By Chris Prioleau
“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”
The Body, Stephen King
I believe that people who share the same name as you have a lot to teach you about who you are, or rather, who you could be. For me, being introduced to someone named Chris is sometimes more of an act of remembering than that of meeting someone for the first time. Members of a prenatal cosmic fraternity encountering one another on the other side. When I was twelve I had a couple of friends named Chris: Chris Grace & Chris Bell. Chris Grace was white, Chris Bell and I were black. I still am. They’d known each other since they were small, lived in the same neighborhood around a kid named James that we all hung out with, black kid. There was a white James too, we were all friends. Chris, Chris, Chris, James, and James.
On the last day of middle school the black Chris, the black James, and I were at Chris’ house. It was the first and last time I was ever over there. We were getting ready for a graduation party. The idea of graduating from middle school was a joke to us even then, but parties were still something new, something mature. High school buzzed above us then, the big mystery dropping slowly, only now just beyond reach.
I remember calling the kid who’s house the party was at, to try and find out what time we should come. Chris and James made me do it because I hadn’t actually been invited. I had to pretend I was Chris, my first of many penances to the Party Gods.
“Who is this?”
“Oh. You sound different on the phone.”
The three of us waited outside (always waiting), enjoying that surreal first taste of summer. The smell of chlorine and gun powder first wafting in from the delta, spindly tips teasing your nose. Chris had a lawn that was much bigger than James’ or mine. I remember being surprised. My house was much bigger, my family had more money but Chris had this lawn with enough space for a tree to grow. It wasn’t a huge tree, but still it was there, right in the middle of the lawn.
On this particular day, hot out, freedom in the air, we found a noose hanging from a low branch of the tree in Chris’ front yard. None of us had any idea why it would be there. James and Chris went straight to it though, I remember, like it was some dumb artifact from a lost society. They laughed at it and slapped it around some but we were all confused and maybe a little uncomfortable: three black boys pondering the significance of a noose on the first day of summer.
“It’s dumb that this is here, I bet you could really hang someone from it. Kill them.” James said, pulling open the loop, examining it, holding it above his head. On him it looked like a crown. James was the leader. In those days groups had leaders.
“Nu-uh, man! You can’t fucking hang nobody from this, it aint high enough off the ground!” Chris said, snatching the rope out of James’ hands and holding it out of reach like we were dying to get it back. Regardless of what it was, we’d found it in his yard, making him both owner and protector of the mysterious object for the time being.
“Bet you could!” James said, “Hang a nigga from that and he’d be all grehikkk graggg hikkk” James wrapped both hands around his throat, bugged out his eyes, and made believe like he was a black kid being hung from a tree. A ridiculous image; we all laughed. Big and proud, we.
“The party” I said, when the laughter had passed. “Should we--?”
“How much you wanna bet?” Chris asked, stretching to hold the rope farther out of reach from whoever he thought was making for it.
“I’ll bet you fiiiive dollars.” James said, crossed his arms.
“Wait, how would you--? How would we--?”
“Pfffft. You’re on. Bout to spend that on some Mickey Dee’s, chump.” He tossed the noose to James underhand like he was throwing a baseball. It swung right into his hands and the branch creaked a warning. “Taco Bell” Chris said.
A Cheshire grin bled over James’ face. This was back in the days when he’d had his hair cut in a flat top and the tips of his curls were bleached. It made him look long and impish. Chris was taller than both of us and had his ears pierced. He’d already been laid too, if you believed him. I wore glasses.
“Okay Chriiiis” James called to me like a snake charmer. He stroked the noose’s loop of and the first cold summer’s sweat ran down my armpits. “Get down on your hands and knees”, he said.
I smiled, wiped my brow in a hopefully comic parody of relief. In the middle of the afternoon the grass was still pretty wet, like the sprinklers had come on while we was standing there or something. The moisture in it, though, was being fried out by the sun even quicker than the soil could suck it in. You gotta feel bad for the water in a situation like that, getting volleyed between two powerful things, having no say in it at all.
“Good. Alright now, Chris you stand on his back and put this shit around your neck.”
