Had the attorney asked me, on the day that I took the stand, how long I’d known my friend Wayne, I probably would’ve said, “as long as I can remember.” We’d both attended a Seventh-day Adventist elementary school in southwestern North Carolina: a three-story A-frame on a terraced hill overlooking a rusty playground and a church parking lot. I wonder now—supposing I’d been given the chance that day I spoke on his behalf—whether I could’ve adequately characterized my friendship with Chris, a kid who, during sixth grade math, would periodically scratch his nose with his middle finger, so as to surreptitiously flash people the bird. I would’ve needed to talk about how we were called upon to memorize bible verses, play four square, say blessings over our lunches, puzzle over selections from the SRA reading laboratory, and listen quietly while visiting pastors told stories about what would happen someday, when the Sunday Laws went into effect and we’d be persecuted for worshipping on the seventh day of the week. I would’ve needed to talk about how, even though I would’ve called Wayne my friend, I hadn’t cared that much for him at the time. It wasn’t that I actively disliked him; on many occasions, I’d admired—albeit secretly—his impish bravado, thought it was funny when he it was his turn to choose a Your Story Hour cassette to play during lunch—our classroom had an entire collection of audio dramas narrated by a duo who addressed one another as “Aunt Sue” and “Uncle Dan,” and who told stories about prayerful paratroopers, God-fearing historical figures, and kids who, thanks to divine intervention, had been healed, escaped Indians, or simply learned their lessons—and Wayne would try to play the same tape he always tried to play, which was a story titled “Footprints,” a selection that, due to its oblique but irrefutable references to teenage pregnancy, had thus been deemed too mature for a room of kids in the first through fourth grades to hear.
I might’ve explained—had the attorney asked—that Wayne and I had simply never clicked, never became close. I’d grown up the son of a kind-hearted dentist and an industrious homemaker. Wayne’ father was a carpenter. His mother cleaned the church down the hill from our school. His parents raised four kids in a singlewide trailer just over the border in north Georgia, on Hardscrabble Road; I lived in a three-bedroom house furnished largely with antiques—an old icebox, a butter churn, a dry sink—that my parents had bought at flea markets in southern California, when my father was in dental school. Wayne wore outdated clothes handed down to him by his older brothers; I wore Panama Jack T-shirts, stiff navy jeans, and shoes with Velcro straps and zippered pockets where I stowed emergency quarters. Though I insisted on thinking of myself as elusive during games of tag football, Wayne could slay me in pull-ups, and always, always beat me by a couple of hundredths of a second in the fifty-yard dash. He’d spent lots of time in the woods, where he blazed paths with machetes and purportedly smoked rabbit tobacco; I spent most of my free time in my room, drawing characters from MAD magazine comics, staging battles with G. I. Joes, and building Lego spaceports.
I guess what I’m trying to say—and what I would’ve been happy to explain, had the attorney inquired—is that it would’ve been difficult for me, as a kid, to imagine that, one day, I’d become Wayne’s very good friend. Before I’d moved to Chapel Hill at the age of twenty, I hadn’t seen Wayne since the spring of our freshman year at the Adventist boarding academy we’d attended in Calhoun, Georgia, where Wayne had the misfortune of rooming with a camouflage-and-military-boot-wearing kid named Carl, a guy with squinty eyes and puffy, acne-ridden cheeks. Carl had once informed me, while we were both standing in a cafeteria line, that a guy should whack off before he went on a date, so that he wouldn’t cum in his pants—a piece of advice that’d startled me into silence. One night, this Carl kid, this wanna-be soldier of fortune, dismantled the mechanism that prevented his dorm room window from opening all the way, then lowered himself to the ground with rope and karabiner clips, and absconded to some secret place in the surrounding woods, where he remained hidden for weeks. When faculty couldn’t locate him, they pointed fingers at likely accomplices. Wayne, who’d been employed as a cafeteria dishwasher, was charged with—and may indeed have been guilty of—delivering pilfered foodstuffs to Carl. Our Dean—an egomaniac who prided himself on his ability to stand outside a student’s room and hear music coming through the headphones of a contraband cassette player, a device he then confiscated and displayed trophy-like on a shelf behind his desk—had woken Wayne once in the middle of the night and forced him to ride dark country roads in his truck, which reached speeds of 90 miles per hour while the Dean screamed, “Tell me what you know!” This particular tactic failed to crack the kid’s resolve, but it didn’t prevent his accusers from leveling what seemed like, at the time, an unjust punishment: Wayne was expelled.
