Princeps

class photo 1

5 April

There may be people who have not felt it, people too dense or too much into themselves to get it, but I can attest to it and so can you—that there are certain, rare human beings who just are leaders, whether they like it or not. I’m not too good with my own chronology. I was maybe eight or nine when I got to know Lawrence. That was his name, never Larry.

Lawrence was quiet. He wasn’t big or anything. You’d have trouble picking him out from all the other guys in our fourth-grade group photo, all lined up like props on the front steps of Mt. St. Monica’s. Who can remember names that long? I have trouble finding myself there. That’s Barbara Zimmerman, though. Who can forget her? But even then, in that group of twenty-eight, if you had asked who should speak for the class, they would have said Lawrence, even though he didn’t talk that much. It wasn’t that he was different in any way. He was just another kid like us, but, I don’t know, you could trust him to say the right thing.

Later in grade school, to no one’s surprise, he was elected class president and was captain of both the baseball team and the crossing guards, all of which duties he reluctantly accepted. He was MC of our dance and talent shows. The nuns would call him out of class to run their shopping errands. When we graduated, Lawrence was the valedictorian. He had no close friends.

All of that was sixty-some years ago. Today, I got an email message that Lawrence was dead, had died two weeks ago in Arizona. The message didn’t say what of, not that it makes any difference. At our age, death is mundane, remarkable only if you were shot robbing a bank or set yourself on fire in some stupid protest or something equally out of the ordinary.

It’s been a dozen years since my last meeting up with Lawrence. It was in L.A. I was still with the airlines. Somehow the nuns at Mt. St. Monica’s had found me. They were launching a fund raiser to try and save the school and wanted my help. Our class’s fiftieth anniversary was coming up. They wanted not only to touch me up but for me to see if I could lean on some of my classmates, such as were still around and they could track down. Lawrence was on their short list. Either they were afraid to approach him themselves or they had already tried to no response.

I thought it funny that the church needed money. Had they gone broke paying off victims of predatory priests? Maybe they hadn’t yet equipped their collection baskets to take credit cards. I sent Mother Mary Angelina a check. I tossed the list—Barbara Zimmerman was not on it—but I copied down Lawrence’s email address and number, an L.A. area code. My job often took me to LAX.

The next time I was there, I called and left a voice-mail message. To my surprise, Lawrence called back. He remembered me—third base, couldn’t bunt. He even recalled my sister Helene, who was two years behind us, and asked for her. Alzheimer’s, a home on Long Island. We arranged to meet for lunch at a Mexican place in Santa Monica. I got the impression he lived nearby.

Lawrence and I had gone on to different high schools and in different directions, but every so often I’d wonder about him. If I was back in Pittsburgh visiting my mom, I’d ask around about him, but he had pretty much disappeared. “Nam,” one person told me. Another thought he had gone into the Peace Corps. Everyone remembered him.

I was sitting at the bar in the Mex place when Lawrence came in. We recognized each other right off. He hadn’t changed much. His face had aged and his hairline had receded, but he hadn’t gotten much bigger either in height or girth. He still had the build of the compact second-baseman I remembered.

I don’t remember much of what we talked about. Christ, that was a dozen years ago. Nothing earth-shaking for sure, probably mostly about me and what I was doing at the time. He didn’t say much about himself, asked a lot of questions and listened. He was a good listener. We stayed sporadically in touch via email after that, which devolved into Facebook, the impersonal.

Via Facebook posts, I learned of Lawrence’s favored causes and political bent, none of which I shared. Normally, I dump people I don’t agree with, but I didn’t defriend Lawrence for some reason. I even followed links to a few of his sites and discovered, yep, he was the head of two of the organizations.

I said the last time I met Lawrence was a dozen years ago, but I did see him once since, by coincidence. It was in Jacksonville a year or so after our meeting. I was there on business, staying at the Hyatt, and bored silly as usual in that most vacuous excuse for a city. There was a conference going on at another hotel, and I noticed Lawrence’s name listed as one of the featured participants. It wasn’t a conference I’d choose to attend, but, like I said, it was Jacksonville. I went over. They wanted twenty-five bucks for a one-day entrance fee. I put it on my company card.

It was a panel discussion, more like a debate I gathered, though I had zero interest in what it was about. Up on stage, Lawrence was one of five people seated at a long, black-draped table, sitting at the end. He didn’t have much to say. The other panelists were all trying to sound important. They had their own special vocabulary laced with acronyms that meant nothing to me.

The auditorium was full. I found a seat in the back. I couldn’t decide whether Lawrence’s look said boredom or embarrassment. When he did speak at any length, toward the end, as they were summing up, it was only for a few minutes. He leaned into his microphone, his eyes downcast, and used simple words, simple sentences. He didn’t say anything I could disagree with. No one else did either.

