Never before had a late-afternoon knock on the front door meant trouble. Friends and transients alike walked freely through the Italianate homes of other students at the Savannah College of Art and Design. This was college in the south and lingering throughout Savannah were open doors, gentle hospitality, mint juleps, artillery punch, and the inclination that something extraordinary might happen, the desire that it would.
Mike, Miles, John and Sean thought, at first, that the knock, on October 28, 2010, was a joke. Then the housemates saw that the two boys at their door demanding weed and cash were armed. They let the young men inside.
On this Friday afternoon, the air liberated the city from a compressive heat. Empty beer cans rattled in the breeze. Lining the streets, live oaks ached. The elegance of the exterior of the house belied its insides as an active drug center: Seedlings and mature marijuana plants, sheets of LSD, containers of ingredients to make hallucinogenic and party drugs, a functioning drug lab and a device police later suspected was explosive.
One of the armed men, not much older than Sean, led him to the back of the house. Sean was stripped of drugs, cash, and his cellphone. He did as he was told. He obliged in a way that seemed honorable, displaying compliance with the stoicism reserved for situations of unfathomable fear. Yes, he’d do it, but grudgingly. Yeah, take the stuff, but you’ll regret this. Everyone would.
The armed men bolted. Outside, in a Honda CR-V around the corner, a driver sat waiting. The license plate county tag read FULTON. The home off Barnard was in Chatham. Fulton meant the gunmen were from Atlanta, roughly four hours north. Who were these boys? Why had they come all this way? How did they know about the home, about what it held inside?
Sean—who could have been any number of people in the city, a young man with a medium athletic build and the casual nonchalance of an art school student—wanted to go after them. He wanted answers. Mike cautioned him. “They’re not going to shoot me in the middle of the street,” Sean said. He ran out of the house and trailed the robbers on foot. Mike, like any friend, followed. Miles went after them. John, on crutches with his leg in a cast, brought up the rear.
Students didn’t attend classes on Fridays. Most slept in on the fifth day of a four-day study week. The holly streets were empty and absent of life. Sean and Mike caught up to the two men beside the Honda. The gun discharged four times. They were both struck. John was shot in the hip and arm. He fell alone while Sean and Mike fell together. Miles was unharmed.
The dark grey Honda disappeared down West 35th.
Later, Mike would remember holding Sean in his arms. He asked him if he knew who the men were. “And that’s when he started to fade.”
It was hard for me to imagine anything going wrong in a city like Savannah, a place of upholstered beauty and tender manners where people were kind even to their consonants.
We were far from anyone and anything. Languid tidal creeks swept clear the troubled minds of travelers and residents and students alike. Everyone was aloof and dumbstruck with tranquility, a high you could never escape. Coastal winds, healthy gulps of air off the Lowcountry, filtered through walls of wheat grass and old brick and stucco and settled into delicate whistles of the many ceiling fans. Students observed strict geographic boundaries. Martin Luther King Blvd. to the west, East Broad Street to the east, Bay Street to the north, and the top of Forsyth Park, or Park Avenue, to the south. Per southern decorum, we never spoke of why.
No matter, there was a general resistance against lessons learned. A thriving drinking culture, a disenchantment about secluded life, a restlessness of youth and a history of statutory disregard for authority was a bad mix for anyone coming to Savannah, looking for slow living from a past of anything but. And like anyone in college, we never imagined our privilege could end.
Slowly, then suddenly, it did.
In 2009, I moved to the south from New Jersey in an attempt to escape my spiral as a jail kid. It was the start of what you could call my life on the run. Instead of vandalizing cars, breaking into homes, fighting and boozing and selling drugs, I wanted to attend college, meet a sweet southern girl, graduate, get a respectable job, buy a house, start a family. The kid in shackles was someone I was certain I could replace.
In New Jersey, the police referred to my friends and me as six-oh-ones: juvenile delinquents. We spent time in lockups across the country and in hardscrabble Trenton alternative schools and youth detention centers. After one release, I moved into a dingy, ramshackle two-bedroom apartment—littered with whiskey bottles, holes broken across the walls by angry fists and the ground littered with greenery in tight dime bags I helped sell on the third floor of a housing complex on the northern skirt of the city center. Other than a putrid, yellow- and red-stained mattress on the ground, from alternate nights of pissing myself blotto or fighting through bloodshed, my possessions, gathered over a full eighteen years, were crammed into the backseat of a Chevy Malibu.
