Sometimes, if you give someone enough rope, they'll hang themselves. Or, if they do what's right, they'll use it to tie up their demons. That's what happened to my best friend David.
David and I grew up together. We met in kindergarten, and had been inseparable since we were five years old. We had played sports together, taken the same classes, and shared the same hobbies. We were the same height, build, and weight. We wore the same hair style. Our voices even sounded similar.
Wherever you saw me, you saw David.
The only thing different about us was our respective home lives.
I was an only child. I never worried about having a roof over my head or where my next meal was going to come from. I felt safe and secure. We were nowhere near rich, but we were comfortable. Dad was a supervisor in a factory, and Mom worked for an accounting firm.
My parents believed in discipline, but not severe corporal punishment. That's not to say that I never got spanked. I did. But the few times I can remember getting a spanking, I deserved it. The punishment was always delivered with a single swat on my behind with the palm of their hand. They never used a belt, switch, or any other kind of weapon.
I was never afraid of my parents because they never used fear as a means of discipline. They never told me they were disappointed in me, or that they wished I had never been born, or any of that other stuff you always hear about abused children. They never used swear words around me, and they never threatened to beat me if I didn't do what they asked.
If there was a chore to be done, instead of just ordering me to go do it, they worked right beside me, giving me advice while I learned. They always told me that when it came down to choices in life, I should do what was right. They taught me to be tolerant of others who might be different from me. They taught me not to judge too quickly. They taught me to see the good in someone before the bad. To my parents, that was the real definition of discipline.
David's world was far different than mine. He had a brother one year older, but they rarely saw each other. His brother stayed away from home as often as possible. He dropped out of high school after his junior year.
His mother worked nights cleaning offices, and he didn't see her except on the weekends. His dad was an auto mechanic who worked out of his garage. I don't ever remember seeing him without a beer in his hand, and he always looked like he needed to shave. I lost count of the number of times he had been arrested after getting into a fight at the local bar. He was the only constant fixture in David's life.
Whenever his dad told David to do something, like a chore or simply to get him another beer, he always ended it with, "...or I'll whoop 'at ass." Sometimes he'd do it anyway, just because he could. If David looked at his dad the wrong way, he got a beating. If he didn't do what he was told quickly enough, he got a beating. If he spoke with the wrong tone of voice, he got a beating. If he didn't speak at all, he got a beating. His dad taught him to get what he wanted in life by beating it out of someone.
There wasn't a week that went by where David didn't come to school with a new bruise somewhere on his body.
His parents didn't see a need for education. His dad told him that all the education he needed could be found while lying on his back beneath a car. His mother argued that she had done just fine in life, and she'd never finished high school.
Both his parents despised anyone who wasn't like them. All the problems in their world were caused by the blacks, the Jews, the queers. His dad complained that he couldn't get a regular job because they were all taken by the Mexicans. His mother hated her supervisor because he was from India.
Maybe that's why I was allowed to be David's friend, because my skin color and hair texture was the same as his.
That's the way life was for David, all through grade school and high school. Through it all, he internalized his emotions. He never complained to me about his lot in life. He never said that he wasn't happy. Maybe he was afraid his parents would find out and he'd get another beating for being unhappy. I don't know.
His brother joined the army a couple of years after dropping out of school. He had tried to find a job, but there wasn't anything available for someone who didn't have an education. Three weeks after finishing boot camp, he was sent home from Iraq in a flag-draped box. He had been flying over a rough area of Baghdad with ten other soldiers when a rocket-propelled grenade brought his helicopter down. He survived the crash, but not the fire. He was trapped inside the wreckage, and burned to death at the age of nineteen.
His brother's death hit David hard. He became sullen, withdrawn, quiet. Some days at school he ate lunch by himself, instead of joining me like he used to. He became mad at everything. Little things mostly. But more than anything, he was mad at his dead brother.
"If he hadn't been so lazy, he'd still be alive," David told me several months after the crash. "He joined the army because it was easier than looking for a job."
"He couldn't find a job because he didn't graduate from high school," I told him. "Promise me you won't drop out like your brother did."
"I'll make a deal with you. I'll finish high school if you promise me you'll get me a job at your dad's factory," he said.
"I don't know that I can get you a job, but I'll talk to my dad about it. As long as you finish school."
"Do we have a deal or not?"
"Deal," I said.
David did graduate, just like he promised. He didn't finish at the top of our class, but he didn't finish at the bottom, either. I had never seen him more proud. The day we graduated, I planted a bug in my dad's ear, just like I promised, and David got a job two weeks later driving a forklift. I went to college that September to study accounting.
We kept in touch nearly every weekend. I'd come home from school, and we'd go to the local high school football games, or fishing, or to a concert. Even though we always enjoyed each other's company, it seemed he was still mad at the world. He was always complaining about someone or something, griping that the world would be a better place if certain people didn't exist.
When we were together, he talked about how people on welfare were a bunch of lazy leeches who were sucking our country dry, or how homeless people were that way because they wanted to be, or how illegal immigrants from Mexico were taking all our jobs away. I usually tried to change the subject, but it didn't always work.
