Brian has been on my mind the last many days, and I don’t know why except perhaps his story needs writing. It happened a long time ago, like at least half the events in my life, now, at my first house, in Lake County.
Both my girls graduated high school, the oldest already in college and the youngest going in the fall. It came to me I would have no one to mow the grass or shovel the snow. I wrote a letter to the college at the other end of the highway: Equal opportunity housing. A young man or woman was welcome to an empty bedroom, or even my whole basement, in exchange for mowing, shoveling and one more, taking the trash to the curb.
Apparently a startling offer to a community college in 1985, but eventually the coach called me. He had a baseball scholarship student who lived two counties away who could use a place to stay. Coach liked him and said if I was willing to meet them, he would send Brian and his parents around for an interview.
Nice parents, nice kid brother, nice young man; he moved into the basement in August. My only house rule, if you make a mess, clean it up. I came in from work one night and found him scrubbing up cat puke. I remonstrated that was above and beyond. But his mother had a rule, too. If you find a mess, clean it up.
Brian sat down in the living room one night to enjoy the Oreo double stuffs and a glass of milk occupying each hand on the broad arms of the chair. I began to laugh. “What’s so funny?” I pointed to a cat at one hand, taking a healthy bite of cookie. But he couldn’t move the other hand to set the glass of milk on the end table because another cat had its face deep in, drinking.
Another time there was a rather large earthquake, epicenter a few miles away. At work I listened to the sound of a freight train coming through my office for many seconds. When I got home Brian told me it had been the same, plus he got to watch those two cats disappear through a two inch space in the kitchen toe board—simultaneously.
Brian had a pretty little girlfriend from his home town, and they generally spent weekends at my house. By the second summer, though, she felt he wasn’t paying her enough attention. Maybe not. He liked baseball, but he loved soccer, and by then was playing in a league. And playing baseball and going to school. She was so angry she took a summer job at Walt Disney World in Florida.
His best friend Al also had a little brother who adored his big brother. Al pitched on the college team, and was good enough to have an Orioles minor league scout coming to the next day’s game. Brian and he were going out for a celebratory beer the night before. “How do I look?” Brian asked, on his way to pick up Al. White painter pants, a red shirt, and green apple suspenders. He snapped a suspender. He looked good. After all, he had been dumped, and picking up a pretty girl in a bar was not out of the question.
I answered a knock on the door at six in the morning. Two police were there, to tell me Brian had been killed last night, at the railroad crossing. And, the other young man. “Did you tell his parents?” Yes, his home town police located them in the hospital, at the bedside of Brian’s grandfather. I knew his grandfather was gravely ill and I asked. “No, ma’m. We figure they both passed at the same time.”
I called coach; the boys had a game that day and Brian needed to be at the school in an hour to mark the field. Coach called me back after a while. The game, of course, was cancelled, and Al was not dead, but had grievous head trauma.
The accident was a little notice on the front page of the local paper. By seven the idle, the curious, the ghouls who drove cars were circling my block, looking at the house. I called my sister to come get me; we left for the day. The paper mentioned alcohol testing, but never came back to say alcohol was not a factor. I never believed it was, and eventually wrote a letter to the paper, telling them so, and wondering how Brian could make such a terrible mistake at a gated crossing.
Suddenly letters came to the house. “We didn’t see this accident, but when we crossed the tracks three, two, one hour previously, the gates were not working.” I turned them over to Brian’s parents; a wrongful death lawsuit was in the making. Not only was Brian dead, a railroad attorney was outside Al’s hospital door, “to take his statement,” from the first morning until barred by injunction from the hospital.
I suppose all railroads are powerful. A citizen who had to turn back because of the accident saw police taking pictures, which disappeared. The case was handled by a famous attorney, but dragged on and on. In the end a firm was hired to reconstruct the accident. The railroad settled within days, I can only believe to avoid trial.
The gates were not working. The lights were not working. The train was backing. By law, train conductors with lighted lanterns must continually walk both sides of a train backing through a crossing with no gates. The railroad could not produce these employees. The best guess is that Brian, not realizing the train was backing, thought the caboose had cleared the tracks. The gates were up, no flashing lights. He went across.
Coach gave me the team picture that had only recently been taken. I went to see Al when he was eventually released. “Do you have a picture of Brian?” He brought out his wallet with the obituary picture cut from the newspaper. “My best friend, and I don’t even have a picture.” I gave him one for his wallet and a five by ten. We cried.
His home town buddies hung out at my house most of the rest of the summer. I think of it as the summer of a memorial pile of flowers and stuffed animals at the scene, but these were real, heartbroken young men, and one young lady who quit her job in Florida. His parents never came to pick up the box or two of belongings we packed up, but I think his friends returned them.
My heart ached for all of us.
Brian’s parents and I stay in touch, by Christmas card. They are retired, and the proud grandparents of several grandchildren. We mention meeting; we don’t. I came across pictures of the team, and wondered if they ever got them. I couldn’t just mail that envelope, so I dropped his parents a note that I would mail it in another week, unless they said not to. They asked I sent it, and received a nice thank you note.
Brian’s mom’s Christmas cards tell me all his buddies went on to happy adult lives, as did Al. The most we could hope for of the pieces left.
Brian and the 1986 Lakers