So here we are. I am starting my senior year of high school and my older brother, who I idolize, has just been murdered.
Instead of sitting in class, I am sitting in a funeral home, planning Josh’s service with my family.
I remember being surprised by the cost of the casket. It’s weird what stands out.
Jon was taking it really hard. I guess I had only known Josh for like 10 years. Jon had known him since birth.
I remember feeling protective of my status as Josh’s brother. Jon kind of looked like him. They had the same last name. I was an outsider. I was always an outsider. I still am in a lot of ways. It’s an odd thing to feel obligated to justify your grief. Jon never questioned it. He knew. He knew better than anyone.
When I was a freshman, Josh correctly predicted my high school social status and path. At the time, I was struggling to fit in. Josh said “you’ll end up hanging out with the cool kids in the drinking crowd…I can see you being one of those guys.” It sounded unlikely, but at the same time I guess it gave me a glimmer of confidence.
Fast forward to my senior year and not only was I that guy, I had my little brother with me being “that guy in training.” Everyone loved Jon. He did really well being the younger kid in the crowd.
We were both hanging out a lot, drinking a lot of beer. We had kind of a “good ole boy” group we hung around with in high school. It was like a 90’s version of the movie “Dazed and Confused.” Driving old Chevys around on dirt roads looking for a cool place to throw a kegger.
Drinking to be “cool.” Drinking to talk to girls. Normal high school kid stuff… or maybe it wasn’t all “normal.” It seemed like every year someone died tragically. This year it was our brother. Still, it seemed innocent enough. Just kids going through growing pains.
Most nights I was just trying to drink enough to be cool and not throw up, but that started to change when Josh died. I think I was drinking to release emotions. I kept it bottled up until I was 10 beers deep, and then in place of the standard “I love you, man” brodowns, I was breaking down. All the pain and anger would be released for a moment. Crying and cussing. Primal pain. It was totally acceptable because I was drunk and you know… some dude killed my brother. Excuses I would continue to use for the next decade.
Despite losing Josh I have fond memories of that senior year. Memories of Jon and I being “good ole boys.”
That’s the great thing about memories – you pick what you want to keep.
Jon and I weren’t good ole boys at all. In fact, we were angry, dangerous teenagers who were living like we had nothing to lose.
At one point I had planned to move to Arizona an attend a community college with a friend of mine whose mom lived down there. That plan was completely out the window now. Like I said – my life was different now. I was doing all this shit I shouldn’t have been doing and leaning on the “my brother was shot” crutch any time someone wanted to point out that I was headed in the wrong direction.
Then there was a series of events that would really shape the next few years. I believe it started at a party on the other side of town, at some kid’s house we didn’t know. Spoiled rich kids was what we thought. We were basically going to drink their beer and steal their women – if they had any. When we got there, they were asking if we could get some LSD. We didn’t have any but we realized quickly the opportunity in front of us. We went to the gas station and bought some foil. We cut up some small pieces of paper and put them in the foil. Just like that, we had “LSD” for sale. We probably hung out for 20 minutes after the deal and then split – we had to get out of there before it was clear the drugs were fake. I remember we went straight to Hardee’s.
Well, it turns out there was one kid in particular who didn’t take kindly to our little caper. He eventually set up a deal through some other people where I gave him $500 and he was going to bring something back to me. He never showed back up. Had a story about how shit went sideways, and he doesn’t know what to tell me.
I was furious. I was listening to way too much gangster rap and my head was completely fucked up over Josh. There was another source of irritation for me. I had recently let Jon borrow my car to get me some Vicodin. I had twisted an ankle playing basketball or something, and this was easier than going to the doctor. Jon got the pills but also wrapped my car around a telephone pole. The car was totaled. The insurance had lapsed about a week earlier. Things were really going well for me.
Then a couple weeks later this kid showed up at a party at one of my closest friend’s house. That seemed extra arrogant to me. I asked him politely for the money he owed me. He said he didn’t have it. I asked him politely to give me the coat he was wearing as a payment. He said he couldn’t do that. After that I stopped being so polite. Jon decided to jump in, I think as a form of payment for the car he totaled.
A few weeks later, Jon and I were each officially charged with assault.
We beat the kid up pretty bad. One of my many regrets in life. I hate that I did that.
It didn’t end there though. The kid was really pissed off now. A couple guilty charges weren’t enough to satisfy him, so he set me up to be beaten and robbed a few weeks later. Some new kid was working at my job, and said he wanted to score. He asked if I could help and once again it seemed like an easy money opportunity. Turns out he was a mole, and it was all a set up. Grimy shit. I remember being super sketched out by this kid to begin with, mainly because I knew that he knew these people I had “beef” with. Maybe I was greedy. Maybe I was cocky. Probably both. So it was happening at my work. I parked right on the side of the building so I could go in and out the side door quickly if needed. Then the dude showed up and wanted me to come outside. I wasn’t going, and where I had been sketched out before, I was now positive something was funny. I would find out later there were a few guys out there waiting to fuck me up. Since I wouldn’t go outside, dude said he had to go back outside and grab cash. Then like 30 minutes went by. I totally knew something was wrong but that greed or arrogance, or whatever it was, it wouldn’t let me shut down the deal. Finally the new co-worker showed up with a kid I had never seen before. We walked into the back room. I was asking who this kid was but still trying to handle it really quick and move on. When I got the shit out and asked for the cash, the dude I never saw before spoke:
“Remember you beat up my friend?”