I lived with a trio of friends who made their money selling ounces. I sold small amounts when they were gone. It was easy. It was quick. It also made me feel essential to people who otherwise would have never needed me. I became part of something instead of languishing as part of nothing. Sitting there in the apartment, I’d play video games until the door bell rang and someone or a group of people would ask whether I was holding. I’d invite them inside and take their money and soon they would be gone. It was a harmless enterprise that supplied me with friendly interactions and free drugs. As a teenager, what could have been better?
Eyes were on the apartment. I didn’t know that then, but I had an inkling. By the time agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration raided it—as most of us were certain they would, having noted the strange reappearance of men whose dress seemed clean and pressed and unfit for where they stood hunched in poorly lighted areas on the block, translucent wires hung from their ears—I had moved into my car and readied a structured flight path out of town.
Between delivering pizzas and sandwiches, I scheduled and attended GED and SAT tests. I applied to an art school in Georgia, the Savannah College of Art and Design, also known as SCAD. By some divine miracle they accepted me. Bloodshot eyes and foggy mind be damned. From there the door to what I hoped was prosperity and calm had opened.
I ditched the car and all my possessions and hopped a plane. On my way to Savannah I continued telling myself how lucky I was to have escaped from that apartment when I had. I believed I was far superior to those men I lived with and that I wasn’t destined for the fate many of them met: prison, poverty and ruin. It was a fake pronouncement on its face, because we can never be more than the people who surround us.
Enamored as I arrived in Savannah, stepping out from the armory building on Bull Street used for student admissions, I called my mother. “Mom, you’ve got to see this place. It’s like a fairytale.” She was happy that I had made it there safe, made it there at all. Her son, the college boy. What a dream.
It seemed that way, too. That idea of a new life was more attainable in a new place, a fallacy I now realize alcoholics tend to call the “Geographic Cure.” I believed I wasn’t an alcoholic, just a kid who removed himself from bad elements. I was a lost, tattooed, dark-haired city boy with baggy eyes, a hoodlum who did not sleep, drank too much, mismanaged his anger. But I thought I still had time to change.
The devil found work for idle hands, my mother always said, so my first order of business after moving into the dorms was finding employment.
I had no skills, but from my time delivering sandwiches and pizza I could navigate a city well. I remembered seeing a young man peddling down Bull Street. He wore a strange multicolor pinwheel hat and a periwinkle T-shirt. His khakis were shorn above the knees. His eyes, like mine, were dirty ice. He towed a pedicab.
One day I followed him and found myself also donning a periwinkle T-shirt. Every day I staged out of a tin-sided warehouse with a blue corrugated roof on the far east side of the city. I paid a rental fee for the cab, took a laminated card, printed on which were landmarks frequented by tourists, and chimed the handlebar bell through the city streets.
Peddling, clattering through downtown, I navigated a swampy heat, the air like an elixir. I biked to the spot where I stood on Bull Street, talking to my mother, and peered up at the large live oak outside the converted armory. I felt comfort, safety and assuredness in my decision to go south.
I biked farther down Bull Street, away from the admissions building. Taking a sharp turn, the bicycle cart hopping up on two wheels. I dipped through one of the city’s squares, peddling faster.
Twenty-two squares cordoned off Savannah, swabbing the streets with green oases. In each were fountains and monuments, erected to commemorate various wartime heroes or, in one case, the abolishment of slavery. Obelisks poked fun at the lively canopies overhead, sometimes tangled in moss. Birds flitted in rusted fountains in the shadows of steeples and rooftops, cornices and cupolas. The geometrical gardens were the brainchild of James Oglethorpe, who founded the city and settled on the layout before he’d arrived from England. It took its inspiration from a Roman military camp: five squares fell on Barnard Street, five on Bull Street, four on Abercorn Street, four on Habersham Street, three on Houston Street, and one on Montgomery. Two had fallen to a highway bypass.
Along Jones Street I picked up a man and woman who had stepped from Mrs. Wilke’s Dining Room. They were tourists on some foodie kick and wanted me to peddle them to Clary’s, a diner at the far end of Jones Street. We pedicabbers called our service Tips for Trips.
I knew of Clary’s, its walls lined with student artwork for sale. Small rickety tables held plates of homemade food and the sweetest desserts, like the Elvis: peanut butter and banana served between French toast, dusted with powered sugar. On our way, I tried giving my fare a righteous tour.