In the dream version of my testimony, I pause here. The attorney asks, “What happened next?” and I say, “I don’t know, years passed, I guess,” and another attorney says, “Objection. Speculation.” And the judge says, “Sustained.” And then I say, “Well, Wayne attended a local high school in North Carolina, where, because he didn’t hunt or play sports, he served as one of the resident outcasts. It probably didn’t help that he wore hand-me-down clothes and rode to school in his mom’s rusted 1957 Spider. Nevertheless, he befriended a girl, fell in love. They married, and she gained entrance to the University of North Carolina, the very same school to which I would transfer my junior year.”
I’d need to explain here that I was tempted to use the word “improbable” to describe my relocation to Chapel Hill. I’d been attending a small Seventh-day Adventist college in Massachusetts, where, incidentally, I’d been having the time of my life. I lived off campus, in an apartment that served as a setting for parties involving beer, shots of Jim Beam, and weed smoked through repurposed Budweiser empties. I drove to Boston every weekend to see my girlfriend, who was getting an engineering degree at Northeastern, and we wandered the city like lost ragamuffins, rolling cigarettes, buying coffees, making out in the backs of movie theaters, riding clattering T cars, drawing messages on the frost-fogged windows of Laundromats. In Clinton, where I lived, my friends and I visited the local reservoir; on its shores we smoked cheap Mexican shake and smashed ice with rocks or basked in the sun. On whims, we drove to the ocean, to a place called Marblehead, and walked a beach made of stones, hypnotized by the endless clatter and smash as waves sucked up oval-shaped rocks and spat them out. We patronized The Old Timer, a legendary bar across the street from the apartment where I lived, the proprietors of which turned a blind eye to underage college kids sipping beer from the glasses of their friends who were legal.
In short: life was pretty sweet.
Then my friend Tom—who, coincidentally, had also attended elementary school with Wayne and me—called and asked if I’d consider transferring to UNC (he’d been attending an ultraconservative Adventist college near Chattanooga, Tennessee, and was desperate to escape). Tom assured me that going to Carolina would be awesome, for all the obvious reasons: Chapel Hill was one of our nation’s great university towns; the school was one of the United States’ top public institutions; tuition was cheaper than any Seventh-day Adventist institution; and we could cheer, in person, the Tar Heel basketball team. I looked into it and discovered that, as an English major, I could concentrate in creative writing and take classes with professors whose output, publishing-wise, wasn’t limited to left-leaning Seventh-day Adventist magazines. There was only one problem: my parents had invested thousands upon thousands of dollars to secure me a Christian—or, more specifically, Adventist—education, one that would ostensibly feed my soul and outfit me for a life of service to my church. Though my family occupied what I liked to think of as a fairly liberal space on the S.D.A. spectrum—on occasion, we ate meat (but only that which had been deemed “clean” by Leviticus), drank caffeinated beverages (cited by our prophetess to be one of the many tools of Satan) and visited the cinema (which many Adventists avoided, due in part to the popular notion that, while a visitor lingered inside, one’s angel would stand at the door and weep)—we attended church every week and kept Sabbath from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown, during which we performed no work, watched no television, played no sports, and avoided conversations about secular concerns. And though I knew my parents wanted me to find a good Adventist girl to marry, and therefore wouldn’t be crazy about the idea of me transferring to a state university, and the attendant extracurricular debaucheries they no doubt associated with such a place, I had a hunch they’d support me if I pitched the idea as a chance to “really develop” my writing. This—the honing of my craft—was a goal I knew they admired, even if they did not, as people with little interest in contemporary literature and who read mostly books published by Seventh-day Adventist publishing houses, have much of an idea what course such a trajectory might take. To be fair, they didn’t make the kinds of assumptions frequently entertained by other church members, the ones who, upon hearing that I’d decided to major in English, said things like, “Oh, we need good writers,” as if, once my apprenticeship was complete, I would employ my linguistic prowess in the production of evangelistic materials.
Though my father was not an avid reader of poetry, he’d become a fan of a series of poems I’d written in high school, in which speakers did things like metaphorically scoop their own hearts from their chests with grapefruit spoons. In fact, my father had claimed that these poems had deeply moved him, that they’d given voice to feelings he’d experienced but had heretofore been unable to put into words. In a drawer at his office, he kept a sheaf of dot matrix pages, which he showed to interested patients as evidence of my burgeoning talent. His favorite was one in which the speaker requests that his ashes be spread upon the ocean, so that, after his death, his lover might bathe there and remember him. Although I appreciated my father’s unselfconscious adulation, I also resented it, partly because I was no longer seventeen and partly because I figured he wouldn’t appreciate what I was now writing: a brand of magic realism in which characters had sex out of wedlock, took drugs, cursed, took the Lord’s name in vain, and witnessed the resurrection of dead bodies.
