“David Hart. He died last night.”
We moved to Boiling Springs, South Carolina when I was in the fifth grade, a tiny town in the Upstate. Every year since then at least one child died, almost always in an automobile-related accident. The grisly details rippled through the school hallways like ghost stories: kids we had known crushed by power poles, impaled on steering columns, covered in their friends’ blood.
I guess I assumed that the pattern ended when I graduated high school, but here were were again, talking about the sweet and talented underclassman from our art class. David was the little guy, the kid that the Puberty Fairy saved for last, but his gifts were enormous. He was one of the smart kids, an excellent draftstman, and simply fun to be around.
“What? Didn’t he just graduate?” I said.
“He was training for a Beach ride, ran that stop sign by his house and got hit by a car. You going to go to the funeral?” Lee G. said.
“I don’t know. I didn’t really know him very well.”
“You should. He really looked up to you.”
“Come on,” I said. “No he didn’t.”
“Where do you think he got the idea for a Beach ride?”
Boiling Springs to Myrtle Beach by bicycle, a ride that spanned almost the entirety of the North/South Carolina border. This was my thing, a trip that to my knowledge no Boiling Springs High School student made prior to my two rides. David’s blood was on my hands.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll go.”
That evening the phone rang while I moped on Jody’s shoulder.
“Hello?” she said. “Momma? What’s wrong? Oh my God. Oh my God.”
“What’s up?” I asked.
“My cousin got hit by a car last night. She’s dead.”
The cousin was walking to a convenience store with her dog. They walked along the road’s shoulder, as there was no sidewalk. A driver in a black Trans-Am swerved to miss the dog and hit the cousin head-on.
And so on a single Southern night both Jody and I lost someone, and on a single Southern day we would attend both of their funerals. The cousin’s memorial service was the night before her actual funeral. The driver showed up and uttered apologies between sobs. His Trans-Am sat in the parking lot. Its windshield looked as if it had been hit by a bowling ball, but upon closer inspection one could see the blood and hair trapped between the little squares of broken glass.
The next day we arrived at her graveside just as the preacher was wrapping it up. “Brother, I got something to say,” said a mourner. He stood and walked toward the casket, shirt and Wranglers neatly pressed, a worn Bible tucked like a football beneath his arm. He stood behind the casket as if it were a lectern, and he said: “Brothers and sisters, Shelly is in Hell now because she never accepted Jesus Christ as her personal Lord and savior.”
Some of the mourners uttered “amen,” and others shook their head in agreement.
“Me an Shelly was real close growing up cousins. She knew me when I was raising hell, drinking and fighting and worshiping KISS like they was some kind of gods.”
“But they’s only one God,” he said, and he drove home his point by smacking his cousin’s casket with his Bible. “So who’s going to come up here right now and accept Jesus into his heart so they don’t go to Hell like Shelly?”
We drove across town to David’s funeral. The chapel was filled with familiar faces, childhood friends unsure what to do with themselves. We made awkward eye contact and kept our mouths shut, stifled smiles lest someone think we mistook the gathering for a party.
The service was very Protestant. Like my family, the Harts came to the Piedmont from Yankee territory, and they brought those sensibilities with them. There were prayers and hymns and a reassuring sermon, and then the minister said, “Now, I understand that David’s friend, Rob, had been teaching him how to play the guitar. Rob would like to come up and play the song that they were working on.”
Rob took the long walk up the aisle. He grabbed his acoustic guitar and sat in front of David’s casket. The familiar riff of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Over the Hills and Far Away” warmed the room and imbued itself with new meaning.
Later in the cemetery the minister said what remained to be said, and the canvas straps creaked beneath the weight of the lowering casket. David’s father stepped forward and signed “I love you” over and over as his son disappeared forever.
Afterward a few of us went to the Sugar -N- Spice. We sat in a booth, Lee G. and his girlfriend, my old buddy Dan from Camelot Music, Jody and I. It was the last time I’d ever see Dan, and my last summer in South Carolina.
I carried the weight of David’s death for a number of years, and honestly I still feel a bit guilty. In a way I feel like the driver of that black Trans-Am — just a guy doing his own thing, fully unprepared for the potential negative consequences of his actions. But I can’t think like that. David was his own man with his own appetites for adventure, and if not for the dumb luck that I was born a couple of years before him I’m sure he would’ve been the first resident of the Sprangs to reach the Beach via pedal power.