But while I described gardens and squares, I imagined giving an alternative history. Since pulling into town I’d heard about how, as SCAD grew beyond the one armory-turned-admissions building on Bull Street, it pushed out many lifelong historic district residents as rents skyrocketed. New developments replaced decades-old housing. By the time I arrived in 2009, many poorer communities had been relegated to the fringes of the historic district. The housing projects were where the pedicab boundaries ended and another world began.
There are always dueling narratives. Like my own story, there is the one that people might tell you and the one I know myself to be true, the one with all the good intentions later misshapen by poor choices. For SCAD, the official version goes like this: In 1978, as the brainchild of Richard and Paula Rowan, SCAD brought life to what was no longer a glamorous port city but instead a place long since fallen into decay. Savannah had become a shell of a town, the entirety of the historic district composed of crumbling buildings, an incubator for transients. When the Rowans arrived from Atlanta, they took out a $200,000 loan and with it bought thirty-eight buildings: 19th century stuccos, an Art Deco diner, the redbrick armory on Bull Street.
Once the couple renovated the armory and opened the school, seventy-one students flooded downtown in 1979: classes were in session. The Rowans bloated the local economy with tens of millions of dollars a year as the student population swelled to two thousand in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. “They laid a golden egg,” a former staff writer for the Georgia Guardian, the administration’s newspaper, told me.
From the very start the Rowans—he wore suits, she wore blazers and skirts—foresaw the school as something of a direct competitor with Parsons and the Rhode Island School of Design, a RISD of the south. The difference was that SCAD focused on a more marketable cadre of curriculums. They stressed pragmatism over artistic value, dollar signs over snobbish reproach, mass production over bespoke craftsmanship. Graphic design and computer animation, not completely eliding the fine arts, stressed the importance of living wages. Artists, and so the Rowans’ students, needed to eat.
During this time the Rowans public appearances became sparse. The couple conjured a sultry admonishment from locals, critics and students for their unavailability and lack of transparency. Many felt the couple’s enterprise was expanding too fast, taking in too much money: outsiders and locals felt the Rowans had become power-hungry and were seen as making more money than was at the time normal for owners of a private nonprofit art college, especially one with limited reputation, and far fewer accreditations than its rivals..
Then, in the autumn of 1991, things started falling apart: an architecture professor died by a very public suicide. His body was discovered by a student, Julie Lansaw, outside the school building from which he jumped. Students sought answers about the circumstances surrounding their professor’s death, but were told to keep calm and quiet.
Violence erupted. Students and faculty questioned the school’s quickening expansion and the paranoid atmosphere on campus. Lansaw went with other students to confront the administration about its secrecy, beginning their inquiry at their contributions to “student activity fees” that seemed unused. Students began asking why professors at this “new Bauhaus” were only contracted for one-year positions, never tenured.
Students decided to form a governing body for themselves, and a student newspaper, the Georgia Guardian. Students wore T-shirts that read “Rowan Potato Ship” and “Dictatorship” and marched at rallies. Accounts of secretive student governance meetings were videotaped, but also publicly supported by local booksellers and the Rabbi Arnold Mark Belzer, who oversaw the congregation at Mickve Israel synagogue. The Rowans pointed agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms to student leaders like Lansaw.
Two pipe bombs, which some speculated were linked to the uprising of students against the administration, exploded downtown. One sent shrapnel into the Wallaces’ home, another blew out six doors at the Civic Center. Anyone who talked to the press about the professor’s suicide saw SCAD security or administrators waiting at their doorstep. “They sued anyone,” a bookstore owner told me. More than six hundred students rallied again at the Civic Center after the bombing there.
But eventually, the riots were settled and students resumed classes. A student body was formed, but it had no governing power. For students, it became a mouthpiece without an administrative ear to hear their wishes, but time lapsed and people graduated. Life seemed to move on.
When I arrived at SCAD in 2009, everything was sponged with magic.
Part of the allure and beauty of the town and, by extension, the school, was inoculation. As students, we felt pacified and cloistered inside this holistic and artistic shelter. But I came to wonder whether it was possible, even advisable, to neglect your blighted past and the people you once knew in pursuit of a better future. Because they inform, histories also define.
The school avoided any mention of the crime and violence attributed to the proximity of student housing to the city housing projects surrounding the Historic District. Students were often mugged, the victims of car thefts and home invasions.
