Nonfiction

Watercolor by Kate Missett

Home Boy

Beneath the telephone pole, a crooked scribble, its letters cut deep into concrete: Philip.
 
That’s it. Philip.

 

Funny that I’ve never seen it before today. I’ve paused at this intersection hundreds of times in the twenty-five years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, watching for traffic before crossing into the quiet cemetery where I walk the dog along the paved paths, reading the stone markers with names and dates carved, their indentations as permanent as the message on this sidewalk. 

I feel a fist hitting my chest, and I remember my mother’s rhyme, “Fools’ names and fools’ faces always seen in public places,” her warning to me not to deface property, especially not with my name. It was her voice that stopped me time and again when friends knifed their initials on trees and inked names on desktops.

Then it was me saying the same thing to my son Will, Philip’s best friend during those years. It’s the mother in me now that has me checking the concrete on the other side of the pole, looking along the curb, at the intersection, everywhere, but I don’t see the name Will

Good, I think, he listened.

I saw Philip’s mother, Doris, not long ago at the garden store. She was gripping a dachshund puppy, her hand rubbing back and forth from its neck over its ears and down its nose, over and over like a nervous habit. The dachshund’s eyes were closed in a kind of bliss, or pain. Doris asked me about Will. 

“He’s good,” I said. “Happy. Still living in New York.” Without thinking, I reached over and traced my palm along Doris’s path from the dog’s nose up and over his ears to his neck where my hand grazed Doris’s arm and paused there for a second before I pulled it away. To myself, I thought, “Shut up, Barbara. Just shut up.” 

“They had some good times, didn’t they?” she said, and then, “I’ve got to go meet Carter. It’s good to see you.” Her husband, Carter, Philip’s father, was a kind, quiet man who loved rodeo and NASCAR and drove a Ford F-150 pickup truck.

I thought Doris looked good, but then, she always did. Thin, dark-haired, always dressed well, even when I’d see her walking the track or working in her yard. 

She was the first to welcome us to the neighborhood with a plate of chocolate chip cookies on the day we moved in. She brought Philip, because she knew our son was near Philip’s age. It was Memorial Day, and they’d spent the morning planting American flags on the graves of veterans at the cemetery. When I drove by later, the cemetery was a sea of red, white, and blue. 

As it turned out, Philip and Will were the only two boys in the neighborhood. Philip’s family lived just around the corner in a happy yellow house. Will loved Philip’s red bunk beds, his grandfather’s four-wheelers, and the Baptist church Philip’s family attended, where they’d go for Sunday evening youth group.

Philip was a year younger than Will and a couple of inches shorter, with thick, wavy blond hair and eyes as blue as the sky. His dimples dipped into his cheeks as though they’d been chiseled there. His sister was several years older, out of college, and recently married; so in essence, Philip was an only child, the golden boy of the family. 

The two boys played: inside both our houses, their gazes fixed on PlayStation or Nintendo screens, Super Mario Brothers or Golden Eye; outside, they dug an underground cave in my side yard beneath the bathroom window—the soft, unearthed ground still there today—or rode bikes around the neighborhood and the park next door. They spent full days at Philip’s grandparents’ farm, where they shot BB guns, rode dirt bikes and horses, chased pigs, and went joy-riding on the tractor. I picture Philip driving it, his feet barely reaching the floor, perched on the edge of that hard seat, both hands on the wheel, his blue eyes shining with delight, that smile spread across his face. 

Will didn’t just love Philip in that way a boy can love his best friend. He wanted to be Philip. He wanted Philip’s life—the guns, the bunk beds, the dirt bikes, the grandparents. Will’s own grandparents were too old to be fun and lived in neighborhoods of no land, no children besides occasional cousins, and proper behavior valued over rowdy play. 

One summer night, the boys pitched a tent in our fenced-in back yard, and Philip hauled over his sleeping bag, flashlights, baggies full of snacks, and a handheld Game Boy. After dark, they marched out to the backyard, saying, “See you in the morning!” Our big, hairy dog loped along at their heels. 

Within the hour, they stood inside the back door. Philip’s unrolled sleeping bag was tucked under his arm and dragging behind him. His smile was gone. Red circled his eyes, but there were no tears. “Philip wants to go home,” Will said. 

No explanation followed. Philip called home, and we walked toward his house, meeting his mother halfway. “I’m sorry,” she said. “He’s never spent the night away before.” 

They were in middle school when Philip’s family moved to the country on land adjacent to the grandparents’ farm. Different schools, different friends. The inevitable end to this childhood bond was a natural parting, theirs a friendship both would remember with great fondness. 

* * *

 

The grizzled fellow bounced up to my table at a bar where I was having a beer with friends. At a local night spot, with acoustic music playing inside, my friends and I had spilled to the outside tables where we could chat. That summer night people young and old walked the street, in and out of the bar, huddled in groups or around tables. 

“Barbara!” I had no clue. 

“You don’t know me, do you? It’s Philip.” 

I knew it as soon as he said it, those dimples visible beneath his scraggly beard, his eyes squinting with his big smile. His hair still blond, still curly, but just a bit more unruly than when he was a boy living with his parents. He’d grown to man-size: muscular arms below the sleeves of his t-shirt, solid chest. Tattoos covered the skin from his wrists to his elbows, and I couldn’t help but wonder what Doris would think of all his tats. But I knew the answer: she’d love him with or without. 

