next day, I came into work and the girl that (mostly) ran the register told me that he was dead. I thought she was pulling my leg and went about my business with a "yeah, right" or some such. She again told me he was dead, and I still didn't believe her and continued to get out the stuff I was working on. I mean, I had just seen him the previous day, and he'd been fine, right? But she told me he'd had to be rushed to the hospital the night before and had just died.
I couldn't figure out what was going on. Why was the store even open at all? Why was she at work at all? Why was I at work? Of course, I was at work because I hadn't known, but that didn't answer the other questions.
This was a death that made me mad. You see, as it turned out, he died of a staph infection that originated in his nose that was almost certainly contracted from that damned handkerchief. The staph infection made it into his brain within hours and killed him almost before he knew what had happened. I was so mad at him, I didn't even go to the funeral. It's such a horrible thing for someone to die from something stupid like that. I wanted to shake him and yell, "What did you think you were doing? What did I tell you?" But, then, it was too late for that.
I went on to have my own comic business after that. This is another one of those stories that's much longer but the longer doesn't pertain, so let's just cut to the part where I ended up not back in school the next year and running the comic business out of my bedroom at my parents' house. Yeah, it wasn't the best of things, but, just so you know, I did make it back to school later.
Anyway, all of that is how I met Matt. I was on my way back into town from picking up my weekly comic book shipment, and I stopped at the Circle K near my house for a Big Gulp or something. Now, this was actually a pattern I had, so I kind of knew who Matt was. I mean, I knew he was an Asian "kid" a couple or few years younger than me. He worked the night shift. On this particular night, though, comic books came up. I think he asked me what I was up to or something and I said I was on my way home with my weekly shipment of comics. He got all excited and wanted to see them, so, when there was a break in the customer flow, we went out to my car, and I popped the trunk and showed my boxes of comics. It was like a gun deal or something with the way were at the back of my car.
He started buying comics from me, after that. On "comic book day," I'd swing by and pick up a soda and head home and sort out the comics and, then, head back up to the Circle K and take him his comics and hang out for a couple or few hours. Yeah, I had an exciting life hanging out at the Circle K. Actually, it wasn't too bad, because I wasn't hanging out at the K to hang out at the K but to hang out with Matt, and we'd talk comics and all kinds of other stuff. I'd also stop by and hang out some nights on my way home from my gaming group, so we'd spend a few nights a week with me hanging out there with him.
I was his best friend. Other than his girlfriend, I was about the only non-work friend he had. Oh, work... he also worked at this place called Garfield's as a server and a bar tender, which is where he had friends, because he didn't have work friends at the Circle K since he worked alone. But I was his only friend that wasn't connected to him by work, and I was the person that did non-work related things, like go to movies, with him. But he wasn't my best friend. My best friends were in my gaming group.
Matt wasn't from Shreveport. In fact, he was adopted, and his parents lived in Indiana or some place like that. I don't actually remember how it was that he'd ended up in Shreveport, because he wasn't going to school, although I think that had had something to do with it. But he'd gotten to Shreveport, against his parents' wishes, and they'd sort of cut him off (evidently, they were wealthy). So he was working two jobs to make ends meet, and he was addicted to those pre-Internet poker video game things. Except he actually won more than he lost at those. A lot more. That's also a story in-and-of itself, because he used to always try to get me to play them. I'll just say I'm not a gambler in that I'm just no good at it.
He had a black belt in some martial art or other and would, sometimes, go out in the parking lot of the Circle K and demonstrate stuff, especially if/when my brother came up, because that's all my brother would bug him about. "Show me..." "Show me..." He could do a complete flip, front or back, from standing.
And he was into guns. In fact, he loved The Punisher and all things Punisher.
I'm telling you all of this so that you will understand what happened next...
It was comic book day, and I was coming back into Shreveport. I was a little earlier than Matt's shift, and I was really tired, so I didn't stop for a soda the way I normally would have. I just went home and, instead of unpacking the comics as per my usual, laid down to take a nap. I must have been really tired, because I was out for hours. In fact, I was woken up around 10:00 p.m. by the phone. It was Matt's girlfriend. Matt was dead.
