“This isn’t him,” she said. She was the closest person to me, and the second person closest to the casket. Out of somber, unwilling obligation, several onlookers nodded agreement with the woman. They were right. This wasn’t someone I knew. I’d never met this person. Will wasn’t in this box of metal, wood, fabric, and camphor. Whoever this man was, he was too small, too discolored, too unfamiliar. The disconnect was everywhere, palpable. This didn’t compute. If this man could die, then the impossible must be possible. Impossible.
I met Will two years ago. I remember thinking that this man had to be the object of desire for too many to count. His tall stature, heavily-muscled physique, dimples, shaved head, and almond-brown color made Will the sexiest man I’ve ever seen. His cool, calm, caring nature made him an iconic figure at The New School. His outer being, his aura, made him supernatural.
“What if you had to dig out of a brick prison with a spoon?” Will asked me the question as if it wasn’t random one day about a year ago. I enjoyed this game, though I knew it would quickly turn into something ridiculous, which is why I loved it. We’d played this Question Game many times before, so I knew how out of control it could become. The very first instance of the game revolved around the improbable scenario of a snake biting a friend on the lips and my reaction to it.
I thought for a second and then asked, “Do I have a cellmate?”
“Yes. He’s 6’5” and half-man, half-gorilla.” He said this without even a hint of a smile.
“Um…what’s he doing in prison?” I felt an insane grin creeping up the corners of my mouth.
“He probably escaped a zoo.”
“Can his name be Mugsy?”
Will scratched his head. “Why Mugsy?”
I smirked. “Because it makes sense that this fictional character should be a 1930s-era gangster. Be like, ‘Yeah, see, ya’ came to the Big City with big dreams, bright eyes…and look where it landed ya’!”
We erupted into a cacophony, although his cackles soon overpowered mine in intensity. Will’s eyes were teary, and his lids blinked several dozen times. His was the musical laughter of a child: full of gratefulness, fully aware of itself, and unabashed.
I walked around the casket and stared at the person who I’d been told was Will. I can’t remember crying so hard for someone I didn’t know, because I was sure that this man was unfamiliar. And I looked at this empty body and thought that this entire thing was a joke. Of course, it had to be. The world’s most terrible, poorly timed, Andy Kaufmanesque work—like his pretend fight with Jerry Lawler, or when he’d brought prostitutes onto the set of Taxi. Certainly Will would pop out of an empty room somewhere at any moment. After everyone chastised him for putting us through the torment, we’d all laugh again together and forget that he’d ever pulled such an outrageously unfunny prank.
While I waited for the hoax to end, I studied the features on the face. The skull shape seemed about right. There was a hint of a smirk, a familiar smirk I’d seen whenever I’d told Will a joke that was too corny to be funny. I studied the nose, with its sharp-yet-soft angles, a nose that looked exactly like the nose his sister owned, part of why the two had been thought of as twins growing up. Long eyelashes completed the image. But nothing and everything was missing. And then the mourners began to pour in and whisk me away on a tour of sorrow—a sad, agonizing journey through a sea of weeping, shocked, and awed group of onlookers unable to exit the ride.
“My son tries to be slick sometimes,” Will told me on a clear, warm day in summer. “And then I’ll look at my credit activity and see that he bought some clothes or toys with my card. So, I discipline him with martial arts.” I laughed at the thought. I pictured a little boy practicing moves with Pat Morita’s Mr. Miyagi after spilling a cup of orange juice on the floor.
“I’m serious!” He smiled, but I could tell he was being honest. “He does Horse Stance all the time. He’s actually starting to like it.”
“Man, you are strict,” I said, pulling myself up. “He’s gonna grow up and be like, ‘Now that I’m 6’9” I’m not takin’ that shit anymore, Dad,’ and then punch you right in the nose.” We bowed in hysterics. We both knew his son would most likely thank him for raising him in such a manner. His dad would teach him to drive, the proper workout techniques, and tell him the good and bad of sex and relationships. All in good time.
Before the service officially began, a very beautiful woman ambled from the casket to the back of the congregation to find her seat. A loud-mouthed man didn’t miss the opportunity:
“Is that one of Will’s girls?” His bug eyes almost jumped out of his head. I couldn’t help laughing, and neither could most people who’d heard his outburst. Will was not as much of a womanizer as most people thought he was, although he definitely had the power to be. He had even tried to help me get a girlfriend. I failed.
“I will go on a date with you if you can have an intelligent conversation with me,” she said. She was something of a movie star, or at least that’s what I thought. And although Will assured me he’d never slept with her, I was unwilling to believe that. It was during the annual block party that The New School throws every year. And, unfortunately, I had been drinking a little.
“Sure,” I said, very adept at hiding my slurred speech. “I’m a smart guy!”
Her beautiful blue eyes rolled and focused on Will as if to say, “You’re kidding me, right?” She then proceeded to ask a series of questions about things I’d never even heard of and struggled to grasp—like Graham’s Number, quantum foam, and the meaning behind the literature of T.S. Eliot. I was trying rather hard to concentrate, but my eyes kept going to her chest, and I completely lost myself.
“Damnit, man!” Will grew upset. “Go and count your fingers somewhere in a corner.” I knew better than to protest, so I disappeared somewhere inside the building. He was always protective of people he cared about, and since I didn’t know him that well yet, I wasn’t on that list. He was the biggest gentleman I’d ever seen. I mean that in every way possible.
As the service proceeded, I grew fearful that I was going to be proven wrong about my hope that this was all fake. There was the nagging notion that maybe I’d been fooling myself all along. Family members struggled to speak in front of the crowd. Friends laid hands on one another. Will didn’t emerge from his hiding place in the secret room of my imagination. Why wasn’t this ending the way that I thought it would? Would Will really put this many people through this much agony?
I can’t help but think that Will is still here, somewhere. I’m sure he was responsible for the group I got lost with in Queens (with its insane number of one-way streets). He definitely made sure that the car’s tire got flat. He even made sure that one of the people in the car was the girl, the movie star, the one I’d repeatedly tried to ask out during that block party, a person I am proud to now call my friend. Will has an amazing sense of humor. Even better is his sense of community, of bringing people together who normally would never cross paths in life. I realize that he’s not in a grave, but with us all, continuing to spread his happiness and laughter. I am beginning to laugh as he did, and I can tell it’s him in my voice.
12th Street Issue 7 is dedicated in memory of Will Gary.