29 Aug WXYZ . . .
Somebody once told me, ‘If you’re gonna die, die with your boots on.’
His name was Eddie, an ex-marine, and he was a crazy, gruff son of a bitch who practised what he preached to the very end.
Let me explain. Some years back I got a call from a man named Jim – ‘yeah, just Jim,’ he said – informing me that Eddie had died in a shooting incident in Phoenix, Arizona, the day before. Just Jim gave me the details about the funeral and asked me if I was going to attend. I would have asked him how he’d found my number, but I didn’t care. It didn’t matter. All I could think about was Eddie. Dead. Gone!
I was sad but not surprised. Eddie had been just the kind of guy to find himself in volatile situations. True to form, as I later found out, he had been walking somewhere in south Tempe when some punks got in the way. They were hanging outside a tattoo parlor, terrorizing the passers-by, and he told them to pipe down. They told him to fuck off, he told them to drop dead, and they attacked him, all five of them at once. He took them on and managed to knock two of them to the ground before the other three got out their guns and shot him seventeen times in the chest, legs, and back.
I went to his funeral in his hometown, Lincoln, up north, three days later, wondering, Was it all worth it? All the spunk and idealism? Was it worth getting gunned down like a dog by some crank-wired kids over what … nothing! Principle, street rep, and nine square feet of sidewalk.
Surely a life is worth more than that.
So there I was, at Eddie’s funeral, saying goodbye to him for the last time.
The place was full, starch-packed with people from all over the country.
Lining up to approach the casket, I met some of them. Coast to coast people. A middle-aged Kentucky State Trooper in his gray uniform and hat. A young woman from Washington in a charcoal-gray cotton dress. A married couple from Florida, holding hands as they shuffled on, and a grandpa from Arizona in pressed blue jeans and a starched black shirt. Among many many others. We exchanged smiles and courtesies. Everyone was reserved enough to convey intimacy with the deceased. Eddie had obviously been around and had made a good and proper name for himself, friends that were paying their final respects with solemn faces and an air of privacy that brought everyone together in hushed consternation.
The line was moving slowly. The funeral chamber smelled of cologne, perfume and wax, the smell of processed and scented oil. And bad breath. Pockets of halitosis mixed with mouthwash and digested breakfast. The chalk-white walls were swaying in the candlelight. I inched my way forward, my hands to the side, nodding my head every now and then at my fellow mourners. A breeze of roses caught me and my spirits lifted. A whiff of orange blossoms. They had been arranged above the jet black casket in little wicker baskets, little bundles of blood-red roses and white roses and tiny creamy blossoms. The smell of summer and anniversaries. Their fragrance increased as we approached the casket.
The line was moving very slowly. I got closer and saw why. Everyone was taking their time saying goodbye, holding short private conversations with the deceased, with the man who’d once occupied the now dead flesh. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the trooper from Kentucky in front of me was close enough. ‘Nice boots!’ he drawled, stood solid above the casket for half a minute, then marched away.
I approached the casket and looked inside. Sure enough my old friend’s body was laying there, dressed in a navy blue suit, white shirt, a black tie lining his chest, a red handkerchief exploding on the side, face calm, shaved, jaw set firm and authoritative, crowned by a slight smile. His hair black and short with salt streaks. His hands clasped on his chest. His silver corps ring on his middle finger, where it had served him well as a stungun in close combat and as a chick magnet in the aftermath of victory. His pants pressed flat and crisp, like expensive wrapping paper, and underneath them shone his magnificent boots, a casket all boot, just like he’d promised. They were clean and shiny, ceremonial, unmistakably seasoned and full of trench life force. Underneath the gloss one could see the wear and tear, the tenacity, the stubbornness of gritted teeth absorbing the pain while instructing both feet to plant themselves firm in the ground and not give in to anything, no matter what.
Yes, Eddie the warrior had fought his way through life, throughout, living by his words, practising what he preached all the way to the grave. It was small consolation, but crucial, something that gave meaning to his untimely death.
I was leaning over the coffin to pay my final respects, full of tears upon seeing him laying there cold and lifeless, when – there’s no easy way to put it – Eddie opened his eyes and looked at me all puzzled and said, ‘Why the long face? Someone die?’
I was frozen stiff. I wanted to take a step back but my legs wouldn’t respond. Eddie smiled, grabbed me by the arm, pulled me close and said, ‘Remember to tie your laces tight, son. It’s more important than painting your boots slick. There’ll be plenty of time for that later.’ He winked at me, let go of my arm, leaned back, closed his eyes and froze stiff.
I remember it like it was yesterday. The vision of Eddie reaching out and grabbing me, his voice in my ear, resonant, clear, his strong grip, eyes sparkling and full of urgency. A vision that will stay with me forever. Ever since that day I do everything with conviction, as if I were in combat. Ready to lay anyone who opposes me to waste.
I have also realized with time that good appearances matter only when you’ve done something that warrants them, that justifies the slickness. Without that special something, without these necessary notches in the belt to back them up, the shine is nothing more than a gloss, a show of glitz. The image turns into a hollow, fragile decoration of someone who looks the part but never really plays it.
Better do and then shine. Better that than the other way round. Do – and the gloss will follow.
Do or die. It’s a journey worth fighting for. A journey worth living and dying for.
To die, of course, one must first live.
Remember to live before you die, Xavier. Do it and you’ll be able to make a difference wherever you are.
Even from the grave.
Just like Eddie.