He wore a mullet like no one’s business, had a car that was one of the loudest and most dirty in town, and he would purposefully fart just to get a negative response.
He was Allen, my cousin.
During my sophomore year, he dropped out of school because he didn’t like the schoolwork.
He lived, by himself, in an old trailer-house just blocks from the schoolhouse. I’d go see him at the end of the day—he’d have some lunch meat in the fridge and I figured I could scam my way into a free second lunch. Often, I had to stop and grab a loaf of bread in order to make this happen.
Short on teeth but not on wit, he had a million stories to tell. Only a handful were true. Yet, I listened all the same because, although he wasn’t but a couple years older than me, in terms of life experience, he was an elder statesman.
His advice was often off-the-cuff, non-substantiated, and, well, looking back, asinine. At the time, however, he was the older brother I didn’t have. My father having passed when I was 15 left a void in the male-role-model department. I guess he was there to fill it.
On Friday nights, he’d fire up his Thunderbird and we’d go “cruising” for girls. Heck, had any responded to our cat calls we never would have known, thanks to the likes of AC/DC and Hank Williams Jr. blaring from his stereo.
He had a girlfriend once. It didn’t last. She moved in and had to do most of the cooking and cleaning. She was looking for a husband. He spent his days looking for work. Neither found what they were looking for.
For one of my birthdays, he gave me a stack of girly magazines. Used. And they weren’t your run-of-the-mill Playboys or Penthouses or even Hustlers. From what I can recall, they had names like Swank and Skin.
My senior year, he decided to go back to school. And play football. He almost made it through his first and only practice. One of the assistant coaches became worried when he started vomiting during one of the drills. Turns out he had chewing tobacco in his mouth the whole time and had swallowed it. Yet, he still showed up to the game on Friday. In uniform.
I graduated and went into the Navy. Just before shipping out, I went to see him for a visit. “Find you some hot foreign chick so that you can bag them and not have to worry about seeing them after” was his best parting advice.
That was 15 years ago, the last time I would ever speak to him.
Just this morning, I learned that Allen had recently passed away from heart failure. He was 33, grossly obese, and diabetic. In a rather unintentionally cavalier manner, one of my relatives laid it down for me: He could barely move from the couch. Ate himself to death, willingly. Refused to help himself.
So, here I am, compelled to reflect on his life and legacy and what, if anything, this chauvinistic, base, unkempt, and foolhardy person has left to me, and what I have used and what I still may use.
My first thought goes back to the darkest autumn of my life.
You see, when my father was killed, well-wishers came and went. Most meant well, but few understood what it meant for a teenaged boy to lose his old man in that manner. When everyone else had all but forgotten about the whole incident, there I was, still reeling, still in pain.
Yet, there was Allen, all the while, by my side, at the funeral and for months after. He never lost that look in his eyes that said, “I’m here to take up some of the slack.”
I once found a stack of love letters he had written to a girl we both knew. The words were basic, the prose unsophisticated, but his words held gems of his true self. Allen, like most of us, wanted to love and be loved. When I confronted him about it, he just shrugged them off. “No use getting your hopes up,” he said, “just to have them bashed.” He then took the letters from me and ripped them into pieces.
I can’t help but recall those Friday nights cruising the streets of Morrilton and Russellville, drinking Strawberry Hill and watching in disgust as he spit into an empty Dr. Pepper bottle. It was an uncomplicated existence, made possible by an uncomplicated accomplice.
I can’t help but recollect the times he’d come around and my other friends would all of a sudden have to be somewhere else; how others wouldn’t be seen with him in public; how on Christmas day you could find him home, alone, asleep.
I can’t deny that I never had the opportunity to get to know his mother and father, my uncle and aunt. The two had divorced when Allen was young. His mother, I can’t recall meeting, his father was a raging drunk who used to beat Allen when he was a child.
I couldn’t help but just read his obituary in the local paper. Turns out he was married with a daughter named Abigail and the three of them lived in the same trailer by the school.
I can’t help but feel enormous guilt because I, like so many others, abandoned him.
And for that, I may never forgive myself.