A guy had tried to shoplift some beer and had shot Matt three times in the chest when Matt called 911. The guy was already under the influence of... something. He'd come in and stuck some individual bottles of beer, three, in his pockets and had tried to walk out. Matt told him to stop, and the guy just kept going. Matt picked up the phone and called 911. He did not at any point go for his gun. While he was on the phone, the guy pulled a gun and shot Matt. They got it all on the security camera and a lot of the audio from the 911 call. Matt didn't do anything to provoke the guy other than make that call. And he shot him. Matt was already dead when the ambulance arrived. The police picked the guy up a few blocks away with the gun in his hand and the beer in his pocket.
I should have been there. It was the only time I hadn't been there on that night. Literally, since Matt had started buying comics from me (and it had been a couple of years, at that point), there had not been a comic day that I hadn't been there hanging out after I'd done the whole sorting thing. I was wracked by guilt and remorse. Why hadn't I been there? If I'd been there, maybe he wouldn't have been shot. Of course, his girlfriend just kept telling me that if I'd been there I'd be dead, too, but I couldn't buy that then and still don't buy it now. All I know is that I wasn't there, I was supposed to be there, and things would be different if I had been there.
No, I don't have any particular belief about what things would have been different; I just know that they would be different. It's one of those situations that leaves you wondering what happened and why. Was it fate or God? Did God make me so tired that I wouldn't be there? Did the universe conspire to make things happen they way they did? Why? Why? Why? Was it just happenstance? I have a hard time with "just happenstance." What is the meaning, the purpose, behind what happened? It's one of those things that has been there in my brain for the last (almost) 20 years. Why?
To go with the guilt of having not been there, there was also the guilt of his not having been my best friend. It was something that always made me feel bad anyway, because, when he would introduce me to people (that he worked with, mostly), he would always introduce me as his best friend. He never seemed bothered that I didn't introduce him that way, but it always bothered me. When he died, his girlfriend was notified, because they lived together. I was the person that she called. The first person. The only person. Everyone else waited till the next day. Well, in Shreveport, at any rate. She dealt with his parents the rest of the night.
There was no service in Shreveport for Matt. Like I mentioned, his parents were rich, so they had his body flown home. His girlfriend went to stay with Matt's parents for a while for the funeral, but I only ever saw her one other time after all of it. She called me and asked me to come over and had some things she thought Matt would have wanted me to have. I don't really think Matt would have wanted me to have the things she gave me; I think she just needed to get rid of his things because of all the pain they brought and handed out stuff at random. I mean, one of the things she gave me was his expensive remote controlled car, which I had no interest in and held no meaning at all between Matt and me. But how do you say "no" in that kind of situation. I just took the stuff. I gave the car to my brother, but I don't think he ever used it.
You know, I understand accidental deaths and deaths from natural disasters and death from illness. Well, maybe understand is not quite the correct word, but, still, I understand that "things happen" and, sometimes, they lead to death. I do not, however, understand death due to violence. Not this kind of violence. I can not understand how it is that people decide to take someone else's life. I just don't get it. And for some beer? Seriously? The guy didn't even rob the register. He just shot Matt and walked out of the store. What compels someone to do something like that? And, yeah, I know, he was "acting under the influence," but he'd still felt compelled to have the gun in the first place, and it was just for "protection."
More than any other throughout my life, until just recently, this is the death that I have most struggled with. Asked the most questions about in my head. The thing with my boss was just stupidity, and it still, even now, makes me mad when I think about it. Mad at him. But it was just stupidity. An accident. It was avoidable, sure, but there was no malicious intent. But I struggle with Matt's death and with the fact that it didn't just end his life, because the guy that shot him is still sitting in prison in Louisiana on a life sentence with no chance of parole. Why do people treat each other this way? I just don't get it. I mean, we like to think of ourselves as so civilized or whatever now as opposed to how we used to be, but I don't think, really, that we've made any progress as a species. Not when things like this are still happening. And not just on an individual level but whole groups of people doing this kind of thing to each other.
As it turns out, my biggest questions about death aren't actually about death at all. Intellectually, I understand death and why it happens. The necessity of it. Even when I don't like it, I get it. But the impulse to cause death, that I do not understand.
I hope I never do.