Before my time, stories shared like lore: a student refused to give a mugger her money and was shot and killed. Another graduate student was placing a call to his family in Taiwan when he was gunned down where he stood at the payphone. His murder was part of a suspected gang initiation. But the crime came and went with the news and soon afterward the young man was forgotten.
In this way, the history of the city and the school was a patchwork of concealed tarnish. Clues unearthing the city’s use of beauty as its veil were scattered everywhere. The fertile, manicured lawns of Forsyth Park hid beneath them the catacombs of yellow fever and death. Hundred-year-old branches still groaned, having long since endured the city’s lynchings. A dog park was once the site of gentlemanly duels. For everything beautiful, a sin. To every home, a ghost.
The blacktops of Whitaker and Drayton streets sloped downward to meet with the redbrick and cobbled stone along Jones Street as I pedaled the tourists through the city. “You go to the art school?” the woman asked and, with her palm, fastened a floppy sun hat on her head.
“Just started,” I said, sounding exactly like I’d come from New Jersey, having not mastered a southern cadence.
“What are you studying?” the woman asked while I struggled.
“Haven’t. Given. That. Any. Thought.” I heaved up an incline. For good measure toward a tip I added, “Ma’am.”
“Well, what is it you like to do?”
I was certain I would like for the ride to end. But since I failed to point out one of the oldest willows in Savannah, and failed to give a brief history of Clary’s, which was supposed to be the reason for tipping at all, I obliged.
“I used to be into drugs. Well, I still am. Trying to clean up. Far as I know, though, you can’t turn that into a career.”
“Musicians do drugs, honey,” the man whispered to his wife and adjusted the brim of his straw hat.
“That’s right, you could be a musician.”
“Can’t hold a tune; don’t got any beat.”
“Well, you’re awfully handsome,” the woman said with glee. “Maybe there’s something you could do with that.”
I unloaded the couple at Clary’s and thought about how escaping the past would be a neat trick.
Unknown to me then, my good intentions toward a new life fell away when I returned the pedicab for the year, started classes, and began spending more time with Kevin, my roommate, drinking and selling and smoking pot.
Kevin—hooked nose, sun-scorched complexion, brown-eyed and angle-jawed and grungy—came to Savannah from Wilmington, North Carolina, to study film in his mid-20s. He was much older than the teenagers I expected to meet. But he was a second-year, a transfer. He’d spent the years prior working as an electrician for his father’s company, sometimes earning credits at a community college. He’d been arrested, once or twice, dealt with cops, every instance a simple mistake he annulled with a joke about police and pork. He was self-conscious about his age. “Just tell everyone I’m 25, or 23. Think they’d go for 23, an older guy?” Moving to Savannah for him seemed natural, far enough in mileage but with enough recognition to temper feelings of displacement. He arrived the same month I did. We started classes on the same day. We moved into the same dorm our very first morning in town. Our first conversation started over a twelve pack. We hadn’t stopped drinking since.
Kevin’s curly brown surfer hair, the worn sandals, the floppy way he walked and used his hands and knees to depict the slightest curtails of a story about drinking with friends, his abundant merriment toward life and love, an acceptance of being and recklessness fostered in me the misguided first impression that he was an ideal role model, someone to tear me from my own troubled past. Kevin had already found an endless supply of friends. I wanted to be like him, grow into someone as revered by his peers, even though these people traipsed in and out of his life, always seemed to follow him but were never really there.
I was always there. We unfroze the bags of stew provided by his mother and sat down to lengthy meals over which we discussed business strategies: how best to go about cooking a batch of edible pot brownies, how we might sell to kids on the park bisecting the city, whether or not we could trust our roommates to know we were keeping more and more product on campus. We dated girls who were friends, more or less intentionally, so if ever we needed to flip a bag or ounce, one of us could entertain the women while the other handled business.
The cops were called to the dorm one night as Kevin put down his bong. A resident assistant had spotted the glass paraphernalia through an outside window. The police arrested Kevin, making no show of whisking him off in manacles in the back of a squad car, the lights passing over the van in which I sat selling off the last ounce of the stockade we kept in the dorm. Not long after, I arrived at the jailhouse with the bond. He was summarily banned from the dorms, never allowed into campus housing again
We drove home, where he would collect his things and begin his search for new living arrangements, and shared a cigarette knowing that the only way the racket would be worth anything was to go bigger. At eighteen, my risk tolerance was at an all-time high. I knew we could keep getting popped for little weight, or move more weight and make the risk nearly negligible. Somewhere along this tangled route, Kevin met Sean and Mike.