“Yeah, I remember, fuck him.”
“Yeah, well this is mine now.”
As he was saying this, he pulled out a pistol. I think it was a 9 mm. He cocked it.
So suddenly I found myself in a small bathroom (oh yeah, the “back room” was a single stall bathroom- classy) with 2 guys who didn’t like me – one of them holding a cocked and loaded pistol.
I was still feeling cocky when I said “oh yeah, its like that?” still not handing anything over.
Then I thought of Josh. My life flashed in front of me and I wasn’t willing to risk it for a thousand bucks.
So I contemplated the next step. What would my next retaliation be?
In the end, I opted not to retaliate. The gun was far enough. The next step was going to take me too far. At this point the $50 we made off the fake LSD had cost me $1500 + legal fees and I realized that Thug Life wasn’t for me. It was time to focus my efforts somewhere else: partying. I moved to Iowa City with some friends who had been up there for a year and had an extra room. I am not even sure I had ever even visited there, but I moved there.
A “geographical.” That’s what moving to escape your problems is commonly referred to in certain rooms.
That’s what split Jon and I up. I didn’t realize it at the time because I was completely self-absorbed into my own drama.
I was in Iowa City for a couple years, and Jon was doing his thing in Des Moines. We didn’t see each other all that often, but we were still best friends when we did.
Jon came to Iowa City to party sometimes though. I remember the last time, we went to the bar I had just started working at, and proceeded to get completely smashed. I remember making such a big deal out of it, that my little brother was there. Like I wanted all these people who were my new friends and coworkers to know that this was my brother. Maybe I wanted him to see how cool I had become, with this cool Iowa City party life.
After that, we went back to my apartment and had some people over. It was some of Jon’s friends from Des Moines and some locals, I think.
The way I recall it, a kid I didn’t know was passed out sitting up on my couch so Jon tied his shoestrings together. I slapped the kid really hard and he jumped up to attack me, and fell flat on his face. It might have been the funniest thing I have ever seen, still to this day.
I also think Jon and I had a pretty good wrestling match that night.
It was a really great night.
The next morning before he left, we traded a couple of our nicer shirts. It was something we had always done. Kind of like poor kid’s way of getting a new shirt. We also traded gold chains that day. That was a really big deal- we both had ignorantly expensive gold chains. Maybe also a pair of shoes, I can’t remember. There was always a lot of bartering that went into these trades and Jon loved to barter, but I know he gave me the better deal that day. I was paying Iowa City rent and he was living at home. He would always share like that. He was really giving.
That was the last time I would see Jon alive.
A couple of weeks later, on a Sunday morning, there was a knock on my apartment door at like 9 am. That is really early for a Sunday morning in Iowa City. My roommate yelled at me to answer it, and I peeled myself out of bed and stumbled to the door. I looked through the peep hole and saw the neighbors from my mom’s house.
I opened the door and my heart instantly sank. I knew this was bad. I knew it was probably the worst. No one drives from Des Moines to Iowa City to tell someone something that could have been told over the phone. Someone is dead. Where are my parents? Then the most instinctual thought I have ever had happened- “not my mom, not my sister.” My thoughts were to protect the (perceived) weakest members of the family- the ones who needed my protection the most.
The neighbors very gently asked me to sit down on the couch. I might have been mumbling “not my mom, not my sister” aloud as I asked them what brought them to Iowa City. They explained. They didn’t have to say much- I was literally just waiting to hear a name. When I heard it, I had an immediate outburst. Uncontrollable. I was devastated, again. I felt this overwhelming sense of guilt. Not only did I not protect my little brother, but I didn’t even list him when I subconsciously thought of people who I didn’t want to be dead.
The outburst lasted maybe 5 minutes then I pulled my shit together and grabbed my things.
The guilt stuck around for a really long time.
I didn’t cry for a solid week after that. I decided that someone needed to keep it together, and it would be me.
He died on February 18, 2001 in a single car accident. He was heading to his girlfriend’s place after a night at the neighborhood bar. He was just a few blocks from my parents’ house and just down the street from where, less than 5 years earlier, Josh had died.
He was wearing my gold chain.
I eventually lost his in the ocean in Hawaii. It kind of felt like I left the last piece of him there, and I was okay with that. It was the most beautiful place I had ever been. I was glad I got to take him there.
He was my little brother.
I failed him. I ran like a coward, and I failed him as a protector.