At a Loss

The summer between eighth grade and high school Dana Beger's little brother shot him in the stomach with a hunting rifle, killing him. They were only playing. It happened in the carport of their home, just blocks away from mine.

I was a pallbearer at Dana's funeral though I did not know him well. Actually, I did not know him at all. I want to talk a little bit about that.

I knew Dana only because we both played on our eighth-grade basketball team. Well, more correctly, he played and I sat on the bench. Coach Gann, God bless him, kept anyone on the team who was willing to go through his grueling practices. I was a rotten basketball player but I loved the sport. Every game I sat on the bench, sometimes in my jersey that didn't match anyone else's because they ran out, and prayed — prayed — that the game would be too close for Coach to put me in. Truth be told, the whole team stunk, so there were opportunities galore for the scrubs to play. I only remember playing in two, maybe three, games. For minutes. During which I prayed again that no one would foolishly throw me the ball. I did get the ball once. I dribbled it so high in my fevered, spastic, hyperventilating style that it was a turnover. I remember I was tied up once, also, and had to suffer the ignominy of a jump ball that I was certain to lose.

Dana was the team's starting center. He was a quiet kid. No one knew much about him. He was most famous for taking the opening tip once and dribbling to the opponent's goal and scoring a basket for the other team. As I said, we were lousy. Dana was our starting center because he was taller than anyone else.

Funny thing about my first brush with organized athletics: I enjoyed the hellish practices in the un-air-conditioned girl's gym at Bartlett High School. I was so bad little was expected of me. So, when I would beat someone in ladder sprints (also charmingly called suicide sprints), or when I would, somehow, score a basket, there was much praise, though some of it backhanded. For instance, if I won a ladder sprint, Coach would say, c'mon, boys, Mesler is beating you. And I would glow, not suspecting at the time, perhaps, that this wasn't exactly unconditional love.

When I was a child in the early 1960s of that dangerous century, the twentieth, there was only one thing for a male child to be and that was tough. If you were not a good fighter, a good basketball player, a good baseball player, if you could not throw a football with a space-age spiral, could not hit the corkball across the street, you were less than a boy. You were less than human. You were, and here the phrase still comes hard, a pansy. I was a pansy. Not in the later connotation, which we couldn't have understood back there in 1964, of homosexual, but in the rough-and-tumble argot of the playground. A boy who wasn't much more than a girl, athletically speaking. I suffered long and hard over this. When I was five I learned about death and thought, holy shit, what a bad deal. That this should end, that I would end. All the things that in my head constituted Corey Mesler would cease to exist. Poof, never to be used again. What useless effort, to build an intellect, to think about the world, what a supreme waste to do anything at all.

This was, of course, an immature at-titude and was adjusted as I grew. When I discovered that I was other, an outsider to the world of grace and communion, when I found out that I was not a conventional boy, I wanted that death, sort of. I reasoned that I would feel this way for the rest of my life. For the rest of my life I would be looked down upon, counted out, never factored into the great Scheme of Things, though I didn't know much about that Scheme. Surely, I couldn't go on.

My neighborhood, back in those innocent suburban days, was a verdant little carbuncle on the side of Memphis called Raleigh. And my street, Kenneth Street, was, magically it seems to me now, populated with nothing but boys my age. There were literally six of them to grow up with. And, though every one was athletic — very athletic, some of them — they were welcoming and generous in their friendship. They embraced me and they taught me things like football and corkball and Frisbee and kites and even how to ride a bicycle (I was 11, ridiculous to me even now, shameful to me even now). They were good folks and I still occasionally talk to these boys and they still seem to me to be salt of the earth, rock-solid good folk.

Then, in about fifth grade, sixth grade, I discovered something new about myself. One, that I was considered cute — cute, never handsome — and that I actually did appeal to the opposite sex, to some members of that fairer sex, whom I had always craved, like Alvy Singer, without a latency period. And two, I discovered that I was funny, and it was almost a substitute for being tough.

In class, if I could manufacture a snappy comeback to the teacher, a smartass rejoinder, I could share in a communal fellow-feeling unlike anything I had ever experienced. They laughed with me for once. Of course the teachers took a different view and I was constantly in trouble. Notes home, trips to the principal's office, I wore these as a badge. I was outlaw, hood. My best friend was the toughest kid in the school and suddenly I was also golden. No one would dare pick on me because Pat would kick their ass. It was my first experience of a period of supreme grace. I was, suddenly as if bestowed upon me by a sympathetic God, popular.