We’d been dry for some while. What had begun with a single knock on the door, a single customer and friend every few days—people with whom Kevin and I were vaguely acquainted—had turned into a revolving door of characters we’d never met before and sometimes would never see again. When we were dry, as we had been now for three days, we started losing business. And losing the business meant risking our friendship. I wasn’t ready to lose either.
This seemed the way of most friendships that I had in Savannah. I knew Kevin because he was my roommate and my business partner. He knew all of his friends through selling or buying drugs. It’s how Kevin came to know Mike and Sean. Our small network relied on drugs for more than beer money and a stash we could smoke on our own: it supplied us with felicity, a mutually shared relief against uncertainty.
Kevin knew a guy who might be able to sell us the kind of weight we needed, George. I drove towards the bar to meet Kevin and George in my beater, an old white pickup truck with a manual transmission, broken mirrors and a bench seat with the foam exposed. It chugged and stalled only once, on the hill outside the dorms. I could have turned back then.
Not old enough to enter the bar, I climbed a fence up onto the second-floor where people gathered on an outdoor patio. I grabbed an abandoned half-full glass of beer, drank some, and carried it downstairs. Kevin shadowed everyone at the bar, talking like a maniac, spilling beer. As I neared, I became self-conscious and felt eyes on me from every direction. I had to reassure myself that this was how everyone makes friends. Through Kevin I found belonging in places and situations where no one should belong.
Kevin seemed comfortable in his skin, and introduced me to George as his business partner. George was almost twice my age, with dark hair and a head that was wide between the ears. They talked like old friends for some time as I nursed the stolen beer. I was held outside the conversation—this was something Kevin was more experienced with, the haggling and dealings. I was a wheel man, an action man, never sitting still and always glancing over my shoulder wondering, always wondering, always looking back. When they settled their tab, we decided to head back to the dorms. We left the bar and climbed into my truck, the three of us crammed across the bench seat with Kevin in the middle, operating the manual shifter between his thighs.
I pointed the truck toward the dorms. Obscured by Kevin’s tall forehead and receding hairline, a pair of headlights turned onto the truck and began following. I nudged Kevin, signaling to drop the gear into second as I engaged the clutch. That’s when I noticed him press his hand against a backpack beneath the bench seat under George. I hadn’t seen them bring a bag into the truck. I turned onto Victory Drive.
Kevin and George faced off for a few minutes, exchanging opposing arguments about different strains of pot like two surly barristers in a spectacle of marijuana madness. Kevin dropped the stick down into first gear and we cruised beneath a green light.
I edged Kevin once more, into neutral, and dumped the clutch. We rolled to a stop under a red traffic light. The pair of headlights following us from the bar pulled behind close. I squinted in the mirror, leaning over Kevin. The red and blue lights atop the police cruiser filled the truck. The officer in the car behind us spoke into his intercom. “Pull over to the shoulder.”
I grabbed the stick and dropped the truck into gear. We edged to the shoulder and I turned off the engine, placing my hands instinctively on the dashboard, as I had countless times before, fearful of what a nervous cop might do at night when approaching three animated men crammed inside a truck.
“I’ve an ounce on me,” George said.
I said, “Great, fucking great.”
“Well, boys. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure,” Kevin said.
“I’ve an ounce on me,” George said again. He shook, unsure what to do with his hands. Rookie.
“Shut up,” I said, “Just shut the fuck up. He’s coming on my side.”
“Coming from the bars?” The officer was direct, looking around the car and at Kevin, George, then back to me. “License?”
“Yeah, sure.” I reached for my wallet slowly. “Have I done something wrong, sir?” I handed the officer my license.
“Yes,” I said. “In the glove box, can you—” I motioned toward George, who fumbled through the paperwork and handed me the slips of paper. “I thought the speed limit was thirty five, sir. This thing can’t go faster than fifty.”
George and Kevin started talking, shifting with unease.
I said, “Would you two shut the fuck up, please. Just stop talking, please. For fuck sake.”
“I pulled you over for an obscured license plate.”
“I just bought this thing. Maybe I can get out and clean—would you two shut up please, fuck—I’m sorry, I just went to get them at The Rail. They called me for a ride, now I’m stuck with this,” I motioned to the two now rigid men beside me. “We’re just heading to the dorms. We’re all students.”