“Wait a minute” I said to the Earth. “I don’t want him on my back; he’s like ten feet tall.”
“What, you rather get in the rope?” James asked from above.
That ended that. Though if James’d told me to get into the noose I would have, would have let him hang me until I rotted and baked in the sun, turned to pubescent black jerky for the vultures. I was lucky enough to be there in the first place really: middle class, good grades, bad at sports, lucky to be black at all.
When Chris stepped on my back, it felt like my whole body had been turned into a levee about to breach. My back creaked and my limbs wobbled. Floods of sweat fled down my arms, splashed from my brow, pooled in my crotch. I could hear them laughing. Chris leaned back and forth, for fun, surfing his lawn with my spine. Of course I wanted to collapse, to throw him off and end this stupid game once for all but I couldn’t. Chris was cooler than me, so I had play Atlas. It was teenage law. You would have done the same thing.
After a little while they stopped and I could feel him up there making minute, precise movements: shifting his body weight to grab the noose, to straighten it out and pull it over his neck.
“Huh”, he said. And then: “OK you’re right you could totally hang somebody fro—hkkkkkk!”
Something heavy hit me in the ribs and I fell into the grass face first. I groaned, coughed, rubbed the intense ache in my side. James had kicked me, I could hear his wild laughter. I moaned into the earth and started to notice the erratic wind above me. It was blowing down my shirt frantic and powerful like swinging limbs, the creaking of a tree trunk.
Hkkkkkkkk, rkkkkkkkk, gukkkkkkkkk
I scrambled from underneath Chris’s kicking legs, crawling low, my face dragging against blades of grass until it was safe enough to stand. I ran towards him, trying to help while James just sat back, laughing. Chris was too freaked out; he kicked me as soon as I came close, right in the sternum. I flew backwards through the air and landed on my back in the sun. I couldn’t breathe. James laughed even harder.
“Fool, you need to calm down if we’re going to help you out of there.” He said, folding his arms.
I sat up, wincing at the bruises on my chest and side. Chris’ face was purple and swollen, his knuckles white, wrapped tight around the loop that was slowly strangling him. He had this wide, animalistic look in his eyes, like he was staring past us into something we couldn’t see. He stopped kicking, hung perfectly still.
Hkkkkk, gkkkk. James. You-play-too-much.
We walked over to him and I lifted his thin body up a few inches to get rid of the tension. His shirt was in my face and I could feel his heart beat manically through my cheek. James meanwhile slipped the noose off his neck. Together we helped him down and to his feet. He was leaning against the tree with one shaky arm taking these full, shaky breaths like he was sobbing. We were all wet and sticky under the sun, like blackberries.
“So” James said, “How bout that five bucks?”
We saw each other after that, a bunch of times actually. Chris’ playful lynching wasn’t a watershed moment in any of our lives, which, when you think about it, is the great thing about being twelve. You could be hung from a tree by your best friends one day, and then the very next morning ride your bike to the mall with no scars to show besides the rope burn healing around your neck like ribbon left on the maypole. Still, my thoughts turn back to that afternoon sometimes and when they do I feel a pinch in my heart like the pain of remembering a broken promise. You’re the survivor, Memory says, you figure out what it meant.
What kind of a guy was he? Chris was crazy like a matchstick in the sun. He was the first guy I knew who jacked any alcohol, a bottle of Mudslide one night just slipped down into the big back pocket of his jeans, impossibly baggy, right in front of the check out lady. Man, she didn’t say shit! How could she? Look at those jeans.
Ninth grade afternoons after class Chris would bound off towards the old middle school. I always thought he was picking up his little brother. One day we went with him though and found out that he was pocket checking kids, one by one, as they slinked off campus and strayed from their normal packs. Let me up out yo pockets, cuz. Let me up out yo pockets. I thought it was wrong that he was stealing from kids so much younger than he, but I found out later that he was doing the same thing to guys our age too, on weekends, so maybe it was okay.
He was a good guy too. He wasn’t a sociopath, he was my friend. There’s this image that I have of him, sitting next to me on James’ bed, it’s late at night, I’m crying like I used to, his arm is around me and he’s not saying anything, neither of us are. I forget the context.