At any rate—and for whatever reasons—my parents agreed to fund my transfer to the University of North Carolina. And so there I was, living off campus in a dingy two-bedroom with beige walls, worn carpet, and—except for the buzzing fluorescents in the kitchen—zero overhead lighting, a place where, one night, after hearing moans from the apartment above, I ventured into the yard and gazed up at the un-curtained window, obscured by the balcony, and—to gain a better view—climbed a sapling in the little stand of woods outside the apartment, just high enough to see two chubby, naked women grinding against each other.
The attorney who questioned me the day I testified for my friend Wayne didn’t ask me where I lived or whether or not I’d spied on my neighbors. Nor did he ask what I did for a living, which meant I failed to explain that I was an undergraduate student working part time at a university blood lab, hosing down the cages of dogs and pigs who’d been bred to carry hemophilia, so that the scientists—hoping to boost the animals’ clotting times—could perform tests on them. He didn’t ask if I had a significant other or whether I was content, after my off-and-on-again, long-time, long-distance girlfriend had dumped me (she’d called me up from Boston to say she’d hooked up with some random dude she’d met at a club, in part to make a clean break with me)—to occasionally make out with a classmate from my creative writing workshop, a spunky, curly-headed brunette who once submitted a story in which the main character walked naked into a fast food restaurant carrying a pistol she used to blast away the object of her ire: a container of chicken fingers. Neither did the attorney ask about the classes I’d been taking, which meant I wasn’t able to present a catalog of the teachers I’d encountered, among which included an old Shakespeare professor in his last semester, who claimed that the only things modern-day students cared about were Mickey Mouse and Superman, and who subsequently punished us with brutal fill-in-the-blanks-in-order-to-retell-the-plotline quizzes for each play we read; a Medieval lit professor, who resembled, with his big ruddy cheeks, bulging eyes, and bald pate, the Friar from the Canterbury tales; a Japanese lit professor—a spritely redhead—who handed out Hershey’s kisses and instructed us to place them on our tongues and—as an exercise in restraint—let them melt there; a grubby, wildly-bearded, sage-like religion professor, who lead discussions about the lives of 6th century Taoist monks, who had apparently spent a good deal of their time scouring mountains for hallucinogenic mushrooms; and an anthropology professor (he resembled a rumpled Mark Twain) who’d articulated Freud’s theory that religion had originated in a primal horde that had killed and eaten its father. Furthermore, I never had the chance to explain that, while I marveled at my teachers’ humor and intellect, their ability to command a class’ entire attention by unleashing a passionate lecture on Milton’s disdain for Anglican prelates, I also prayed they wouldn’t call on me, because I knew I’d freeze up or go blank or say something that’d expose me for what I feared myself to be: an intellectual fraud. I kept my head down, avoided eye contact, took copious notes, met very few people, and made even fewer friends.
In other words, I was something of a loner. And therefore lonely.
I’m not admitting this now—nor would I have said it then—to elicit sympathy. I say it because here’s what I’m trying to get at, here’s what I wish I could’ve said, had it come up in court that day: the only place I felt truly at home during my time in Chapel Hill was a duplex on Milton Street, where my friend Wayne lived with his high school sweetheart, a place I often visited and whose time there I treasured. So had the attorney asked whether or not I thought my friend was a “fit” parent, and therefore worthy of having at least partial custody of his daughter (who was less than two at the time) I would’ve said, “Absolutely.” After all, I had witnessed this fitness firsthand. I’d spent many a weekend in that duplex, admiring the baby who’d been named after a flower I’d never heard of. She was a special kid. She was smart. She looked a lot like her father, who happened to be the first of my friends to become a parent, which meant that she was the first child produced by my generation that I could’ve been said to befriend, had been the first baby in my adult life I’d observed with any genuine or sustained interest. In the evenings on their screened-in porch, I’d strum an acoustic guitar, and Wayne would light candles, then crumble a bud of glistening hemp from a film canister or wherever he kept it into the mouth of a wooden pipe he’d carved during downtime at the cabinet shop where he worked, blowing the stream upwards to avoid the kid, supposing she was tottering around, and saying stuff like, “Who knows, maybe it’d help her to inhale just a little,” as if weed might have some magic, Knowledge-of-Good-and-Evil-type properties. From my perspective, the girl was utterly cherubic: inquisitive, well-behaved, quiet, and a little shy, but having taken enough of a liking to me that she would sit beside me or on my lap, her mother standing at the door, never voicing disapproval of our weed smoking but maybe reminding us that she could never drink or smoke because if she did she’d lose her mind and maybe one time I did observe her after she’d sipped half a glass of Zima or some other fruity alcoholic beverage, a Bartles & James wine cooler, maybe, which was apparently enough to give her an incurable case of the giggles. Mostly, she’d interrupt to request that Wayne do something she’d rather not do, or that she claimed she could not do, like cook a meal, for instance, and Wayne—who had once whipped up a batch of apple butter sans recipe, having come from a family whose members figured stuff out, whose brother had become an honest-to-God rocket scientist and whose father, after years of living in the family’s singlewide, had built himself an energy-efficient house and dreamed of constructing a waterwheel in the nearby creek—would begin cutting potatoes into slices and slide them in an inch of hot corn oil, and in minutes we’d be eating the absolute best ever golden homemade fries.