A few weeks ago, I bought tickets to a reunion concert by one of our favorite bands. The group had been extremely popular when we were in junior high school, but then they broke up, as all bands seem to do. Now, they were back together after five years apart, and I had surprised David with two tickets.
"How much did they cost?" he asked me.
"Doesn't matter. You just get us to the concert, and I'll get us in. Deal?"
"Deal," he answered.
He picked me up at my parents' house, and we headed for the auditorium. The route there took us through sections of town that were more financially repressed than most, and all along the way we passed men standing at intersections, holding cardboard signs saying they would work for food. Men of all ages and races. Black men wearing ragged flannel shirts. White men with scraggly gray beards. Hispanic men holding signs written in both English and Spanish.
As we passed them, David didn't say much. Perhaps he was trying to keep from getting in a bad mood before the concert, but the more homeless and jobless people we saw, the closer he came to boiling over. His knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel.
Then, as we passed through yet another intersection with beggars holding their signs, he couldn't stand it any longer.
"Buncha scum. Get a job," he muttered through clenched teeth.
"There's probably not any jobs for them to get," I said. "Things are kinda tough right now."
"Yeah, there are jobs, too," he said. "If these losers wanted to work, they would. It's just easier for them to have somebody give them some money for nothing."
"Aw, come on, David. You don't know what their situation is like."
"I know enough. See that guy over there?" He pointed at a homeless man pushing a shopping cart filled with aluminum cans through a deserted parking lot. "I bet he's got more money than you and me put together."
"Now how would you know that?" I asked.
"He can beg and pick up cans and make more than enough to live on. Plus, he doesn't have to pay any taxes."
"Tell you what," I said. "Why don't you just go run him over. That way there'll be one less person like that on the streets. Plus, we can take his cans."
David smiled a sheepish grin, then turned to look at me. He knew I was joking just to get him to lighten up. "We'll get him on the way back from the show," he said.
"Deal," I said.
We rode in silence for a couple more blocks, until we approached another intersection not far from the concert auditorium. There was only one person at this one, and even from fifty yards away we could tell he was holding a small piece of cardboard. He was sitting on the ground, leaning against the stop sign, and he appeared to be Hispanic.
"Oh great. Another illegal Mexican. This oughta be good," David said. "I think I'm gonna have a few words with this guy."
"David, don't do that," I said. "Just leave him alone."
He didn't answer. He used the power button to lower my window, and then he leaned over as we approached the stop sign. He was going to yell at the man, despite me begging him not to.
The man was definitely Hispanic, with a wrinkled baseball cap pulled over a bald head. He was horribly disfigured. His face was a mask of scarred skin, with one ear gone, and the left side of his head was a mixture of jutting bones and caved-in spots. His left eye was about an inch lower than his right, and yellowed teeth poked out from a mouth that was stretched toward the left.
His burned, claw-like left hand held a piece of brown cardboard that read: "IRACQ VETREN WILL WORK 4 FOOD." He was looking at us, and it appeared that he was trying his best to smile.
David looked at him for a few moments, but didn't say anything. The car behind us blew its horn, and David sat back up and drove on.
He kept silent the rest of the way to the auditorium, and so did I.
After we found a free parking space and pulled in, I unbuckled my seatbelt, but David just sat there, staring straight ahead, tapping the steering wheel with his fingers. As I was about to open my door, he said, "Hold on a minute."
I held my hand on the door handle, not knowing whether to get out or stay in the car. Suddenly, he started the engine and backed out of the parking space.
"What are you doing?" I asked. He didn't answer.
"David, what are you doing?" I asked again. He still didn't answer.
He remained quiet as we drove back to the intersection where the burned man was. He pulled over into oncoming traffic and parked right next to the stop sign, facing the wrong way. Cars steered around us, their horns blaring. The burned guy was now standing next to the stop sign instead of sitting.
David reached into his wallet and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. He held it out his window toward the man, who walked over slowly and took it gingerly from David's hand. He didn't say anything to David, just gave him a slight nod of his head and a smile with his twisted mouth.
David did an illegal U-turn in the middle of the road and pointed the car back toward the auditorium.
I don't know why David did what he did. Maybe the Hispanic man somehow reminded him of his brother. Maybe he simply felt sorry for him because of those horrible burns. In the end, it really didn't matter, because that man had somehow managed to give David enough rope to tie up some of those demons that drove his hate. There may have been other demons left unbound, but at least this was a start.
We drove in silence, and I sat facing him with my back against my door. I didn't say anything, either. I just stared at him while grinning a huge grin. I could sense a change in him already. He wasn't gripping the steering wheel with white-knuckle intensity. His right hand rested gently at twelve o'clock with a relaxed grip.
His eyes had relaxed, too. There were no furrows on his brow. An obvious calm came over his face.
I kept looking at him and grinning.
He pretended not to notice me. He had been keeping his eyes on the road, but there was no doubt he could see me with his peripheral vision. Finally, he couldn't stand it any longer. He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye and pointed a menacing finger at my face. "I don't want to hear one word out of you. Not one word, you got me?" he said.
"Deal," I said, still smiling.
Then, he smiled, too.
After the show, David said it was the best concert he had ever seen.