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Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Summers gone by

Summer in southwest Missouri was an odd time. In the hottest part of the season nightfall did as much to break the heat as the dark did to break the sound of the nightbugs. Sitting inside was a relief if you had air conditioning, but it felt artificial.

So, even at a young age when I wasn't offended by the artificial nature of life's occasional luxuries, I found myself outside at night, getting stung by little mosquitoes and sung to by the nightbugs of America's middle.

There are far too many nights like those to pick the best. There was a quiet but wonderful night on an elementary school playground. There was an intense--if very silly--night walking in circles discussing the merits or lack thereof of anarchy in America. There was a rough night of screaming and insanity. There was a night when somebody died.

Maybe it's because summer and its evenings were my first real intoxicants, or maybe it's just nostalgia and sadness playing some sort of romantic trick on my mind. Whatever it is, when I remember an old friend with a funny name, I think about the way Missouri summer nights have defined most of my life.

Xan never stood very tall, but he had muscles and smiles that made women blush. There was something confident in the way he laughed. Cherub cheeks and an uncanny impersonation of actor John Goodman did nothing to turn friends or females away.

Xan actually began in my life as a friend of a friend of a friend. Over time, laughs, and beer, the stories we could mutually tell grew in number. We would never stand up for one another at a wedding ceremony, nor even keep in touch after the college years. Still, I would assume that if we'd seen each other at a bar or on the street last weekend, we would've talked. Laughed. He probably would have given me a little grief about what I was wearing. He did that a lot. I always thought it was funny that a guy who never wore much other than t-shirts and sandals associated with guys who often looked like their mothers or girlfriends had dressed them.

Perhaps because the nights I knew Xan were in young and rowdy years, my memories of him more often involve music, women, and drinking than anything else. An afternoon turned to night, sitting on a hillside pouring drops of Rose's lime juice into Natural Light beer cans and listening to Bob Marley cover bands. A wet-humid summer night passing a bottle of Jose around in the back of a pickup truck, the girls in between us getting tipsier and more friendly with each revolution. A July 4th party where Xan would meet my future wife and say something just clever enough to make me feel a little jealous.

Like all the other summer nights, those with Xan number too many to tell the full story. Many years later, I look back and realize with no small amount of amazement that there were many other people who knew him much better than I. Without trying too hard I can think of several folks who could tell this story much better than I.

Still.

It's not been too many months ago that I found myself rekindling an old friendship with a young woman who knew Xan very well. She and I sat and talked for a short while about the old days, sipping on a couple drinks, and listening to live music in the middle of Southeast America. It was so far away from Missouri that it barely seemed real. South Carolina nights are intoxicating, but different, like beer and wine. She stepped off into the night and nostalgia and now we do like most old friends do. We share e-mails when life is good or when life is bad. That is the reality of white collar nomads in the 21st century.

When I found her e-mail in my inbox this afternoon, I quietly thanked her for bracing me for what was certain to be bad news. The subject line said as much. In the hurry that most workdays bring, I thought briefly to set the note aside until I had an opportunity to digest it. Instead, I opened it, read quietly, then cursed out loud.

The story stands in stark contrast to Xan's colorful life. He was playing basketball and collapsed from a stroke. Though at last report he was still alive, apparently there hasn't been any sign of brain activity for quite some time. He's 30 years old, just like me.

If I sit around long enough and stay awake on a cold February night, I might start to hate myself for how little value I put on life and the beauty it offers. There are only so many signs fate can present before it gives up for good.

Still.

Still, I can't help but keep my eyes open for a little while longer, pretend it is the middle of a Missouri summer, and I'm listening to Jimmy Buffet sing right along with Xan's smiling face.

I think I can only sleep if I imagine his family and those friends who knew him better than I seeing that same thing as they try to sleep tonight.

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