The attorney didn’t ask me whether or not I liked my friend’s wife, and if he had, I don’t know if I could’ve told the truth, despite the fact that I’d sworn to, at least not with her sitting right there. Because the truth was that I’d never liked her all that much, never truly approved, always sort of thought that Wayne could’ve done better, both on the superficial level of finding somebody who was more physically attractive and intellectually gifted, though it’s worth pointing out that Wayne, despite his handsomeness (he was chock full of Cherokee blood, with dark eyes and striking features) and intellectual capacity (having always earned exceptional grades) had always seemed to be a fairly insecure person, a trait that manifested itself most frequently in his insistence on saying “I dunno,” a self-effacing catchphrase that followed his hypotheses about the inner workings of carburetors or how best to brew beer. His overuse of this expression became downright maddening, not only because of the relentless repetition, but also because it didn’t accurately portray reality, he actually did know, every time, or could’ve at least been said to be pretty sure, whereas I, as the person to whom these questions were often leveled, had absolutely no clue.
The biggest mystery, to me, was what Wayne saw in his wife. She caked her face with apricot-colored base, sported blouses, pleated jeans, and white Keds. She cracked dumb blond jokes, followed by assertions that she was an exception to the rule, despite the fact that she obviously dyed her hair. She claimed to be a “liberated woman,” which, in her mind, granted her an exemption from any chore she found distasteful, as well as the license to order her husband around. If Wayne minded, he didn’t complain. He happily complied with meal making and laundry folding and diaper changing, none of which ever soured his eternally hospitable spirit. Would I like to play his guitar, the one he’d built himself? Would I like to hear some Pink Floyd? Would I like a glass of home brew? Would I like to smoke a little weed in the back bedroom? Some that he’d grown and cured himself, having nursed a single sparkling stalk in the weeds behind the shop where he worked in Chapel Hill?
I suppose it’s not exactly fair to characterize my friend’s ex-wife as completely unlikeable, since I became habituated to her company. After all, she was the person my friend had married, and that he’d chosen her, despite her deficiencies, was somehow endearing: he’d fallen for a girl in high school, decided she was the one, and became hopelessly devoted. And so, hanging out with them, going on walks from their neighborhood of shitty duplexes and across the street to a neighborhood of nicer, larger homes where I imagined professors and their families lived, allowed me to observe a phenomenon I’d never before witnessed: people my age who had started a family.
Here’s something I probably should’ve said at the outset of all this: I can’t remember exactly what the attorney asked me. It was, admittedly, a long time ago. I only remember that I went because Wayne had invited me to speak on his behalf, and I was glad to help, to express my support for a heartbroken father who longed to see—but had been served a restraining order and thus could not—his little girl, and who subsequently had been forced to listen, silently, as his wife had taken the stand and said a great number of things about him, hardly any of which—at least from my point of view—had been true. She’d talked about what a bad husband and father he’d been. How he hadn’t done his fair share. How he’d done drugs, oh yes, he smoked pot all the time, like every day. How he’d been abusive. How she was scared of him. And that he wasn’t fit to take care of a child.
I didn’t know if my friend had abused his wife. He’d said that he hadn’t, and I had no reason to doubt him. It had always seemed to me that he’d been on a short leash, as they say, that his wife had been the one in control. “Make me dinner,” she’d say, and he’d make her dinner. “Fold these clothes,” she’d say, and he’d fold the clothes. From what I’d seen, he’d do anything she said. I’d even felt sorry for him—I was embarrassed to see him get bossed around—but if he’d minded, he never once complained. I’d never asked him, “So what’s up with your wife?” I’d figured it was his deal to bring up. But he never had.
And though I can’t remember all of the questions that the attorney asked me, I can remember the ones he asked at the end. He wanted to know if I’d ever seen my friend smoke marijuana, and if I’d ever smoked with him.