I’d come with the idea of meeting up again, maybe having a drink together. But when the event finished up, there was no getting close to Lawrence, and the people around him were not the type I wanted to mix with. As I was leaving, two separate women with clipboards stopped me to get my signature on their petitions. One of them followed me out onto the sidewalk.

“You’re a fed, aren’t you?” she said. She was an attractive young lady.

“A fed what?” I asked.

“Oh, I don’t really care. You’re here to watch us. I was just wondering what you think.”

“If I were a fed, would I tell you?”

“I don’t know. Would you? Why not? I’m nobody. I’m just curious.” She was younger than my daughter.

“I was only here to see my old friend Lawrence,” I said.

“I bet you have quite a file on him.”

There was an official-looking laminated ID on a string around her neck. I looked down at it now—Sarah something long and foreign. She noticed.

“Now you can start a file on me,” she said.

“Do you know Lawrence?”

“I thought he was your old friend.”

“Tell me, why did you think I was a fed?”

“You guys are everywhere. I was standing in the back. I watched you. You weren’t there to listen. You didn’t once react or clap. You were just checking out the crowd, like you were looking for someone.”

“Well, I’m not a fed, not any kind of cop.”

“You are kind of old, I guess, up close.”

“Lawrence and I were classmates,” I said. Had that been meant as some sort of defense? Why was I still standing there talking with her? She was pretty. Or was she just young? I turned to go.

“We’re only trying to make things better,” she said.

I heard from Lawrence once, too, after that—an email note of condolence when my mother died. The devil knows how he learned about it.

21 April

Damnest thing. This morning I got an email message from the sheriff’s office in Gila County, Arizona, a mass mailing to everyone on Lawrence’s email list of contacts, asking for any information on his next of kin. They wanted to know who, if anyone, wished to claim his remains. There was a number to call. I called. Hell, I got nothing else to do these days except watch the news.

I told them I was his cousin. They didn’t offer any condolences or ask for any proof. I told them I wanted him cremated, and they told me that as next of kin I’d have to arrange for that myself. I tried to do that over the phone, then gave up. I can’t reach anyone who is any help. I’ve decided to fly out. I sort of miss flying since I retired.

24 April

Globe. Got in yesterday. It’s an hour-and-a-half drive from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix to Globe, the Gila County seat. Two-lane black top—hot, hard, empty country. Checked into a Travelodge. This morning found a laid-back clerk at the County Courthouse who condescended to help me out. Less paperwork than I expected. For cremation they have to send the body back to Phoenix. I only had to hit a couple of offices plus a local mortuary to arrange and pay for the burn job. I offered to buy the clerk a drink in thanks for his help, and he suggested a dive across the street from the courthouse when he got off work.

I don’t know what Humphrey’s 2 Lanes Saloon is named for. There are three billiard tables. It’s purple inside. There were pool games in progress, the sound of games at all the tables. The clerk, whose name is Clark like some unfunny joke, met me there. A double Wild Turkey on the rocks.

Clark brought with him Lawrence’s case file, not a copy, the file itself inside its official brown folding file folder. “You might as well have this,” he said as he pushed it across the bar. As I flipped through the thin file, just four or five officious pages, Clark struck up a conversation with the woman bartender.

“What’s the Rock House Trailer Park” I asked. The woman gave me a funny look.

“Just what it says,” Clark said. “The trailer park up in Rock House. That’s where they found him.”

“That loner last month?” The woman asked Clark, who nodded. “Ray answered that call. He said the stench in that little trailer was even worse than the Orbach’s rotting horse.”

“Been dead a week or more the doc figured,” Clark said.

“Warm for March, too,” she agreed.

“It says here the cause of death was O.D.,” I said.

“Overdose,” Clark said. “They don’t know that for sure. Doc didn’t run no tests. They’re costly, take too much time.”

“Figures though,” the woman said. “Anybody dies alone like that out there probably did OD on something.” She went down the bar to other customers.

“But an overdose of what?” I asked.

“Don’t matter. Just OD bumps our stats up for more drug-control money.”

“Did they find any drugs?”

“If they did find any, either Ray or his partner would have taken them.”

“I heard that, Clark,” the woman said from down the bar.

I closed the file and pushed it back to Clark.

“No, you can keep that. We got no use for it. Case closed now the body’s gone. They want no record of it. I went to check about his personal effects, like that laptop they found there and any of his other stuff. I figured you might want it. All gone. No record of it. Freebies.”  Clark took a long sip of Wild Turkey. “Things get stripped clean here in the desert.”

1 May

I never did pick up Lawrence’s ashes. It was Sunday when I got back to Phoenix. The place was closed and I had a flight out. I can still fly for free and I didn’t feel like going home. So, I came on here to Maui. It’s not so much fun when you’re old. It’s funny—all these years I’ve had to edit myself from calling him Larry. Always wanted to, never did. I wonder if anyone ever called him Larry.

 

 

 

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