“I’ve moved back home,” he told me when he pulled an empty chair to our table and sat. “Music didn’t work out well. I’m thinking about going back to school. Will and I texted not too long back. He’s doing great. I’m so proud of him.” 

The smile of his boyhood was permanently fixed to his face, and he made me smile. 

When he stood to leave, I bear-hugged him, my arms wrapping around his man body as if he were my own son. 

He became a regular at my morning yoga class, the only male among a sea of older women. He helped others gather their blankets, blocks, and straps and return them to the boxes when class ended. His downward dog was straighter, stronger, younger, his easy pose complicated by thick legs that didn’t bend easily. It made me happy just to watch him. 

His grandparents had both passed, he told me, but he was living at the farm for now while he figured out what would come next. Maybe school. Maybe helping his dad with real estate. 

And always, as I was heading out the door, “It’s so good to see you, Barbara. Tell Will hi.” 

And always that smile. I felt a little better, felt a lift, felt like I could embrace the world, good and bad, after seeing Philip, that big hug of a man.

* * *

 

“He loved skateboarding, surfing, and music of all genres,” read his brief obituary. “Most of all, he was a friend to everyone and loved without judging.” 

What made this lover of life and friend to all, on that cold Sunday evening in December, ingest enough pills to kill a rhinoceros? Enough to end his own life.

Were Doris and Carter at church when it happened, leaving him alone in the farmhouse? Or did Philip go with them to Sunday evening services, just as he did as a boy, hoping to ease the burden of whatever tortured him? 

On Monday morning, when Doris rang the farmhouse bell and he didn’t respond, did she think she heard the shower running? Did Philip’s dog meet her at the door, hungry, glad to see a living person?  

Was he breathing then? Was he cold? 

Details I don’t want to know but that stirred through my mind as I tried to make sense of the loss. 

“Somebody said he’d just broken up with a girlfriend,” Will told me. “Maybe he didn’t have a job.” 

Still. 

“He struggled with depression all his life,” Doris told me at the funeral. “A lot of people didn’t know that for Philip life was hard.”

“I might have known,” Will said after a pause. I could almost hear him remembering. “At least I’m not surprised to hear it.” 

Why didn’t we know? Why didn’t all of us see behind those dimples to the man who was troubled, lost, desperate? Could I have, at any time, said something that might have made a difference? Could any of us? Questions we ask but can never answer. 

The funeral was a packed house of young men and women, from tattooed musicians and artists to cropped-haired business people, a congregation in shock and in sadness. Friend after friend took the pulpit. No laughter, no funny stories were shared, just incident after incident of a young man so much loved. This was a grieving crowd, a hurting fellowship, united in loss and puzzled by the mystery that was Philip.

I sat near the back at the end of a pew beside a 30-something woman who gripped a Kleenex in one hand, her boyfriend’s arm in the other. 

“He and my son used to be best friends,” I told her. I wanted to claim Philip. And I wanted to sit with my Will, ask him about his day, make sure he was all right, my son who is also given to sadness, make sure I would not one day find him. 

“He loved Will,” Doris said when I hugged her. She looked good—dark hair freshly trimmed, bright lipstick—though I knew she was holding it together with the help of a sedative. Her red-rimmed eyes gave her away. 

“He just wanted to go home.” 

* * *

 

Why, after five years of walking this sidewalk, crossing this intersection, do I one day look down? Why does the little boy Philip come racing back, Velcro-strapped shoes splotched with mud, a nerf gun tucked under one arm?

Someone else lives in the yellow house now, and Philip is gone. 

But no, he’s not gone. He’s lying face up in grass, letting sun shine on his warm skin, and then rising to squat by the wet cement and scribble his name beneath the telephone pole, a name forever carved on the wall of my own beating heart. 

 

Author's Comment

I remember Philip. When I see his mother and father on the sidewalk or in the grocery store. When I head downtown for a beer at Philip’s favorite watering hole. When I see stories tattooed on muscled arms. I remember Philip when I’m with my own living son and his son, when I meet any person, young or old, who is sad, distracted, or too happy for me to believe. I remember Philip when I recall those dimples, that smile. When I walk my dog and pause on his name carved into concrete. Every year, every day, we lose too many to suicide. We lose those smiles, those dimples, those arms, we lose our sons and daughters, our mothers and fathers, our friends. Philip lives in the concrete near my house. Philip lives in the deep, permanent chambers in my heart.

Bios

Barbara Presnell is a writer and teacher of writing who lives in Lexington, North Carolina. Her five books of poetry include Piece Work, which documents the textile industry in North Carolina through the eyes of its workers, and Blue Star, the story of 100 years of war and its effect on one family. In addition, her essays and columns appear in many journals and online sites. She has taught writing to students in community colleges, private schools, and public universities in Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina, and is Senior Lecturer Emeritus at UNC-Charlotte.

Kate Missett’s ceramics were featured in the Fall 2018 issue. She lives in Brooklyn but since the pandemic has been a snowbird, spending the winter in Miami, where this watercolor was made.

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