Despite the fact that I had, like many a young American college student, smoked a great deal of marijuana—had sucked its smoke from one-hitters, joints, pipes, bongs, and three liter bottles—and even though I’d gone to movies and classes high and had held entire phone conversations with my parents while totally blitzed, and though I had no guilt about smoking it and had observed zero negative consequences whatsoever, other than a lingering cough now and again, I’d never—not even once—confessed that I regularly smoked it to anyone who I knew wouldn’t approve. But I’d taken an oath, had placed my hand upon the bible, and promised to say nothing but the truth, so help me God. And so, with Wayne’ parents sitting right there—and his wife’s parents, too—I admitted that I had smoked marijuana with my friend. And that yes, it had happened on multiple occasions.
“No further questions, Your Honor,” the attorney said. And he sat down. And then I was excused. And immediately I realized: I had served my purpose. The attorney had known exactly what to excise from me, and he had excised it. And now he was done with me. And now I could now step down from the bench, because my minor role in this drama was over.
To say that things went downhill afterwards that is something of an understatement, but I’ll say it anyway: things went downhill. Wayne, who’d enrolled at nearby N. C. State, to pursue, by night, an engineering degree, dropped out. It was said by a friend in the know that he frequently trolled nearby Durham for prostitutes. It was said by this friend that he found said prostitutes, with whom, it was said, he enjoyed—if “enjoy” is the right word, which I suspect it is not—the smoking of crack cocaine. It was said that he was, at some point, pulled over by the cops and, after his car was searched, arrested for possession of paraphernalia.
He lost the right to have any contact whatsoever with his daughter, who was subsequently raised by her maternal grandparents, in part because her mother—who would find employment with cigarette company R. J. Reynolds—ran off to live in another state with another man.
I haven’t seen Wayne in years, not since the time he stopped by my parents’ house while I was home for a visit. He had a new wife. She was rail thin, bug-eyed, and missing—for whatever reasons—a number of teeth. The baby they had made, and which sat silently on her mother’s lap, looked pale and malnourished and underdeveloped. Wayne told me that he’d gone back to Hardscrabble Road, that he was working construction with his father. He and his family lived in a trailer, without electricity, in the woods behind his parents’ house. At one point, he asked me, in a whisper, if I’d taken any good drugs recently. I told him the truth: I had not.
That was almost a decade ago. I haven’t heard from him since. I’d like to talk to him. I’d like to tell him that I’ve seen him there in the blue and white singlewide in my mind and that I have this crazy fantasy where the trajectory of his life could’ve changed, depending upon the sort of testimony I delivered. I want to believe that, given the chance, my words could’ve helped solve the puzzle of his life. I want to tell him that my father told me that he heard in his office, which is a hive of voices telling stories about the people in my hometown, that Wayne’ daughter recently returned to Chapel Hill, a place she may have no memory of, and that I looked her up online, and found her on a popular social media site, and sent her a message wherein I told her that this might sound weird coming out of the blue but that I remembered her and that she was the first baby I had watched grow into a toddler, and that her father had once upon a time meant a great deal to me. I want to tell him that, a few days later, his daughter messaged me back to say, “This is my first semester at Carolina” and “I love it here” and “I plan to major in biology and hope to go to med school someday” and “My grandparents tell me that I get my analytical mind from my father and my blond hair from my mother.” And then she thanked me for my letter.
I can imagine dialing Wayne’ parents’ number and his dad or mom would put me through, meaning that they’d flip some sort of switch and a line going to from their house to his trailer would activate a phone there, which would ring. And in the moments before he picked up, I’d imagine, as I am now, a squinty-eyed man with long hair and a tie-dye shirt and ripped jeans shuffling toward the phone. There’s a kid crying in the background. There’s a battery-operated radio. There’s a pan of potatoes spitting grease on the stove. My friend kicks a jacket out of the way to reach the phone, which he picks up. “Hello,” he says, thinking maybe it’s his dad inviting him down to the house for dinner or a game of chess that he’ll lose because he’s too stoned, though his dad—out of a mixture of generosity and embarrassment—won’t act like he knows. “Hello,” my friend will say again, and I’ll want to say, “Hey, Wayne, it’s me,” but I tell myself I know how this conversation will go already, so instead I say, “Oh, sorry,” and that I must have dialed the wrong number. “Ah,” he’ll say, “it’s no problem,” though maybe, after I hang up, something about my voice will seem familiar. But only for a moment, before he returns to his cooking, and I’m one of a thousand lost voices in his head.