We met as kids at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. When seated in alphabetical order, Joseph Francis McKenna noted how we Micks formed a pod. He and Tim and I were buddies hanging out on the “playground” that was a parking lot in front of the church and school. The actual playground with swings and monkey bars near the graveyard was reserved for younger kids. The parish was established in 1875 and we attended about a century later when there was nothing much to do at recess but stand around and talk. We acted like it was our job to crack each other up.
My siblings and parents knew Joe’s siblings and parents from church and school. Mr. & Mrs. McKenna had a romantic Hollywood movie-type story we all knew and retold like a legend. He was blinded in World War II, dashingly handsome even with the scars. She was one of his rehab nurses. They owned a Marian Shop stocked with Holy cards and statues and medals and rosaries with an emphasis on the Virgin Mary. When the shop struggled, Mr. McKenna took a job at the courthouse in downtown Minneapolis, ringing up candy bars and pop at the snack bar. I asked once if the petty criminals standing trial tried to pass off one dollar bills as fivers. The rumor was that he could feel the difference in value like a weight. Joe said he thought the real reason his dad had no trouble with dishonest people was due to the fact that the place was crawling with cops.
Before our high school reunion, Joe and Tim and I texted and phoned a lot. Joe lived in Texas. Tim lives in Georgia. I live in Oregon. We talked about life. And death. Joe said he didn’t have much longer in this world. Alcohol had made a mess of his life and ravaged his body. He recognized that. But he felt incapable of changing it. For many years, Tim had been his drinking buddy. Then he sobered up. Joe, unfortunately, did not.
During one of our rambling phone conversations, Joe told me to look up someone in our high school yearbook. I didn’t have a yearbook. Mine was stolen our senior year despite its personalized “Stay cool!” autographs. Yearbooks were expensive. I’d paid for the thing myself and I was mad at the culprit, the unfairness of the act. Joe said he’d mail me his copy. When it arrived, the first thing I did was check to see if he’d sent me my own damn book.
I loved the guy but he was just impish enough to make me suspicious.
But no, Joe sent me his old yearbook complete with his own personalized “Stay cool!” signatures. It reeked of stale cigarettes. I put it in a sealed plastic bag with sachets of baking soda to absorb some of the stink. It made me sad to think of Joe living along in a trailer in Texas, chain smoking Lucky Strikes. He also posted a tattered copy of his mom’s book of essays about their family. She’d written a column for a neighborhood newsletter, I think. Or maybe it was a Catholic bulletin. I was unaware of her writing at the time. But I read it and got a kick out of her perspective on the shenanigans of her many kids. I passed the book along to my parents to read. They still live in our old neighborhood, in the house they bought the year I, their fourth of six kids, was born. Both sets of my grandparents remained in their homes a few miles from us in Minneapolis until their deaths. My generation of 45 cousins — not a typo — have scattered further. The older I get the more I appreciate the sweet comfort of the community we shared.
After much back-and-forth and cajoling on my part, Joe came to our high school reunion. He hobbled in with a cane. He suffered visibly with each step. I was so happy to hug his tiny broken down body and to see he had the same big-trouble-grin he’d had since his adult teeth came in. I’d worried his brain would seem completely pickled from drink. But he was quick and funny. We had a blast sitting outside cracking each other up like it was our job.
Towards the end of the night, Joe had a beer. Then more beers. The most remarkable change came when he tossed the cane altogether and proceeded to demonstrate moves on the floor that looked like break dancing for the brittle boned. I said I was surprised he was suddenly so agile.
“Why do you think I drink?” he asked not expecting an answer.
I think alcohol destroyed his body and was, perversely, the only thing that relieved him of his pain.
I re-read some of our old texts and they made me smile. I can’t delete them. They are proof of his existence in this world, in my world, and how little nothings can one day mean everything. I considered whether it was ethical to share private texts. I think Joe would approve. And if not, he’ll shoot me a text.
JFM: 63 is a good point in life to see if there’s a Heaven or Hell . . . I’ll text you if the reception is good . . . Not sure if Hell has AT&T.
JFM: Tim used to say, “Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse.” My philosophy is different, “Leave a footprint (for) somebody else to walk in and hope you’ve left a good impression.
JFM: SAVE ME PLZ!!! I may have gone to the wrong party . . . these people look like they’re at their 80th high school reunion.
JFM: Did you take a selfie of us where I don’t look like a bumbling idiot?
JFM: I’m going to lie to Marissa & Jordan (my daughters) and tell them that you were my grade school sweetheart . . . at my funeral, plz stick with that white fib. Take care.
That was my last text with Joe.
To Marissa & Jordan: Your father was a difficult man and, I imagine, a problematic dad. But I was sweet on him. No lie
About the author
A former daily newspaper journalist, now an independent writer of essays & fiction published in several lit anthologies. The Whole Hole Story children's book was published by Versify Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. More are forthcoming.