It’s the small but moving gestures we most remember
By Brian Doyle
When I was in college, many years ago, there was a moment, on a warm and redolent spring afternoon, that I wish to tell you about. It was seemingly a small moment, and I do not think that anyone but a few of us noticed, but it mattered to us; and perhaps it mattered, somehow, to the young man whose coffin lay in the thick brown crumbling earth at our feet.
His name was, or had been, Esteban. His mother called him that, but no one else ever did that we knew. He had lived in our dormitory. He was a terrific basketball player. He was curt and shy and snide and shy. He was very tall but painfully thin. He had terrible acne on one side of his face but not the other, so when he spoke to you he spoke sideways, which seemed weird and dismissive until he turned his head and you saw why he spoke sideways. In the way of young men, sports was a language he spoke easily and well and he played basketball every day. Six of us played every day, and he was one of the six. He was an excellent teammate who liked to pass and was good at it, but he had the odd habit of never shaking hands or acknowledging a teammate’s thanks after a great pass. You would get a great pass from him and lay it in the basket and then point to him to acknowledge the pass and he would look away, or you would stick your hand out as you went past to say thanks for a great pass, and he would ignore you. The first few times we played with him this was weird and annoying, but after a while we got used to it and we stopped trying to thank him for his superb passes.
He died while he was home for spring break. His car smashed into a tree and he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and he went through the windshield and smashed into the tree also. His casket was closed. His family lived relatively close to campus, so all five of the guys who played ball every day with him went to his funeral. We all drove to the funeral together. He had one sister. She was lovely, but no one said anything about how lovely she was or about asking her out or anything like that. His mother tried to thank us for coming, but she only got through the first two of the five guys until she had to turn away. His dad didn’t say a word to us but he shook all our hands.
We sat in the back of the church. He wasn’t Catholic, so we didn’t know what to do during the service; we just followed what everybody else did. Afterwards we all drove to the cemetery. Everyone drove slowly. The minister was wearing a white robe and he had an enormous beard and he looked exactly like God, or Moses. The ground was muddy, so the chairs for the parents and grandparents were placed on a plastic lawn. When the minister was done two burly guys lowered the casket into the hole. I remember the edges of the hole were crumbling and a couple of times the casket bumped against the sides and a surprising amount of dirt fell in.
After the casket was in place, people came up one by one to pray or say some last thing to him or drop things down on his casket. Some people dropped photographs that seesawed down to him like butterflies. One old man dropped what sounded like coins. A young woman dropped what I imagined to be a love letter. What else could that red envelope have contained? Most people dropped flowers that the burly guys handed them from a stash of flowers in their truck.
We five guys were near the end of the line, and when our turn came, the first of us dropped Stevie’s sneakers on his casket. That made a loud sound and a few people looked up startled but they were too far away to see what it was and they kept walking away, slowly. Then that first guy dropped his own sneakers down on Stevie’s. This time it wasn’t so loud because Stevie’s sneakers muffled the blow. The next guy dropped his sneakers too, and then the next guy, and then me, and then the last guy, so now there were six pairs of sneakers on the casket with the coins and the flowers. I remember that we had all tied our laces together. The last two people behind us dropped flowers that the burly guys had given them from the truck and then the burly guys took shovels out of their truck and that was the sign for everyone to go.
I don’t have anything wise or deft to leave you with here. I just wanted to tell you that one time five guys left their sneakers on their buddy’s casket, and they left their buddy’s sneakers there too, because it seemed important to do that. A lot of the things we do we can’t explain, but they are important. You know what I mean.
Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland, and the author most recently of the novel Mink River. He writes the weekly Epiphanies column at theamericanscholar.org.
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