Until recently, it had been more than two decades since I dreamed of him. I think it was in that hazy week or two after his funeral that I woke knowing that we’d spent time together while I slept, but I couldn’t remember what we talked about. I was a year older than him, and we were best friends from about three and four years old until high school. He never went to college. He never had children. He was married briefly. After the accident, I went to see him in the nursing home once. His smile was relentless, so I didn’t know if he was glad to see me. I didn’t even know if he recognized me.
We grew up next door to one another, and my earliest memory of Wayne is playing Hot Wheels on the orange double-track with the loop-to-loop. I had a red Chevelle and he had a blue Mustang. I do not remember how the cars were powered, but they seemed to move at the speed of light. The crashes were extraordinary. We designed crashes more than we raced cars.
I lost touch with Wayne in high school. We moved in different circles. I took honors classes, and he was in the technical classes. He was destined for mechanical labor, and I was headed toward more than a decade of college and post-graduate studies. I was a reader, and he wasn’t. But in summers, we always found one another, bored out of our minds, looking for something to do. It seems cliché to say it, but when we got together, it felt like not a day had passed.
The summer after I got my license, we would go to the Kentucky Theater to watch the Friday midnight shows. Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. The Who’s The Kids are Alright. Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Jack Nicholson in One Few Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.There were other movies that made less of an impression. Once, I wore my brother’s army jacket and brought a six pack of beer in the deep pockets. I remember the metallic sound of the empty cans rolling on the sticky concrete toward the front of the theater. My older brother bought the beer, I think. Or maybe Wayne stole it from his dad’s fridge.
Wayne’s dad unknowingly provided us with a childhood supply of hidden Playboys and Hustlers. We raided his bourbon and gin, as well. That’s when we were fourteen and fifteen. There’s a rumor that we smoked pretzels and Cheetos, but I will deny this to my death (I will not explain it, so do not ask). I can’t remember where his parents were, but all I can think is that they must have taken his little brother, Ricky, to the lake and left Wayne home to fend for himself. It was a different time then, though.
Wayne was traveling home after midnight from Cynthia where his girlfriend lived when he ran off the road into a horse fence. I imagine the post rising fifteen or twenty feet in the air, turning end over end in slow motion before gravity captured it and slung it through his windshield. In my mind, it’s as if an angry god had thrown a spear. When I saw him in the nursing home, it was difficult to not stare at the misshapen forehead. He was thirty-three then. He passed when he was thirty-four. Has it really been twenty years?
I see his little brother occasionally, not just at funerals. His father’s first. Then his mother’s. Ricky has a good factory job, and he spends his weekends on the lake with women that remind me of his mom. I see pictures of them on Facebook. Last time I saw Ricky, I asked if he remembered chasing Wayne and me around our front yards with balls of shit he’d scooped from his diaper. We evaded the missiles, but my mother made us clean the shit up off the driveway before my dad got home from work. Ricky didn’t remember.
I’ve been remembering Wayne since Covid hit. He’s been in my dreams twice, and there is some urgency in his voice, but I cannot remember what he’s telling me, only that it’s important.
I can’t get out of my mind that when we were eleven, we rode our bikes twenty miles to Paris on the dirt trails along the railroad tracks that bordered our neighborhood. We passed beneath I-75 and across acres and acres of farmland, but at least it was flat. There was a feeling of freedom you can only get when doing something you’re not supposed to be doing. I don’t believe there was a destination in mind, just to ride as far as we could, and now as I write this, I think: Shouldn’t life be more like that? We stopped at a country store in Paris and bought bottled cokes, bags of chips, and candy bars. We sat on a bench eating and drinking, not realizing that time moved on. Did we even believe the day could end? One of us must have realized that it was getting late and we would be in trouble if we didn’t race back home. I remember peddling like our lives depended on it and the feeling of panic, but for the life of me, I do not know if we made it home before our parents. My memory fails me lately. My childhood is no longer the movie it once was, only fading impressions and emotions.
After the first dream, I drove by our parents’ houses. Ricky owns both now, and he lives in the house I grew up in. Before going into the military, Ricky’s son lived in the one he and Wayne grew up in. I slowed down but didn’t stop. Should I have stopped and been forced into an uncomfortable conversation?
When I was fourteen, I told Wayne I wanted to be a writer, and he let me read a few pages of my first novel out loud, maybe even a chapter. I never finished the novel, which was about a small Kentucky town whose sheriff had died. I didn’t find out what killed the sheriff.
I hardly saw Wayne once I started college, maybe at Christmas once or twice, and waving at one another across the yard when we visited our parents. Did we have a conversation after that? We were nothing alike, but we at least shared a childhood.
At the nursing home, I could only stay a few minutes, not because I had anywhere else to be. I didn’t. I was desperate to escape my friend who’d become half of himself. Looking into his dull eyes was a reminder that I had gone off to be who I was destined to be, and I never once looked back to my friend to find out what he was doing. I never called him. I didn’t go to his wedding and may have not been invited. I didn’t invite him to my wedding. He died before my kids were born. Without giving it any thought, I moved on from him and lost part of my childhood forever.
Why in the time of Covid, am I dreaming of my childhood friend? The dreams have stirred these waning, sepia-toned memories, and this has brought great joy. But with every memory, there is a judgment, and it’s all on me. I ask myself this: Had Wayne survived, would I be able talk to him like not a day had passed?