“That’s right, yes, sir.”
“Boundary Village,” I said, knowing this was a test; students were always granted mercy.
I turned and glared at Kevin and George, who were muttering to one another. I hung my head over the steering wheel, frustrated.
“It’s midterms and I stepped away from midterms for this shit and they—would you two shut the fuck up, Christ.”
The officer said, “Alright. Just get them home.” He handed me the paperwork.
“That’s my only intention. And as soon as possible.”
“Have a good night.” The officer walked back to his car.
“Holy shit dude,” Kevin said. He took a sip from the plastic to-go cup he’d filled with beer before leaving the bar, held between his thighs. “Ken motherfucking Rosen.”
George said, “Jesus Christ, dude—”
“Shut the fuck up, both of you. Just shut the fuck up.”
I dropped the truck into gear and eased back into traffic.
Kevin would later be arrested for possession of marijuana, and let off with nothing more than a citation, which we believed was the result of his being a student: we were coddled and secure. But one year later, our tangential friends and distant partners in crime Sean and Mike were an example of what could betide us.
From what I gathered, Sean and Mike had a similar business model to ours, discreet but slipping up on occasion at parties when feeling generous, blathering more than is safe in a business whose success hinges itself on tenebrous relationships and discretion. At these parties, they had often crossed paths with Kevin. Only days after we had met, Kevin suggested we pool our resources with them to widen our base. I trusted Kevin, but I didn’t know Sean and Mike. It sounded best to me if we went it alone.
When I read in the local paper about the way Mike pursued Sean despite the potentially grave consequence—how the bullets struck him and killed his friend, how John hobbled around the crime scene with his leg in a cast—I was stricken by doubt. My secure world shifted off-balance. And yet my classmates traipsed about town as though nothing and no one had been lost. It made me feel a grotesque yearning for the shepherded freedom by which I would attend class and do my school work and prepare for the next day’s assignments without fear or worry.
I remember thinking it could have been Kevin outside the Italianate home with the beer cans strewn about the porch, dying in my arms, not knowing who the home invaders were, why they shot him, and whether his family might make it to his side before he left them forever. Or it could have been me. Would we have had the same commitment to each other? It seemed so simple, being somewhere good before it turned bad.
It seemed equally impossible to know when to end a friendship, when to relinquish someone still breathing.
It is a thought that first seems facetious and bloated—the way someone mourns a person they have not lost, an overstepping of empathy. But it was in this period, trying to feel some sort of sorrow towards these tertiary friends, that I learned that Kevin wished to die.
Just two months after we’d met, Kevin and I were drifting apart. He was nearing his own fulcrum of insanity after his arrests. He found success outside the dorms by living with some friends, but was met by failure in his short film ventures. I was expelled from the dorms for dousing my roommate with cold water while he showered, filling his shampoo bottle with maple syrup. I took a bottle or two of whiskey each day and retreated into my work, a darkened apartment, and a cat who I swore would be my one and only companion. I began to realize that I had spent two too many months beside a man who cared very little about anyone beyond himself. Kevin went on selling, despite Sean’s death, and I retreated into my hole.
I wasn’t there when Kevin drank all day and swallowed a bottle of Adderall and laughed as night swept over him. Later, he said he laughed because, somehow, he knew it would not work, especially after a first botched attempt, many years before. Call it a gut instinct, a higher power. Nothing could go his way, even suicide. It was such a shame it didn’t take, he said. He could not die and because of that he could not save himself. Curious similarities between the two attempts he would never see: each time someone else was there to save him.
This time it was our friend Rob, who dialed 911. When the police and paramedics arrived, Kevin told the police he had not taken drugs, had just been drinking heavily all day, wanted to assess the limits of his friendship with Rob.
After a psychological evaluation and returning to his sinking apartment—walls draped in terrycloth, ornate tapestries, scrawled with poetry—Kevin did the next best thing short of suicide. He went on living as though he were already dead. Fearing I’d lose him if I didn’t, I joined in. I caught a glimpse of myself in Kevin’s struggle. I believed that saving him would have been my own saving. I lacked the mettle, however, to save us both. And yet, improbable though it seemed, we lived when others died.