So, eighth grade came and I was still in with the in crowd, one of the in crowds anyway. I still wasn't a jock or a parking lot tough. But I was feeling better about myself. And when it was announced that every boy would try out for the basketball team — every boy — I quaked, but I also saw a small opportunity. Though I had only approximated basketball in my backyard with my neighborhood pals I felt as though I could at least go through the motions of trying out. Of course I wouldn't make the team — how absurd — but here was a chance to get in with the real in crowd, the basketball team. What was more attractive than that?

And then I discovered Coach Gann's nefarious plan: Anyone who practiced made the team. (Though my friend, Ricky, who was even worse than I was at sports, was made "manager," which we all know means "guy who couldn't play.") Suddenly, I was a member of organized sports. I was a jock. I, of course, had pictures made of me in the uniform (in the shameful white jersey which only I possessed), palming a basketball we had deflated enough for my girly hand to fit around it. The picture now makes me burn with humiliation. What a mooncalf I was!

So, every day after school, there I was in the gym, wearing gym clothes (which my mother had to go buy for me because of course I had none) and acting as if I understood what was going on. The first practices were just boot camp, really, designed to weed out the guys who didn't want to exercise until they were sick. Some fell by the way. I persevered. Surely, this is cause for pride. I persevered. Then, when it came time to actually draw up plays, I didn't even pay attention. And Coach probably knew I wasn't paying attention. What possible difference could it make? I wasn't going to actually play.

Still, I got to be part of the team. A few guys made fun of me, but in more of a joking, we're-all-in-this-together way. Not the usual playground taunting I had grown up with. And there were also three black guys on the team who found me entertaining and befriended me in that desultory way blacks and whites mixed back then. They would laugh when I ran, but they treated me with respect, the brand of respect boys had for other boys back then. This was balm to my tortured soul.

I remember little else about that time except the year-end basketball ceremony when the cheerleaders applauded for us all (we were something like 2-15) and chanted our names. When they got to "Corey, Corey, he's our man, if he can't do it no one can" I thought I detected a slight choke to their voices, as if they could barely get out the lie, but this may be fancy on my part.

Eighth grade. The last year before we moved up to the Big Building, the high school that was adjacent to our elementary school. The last summer before we made that quantum leap. And I was feeling pretty good about myself for once. I thought about girls a lot. I played backyard basketball a lot. I played street football, corkball, Frisbee. The Memphis summer was hot as monkeys and I was a boy among boys and there were girls in shorts with tan legs and The Man From U.N.C.L.E and Wild Wild West was on TV and everything suddenly seemed okay to me. I did not want to die. I suddenly seemed to fit in somewhere. I wasn't sure exactly how or where but, dammit, I was not a loser, or an outsider so far outside that I would never see in.

Then came the call from Coach Gann. Dana Beger was dead. Would I be a pallbearer?

Truthfully, I didn't know what to feel. Death was now an abstract. Someone my age had died? Impossible. And Dana Beger — I didn't know him. Why was I to be a pallbearer? Surely, he had closer friends.

My fellow pallbearers were other members of the eighth-grade basketball team. We carried our friend to his final resting place. I guess I did the job with grace and reverence. I don't know because I don't remember much about the service except for one brief moment at the grave. There we had placed the casket where the casket was supposed to be placed and stood silently by as a preacher said important and weighted words about our dead teammate. The moment I remember is when I turned to look at my friend Ted and I saw on his cheek fresh tears. And I thought, perhaps Ted knew Dana Beger better than I did. Perhaps he understands this loss, how unfair it is, how untimely, how tragic. Perhaps Ted knows this. And I tried to cry, too. I tried to join Ted in his grief, but I was faking it. I was attempting to will a crocodile tear from my unfeeling system. I could not do it and I felt ashamed as if I had failed in my assigned task, that of carrying a comrade to his grave, that of grieving, publicly.

And I was to remember this moment decades later when I got a phone call telling me that Ted had died after a long battle with cancer. They always say a long battle. In Ted's case I understand it to be true. He suffered long. And I wanted to shed a tear for Ted, too, a tear to make up for my unfeeling response to poor Dana Beger. My sister went to school with Dana's little brother, the one who had fired the fatal shot, by accident, while playing. She told me he was somewhat burnt out and this is understandable. How does one get past that? Ted's dying brought it all back for me — Dana's death, his brother's guilt-wracked life, my tearless response. No, I couldn't cry for Ted either. Instead, I wrote about him, again and again and again. I tried to put down on paper the full weight of losing Ted at age 50. And, now, here I tried to do the same for Dana Beger, a kid I barely knew, who died too young. M

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