The last time I saw him I was in a drug dealer’s mom’s car. The drug dealer was my best friend at the time, Jewish guy from another school, kind of a dork, an accountant now. I was alone sitting shotgun outside of Lamont’s house while my friend was inside doing business. I had introduced him to Lamont, had known Lamont from before, but it didn’t matter. Those were the rules at the time. You would have done the same thing. The sun was setting and I was watching the sky start its slow turn from pink to black while I rode out the end of one foggy high on my way soon enough to another. The Blottos blared from my friend’s mom’s Camry, announcing my sixteeness to the whole block.
Lamont’s front door opened and I expected to see my buddy, smiling, two ounces heavier, but instead it’s my old friend Chris. I hadn’t seen him in months but I wasn’t surprised, not just because he was still friends with Lamont but because I’m never surprised to see Chris.
He was rail thin then, as he always was, but this day it didn’t fit him. He looked gaunt. There was a wild, paranoid look in his eyes and dark heavy bags hung from them like his skin would rather be anywhere else but with him. It reminded me instantly of him ensnared in the noose, many years and strained friendships before, his trapped far off glare. He saw me, sitting in the car watching him and let out a sigh of relief that touched me, an old friend excited to see you, members of a prenatal cosmic fraternity encountering one another on the other side. He walked quickly to my window looking over his shoulder more than once.
“Chris, man. How’s it goin, cuz? Long time no see, man.”
“Dude, yeah, it’s good to see you. How have you been?”
“Shit man.” He said, and looked down the block, past it, I tried to see what he was staring at but couldn’t get it. Just another day to me. He turned back and leaned in close, conspiratorial. “Hey man you’re smart, right? Let me ask you something. If you hit somebody with your car and then drive off is that a felony?” His big dark eyes were wide, earnest, pinpointed on me like lasers.
I frowned. “Uh, yeah man. I think it is. Hit and run.”
Chris let out a sigh and backed away from me, sort of violent, as if I had committed a crime instead of merely telling him about it. “Shit”, he said. “Alright than, Chris! It was good seeing you my man, I gotta go.” He high fived me quick and hard and took off down the block, almost running.
“Alright man, good luck!” I called after him.
It was a few weeks later. Chris was over at a friend’s house, a guy I didn’t know. The guy’s dad had died recently, from cancer I think it was. There were some other people there too, a girl that a buddy of mine knew, another black guy named James that I didn’t know too well, and Chris, and this guy, and a lot of guns that the guy’s dad owned. They’d been drinking and I think that he only meant to do it once but for a while nobody knew what to think.
“How much you wanna bet me I won’t?” They’d said he’d said.
Russian Roulette is what people kept saying. Russian Roulette but nobody else wanted to play. I think he only meant to do it once, just to prove that he would. Of course he would, no doubting that. A matchstick in the sun.
I ran into Lamont at a party a few months ago and he said that James had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia last year.
“Man, he’s messed up bad, man. Says he hears the voice of the Devil every day. He tried going to church but it don’t help him none. When was the last time you saw him?”
“Years.” I said, “Years and years and years and years and years.”
Who put that noose there, in Chris’ tree, that afternoon eleven years ago. I was a little boy and so were they, our skin a fresh spectrum of colors collected from burnt match sticks, growing wet in the sun. Was it a warning?
You can have this summer, the noose said, a few more after that too, but we’ll be back for you quicker than you can say ‘graduation’. A noose. Death comes to you in forms you’re built to understand.
But Chris. He was the boldest of us, bold in a way I couldn’t be then, loud in a way I hadn’t learned yet. He was a part of me though, as much as any of the friends I had but more too. If everything is relative, if we’re just a bunch of floating molecules what’s the difference, why couldn’t I be him? His bravado, his cool. We had the same skin, same history, answered to the same name. Why not just take the extra leap, hang me from a tree so I could see what he saw?
“But then who would stay behind to write about it?” Chris asks.
Members of a prenatal cosmic fraternity encountering one another on the other side.