I don’t know if my life is better having known my friend Neil. I can say, without question, that he lends scale and stakes to every room he enters.
The first night I met him was night two of a three day party at the Copycat Warehouse where I lived. Neil showed up with a producer I was working to produce my first failed podcast. Over a hundred folks at the party, so I don’t think I would’ve noticed Neil without the whip. Apparently they’d come from a coke deal at a bondage gay bar I knew as the Eagle, and to fit in Neil picked up a toy Cat O’Nine Tails.
High and recently depressed, Neil professed the virtues of the gentleman degenerate and whipped anyone who stood still enough to take the lash. We’ve been pals ever since.
I’ve got dozens of Neil stories, and he remembers more of them than I do, but I’ll stick with my old favorite. A road trip neither of us saw coming.
I’d just clocked out of CVP and Neil rolled in hot. I wanna say this was a Tuesday, so, you know, a good night to get weird. Old Man Neil, as he called himself, came in hot. Didn’t even order his shot of Jim Beam, just grabbed me by the collar and hauled me out the door to his SUV. I did the talking on our way over to Frasier’s on 36th, he barely spoke. Which was never a good sign.
Over shots and Bohs, he spoke vaguely of one of our favorite topics: The Darkness. Not the band, a general sense of foreboding and doom we associated with poverty and the human condition as opposed to the true culprit: cocaine and liquor. It was getting to him.
We stopped by our pal Jess’s night and danced with no particular rhythm before Neil started shouting that, “It’s all going in the shitter!" and ran down to the truck. I barely got in the backseat before he hit I-83, refusing to name a destination. The bars were closed. Anyone’s guess where we were headed, and I’d guess Neil knew no better than I.
Beer cans littered the streets behind us, and the Drive soundtrack accompanied manic laughter. He pulled off the highway out in the boons, at his old house. I didn’t know it then, but Neil took his parents’ divorce pretty hard and dad’s treatment of mom even worse. He got out of the car in front of a nice suburban two story and raged at the darkened windows. I wondered if we’d make it out ahead of the cops. But he took a piss on the door and I figured we’d go watch Wild At Heart for the tenth time.
So I wasn’t paying attention which way we headed and lost track of time until Jess caught on that Baltimore only diminished in our rear-view. She asked, and Neil finally revealed.
We caught breakfast, so to speak, in a diner. Out of obligation to the experience, all three of us tried to pick up our waitress and she patiently turned us down. Because of her kid and all that. I’m guessing it was four thirty. The railroad tracks seemed the only logical route.
I’d bet trains ground those tiles since the Civil War, but it’d been a minute. We each dug up a tie to take along, and held onto them as artifacts for a lot of years. Couple miles down Neil took a turn and we followed into the woods. Set up a fire and drank the last of the beers. It was a beautiful night.
Dawn crept with dew and fog.
And when the sun came up, we discovered our campfire sat in the center of the bloodiest day in American History. That’s when the silence really set in.
We hiked the hills, well off the beaten path, through tall grasses and over log fences criss crossed. I didn’t want to ask if anyone thought they could be the same battlements, or if those trenches could have lasted so long. Didn’t seem possible. My beer buzz wore thin, and the bone deep loneliness of cocaine whispering out of my bloodstream felt at home surrounded by ghosts.
Of course those weren’t the same fences. Wood rots. But I couldn’t imagine anything on those fields or hills changing. Not ever.
Neil kept quiet.
He played the Drive soundtrack again on the long drive back to Baltimore, and one song on repeat.
“A real human being. And a real hero.”
Later lunatics. I’ll haunt your thoughts and dreams.