Not learning from the hard road taken by Sean and Mike, we risked more by drinking more, by exposing ourselves to opportunities through which wary onlookers might see what we dealt. On drunken nights when Kevin or myself were not threatening to paint the walls with our brains or hang limp from the ceiling fan, we might find ourselves tearing through the park in an SUV loaded with pot and women and good old boys howling out the window, trying to keep the beer inside their plastic to-go cups. On those drunken tears we walked a fine edge together and in those years we were lucky.
In the wake of Sean’s death, administrators issued a statement about the availability of grief counselors. Nothing more. Everything outside of our own lives as students seemed outrageous, unimaginable. People focused on their own degrees, their own friends, and kept their heads down.
Alex Cowart had fired the gun that killed Sean. Daniel Izzo drove the getaway car. A third man, John Andrew Adams, was in the car. I liked to imagine—wondering, always wondering—the boys felt devoted in their friendship.
The trial dragged on for two weeks before a verdict was issued, then hauled through the sentencing phases and into the inevitable appeals that offered little reprieve. Cowart and Adams were sentenced on felony murder charges during the commission of a crime. Cowart received two life sentences running concurrently, plus 25 years; Adams received life plus five years. Izzo pleaded to a lesser murder charge and turned state’s witness. Mike and Miles and John, Sean’s surviving friends, were placed on probation and for all outward appearances, their lives went on.
During his testimony, John, the housemate whose leg was in a cast, said, “I was very upset because I felt I didn’t do Sean as much good as I wanted to.” That is how I feel when I now think of Kevin and how life for him has found little variance beyond well-worn homes, stale drugs and cheep beer—long after we had all left Savannah.
After Kevin and I went our separate ways, I got a glitzy job in another city. I quit drinking, never dealt again. Kevin traveled west to trim marijuana plants. But we met once more, even as I was cultivating new and more fulfilling, healthy relationships. Fearing that I had neglected my duties as his friend, I decided, against better judgment, to visit Kevin a few years after he graduated. I found myself on a plane heading west. In a white-walled den that I had rented for us in Los Angeles for a weekend, I fell asleep after my red-eye flight sometime before dinner.
I dreamed. There I am, or the person I think I am, the one I tell myself I am, standing somewhere with Kevin, surrounded by a mad gaggle of people, everyone shouting with large mouths and pointing their fingers the way teachers threaten children with yardsticks. My mother, father, sister, boss and every editor I’ve ever had is looking on. There’s someone with a gun or knife or cloth slowly moving toward me and I’m powerless to stop them.
“Awww, look at the little boy, so tired.” I heard Kevin outside my dream and when I opened my eyes he was pointing and laughing. He looked like he always had, with the torn backpack filled with books and the long gaunt face of a man who never wanted to put down the bottle. When I saw him, I jumped and hugged and tackled him onto the bed, just like I knew I would because I’d always done this with him and he knew it, he was expecting it, too. I was predictable around him. We’d known each other too long and had become like brothers.
He passed me a beer from the six-pack suffocating in a black plastic bag by his thigh. I took the frosty thing on the hot day because what choice did I have? I sat on the couch looking intermittently out at the speckled horizon, scared as ever—scared as I’ve always been, because then I remembered what it was that frightened me most, and that was what we’d do together that night.
I asked him then about what went wrong in Savannah, or if we did OK, considering that we were alive and well and out of harm’s way. He believed we never would have taken anything as far as the other boys had. I asked him, What about that suicide attempt. He asked which time. I told him the first time, the very first time. He laughed, that same humbled and soothing laugh, and told me, “That time? That time doesn’t count.”
A knock came at the door and I opened. Kevin had called her and she strode into the room wearing neon pants.
It was nighttime now. She did not remove her clothes though I suppose that would have been the plan. Kevin walked over to the tall dresser, its doors of wood and clasps of aluminum shimming. We’d stowed some cash inside earlier, and Kevin counted it for the woman to see. She seemed pleased but said she needed something from downstairs and took the money with her. Kevin couldn’t get there in time to stop her. She walked down the hallway and he followed.
Outside, a scuffle, a clamor, a struggle by a sedan. The woman had slipped into a car, and a man in the front seat was reaching for a gun when Kevin made the downstairs landing.
He saw the handgun, stopped, and came upstairs panting.
“They took the money.”
“They took all the fucking money, man.”
Kevin sat down.
“They could have shot you.”
“Yeah, man,” Kevin said, “But they didn’t.”
With a bottle of whiskey between us, we sloshed toward morning.