Don’t get me wrong. I completely adored my own father to the point of mythologizing him, but he was a long haul truck driver and was almost never home during the week, and not home long even on the weekends. We just didn’t get to see him much.
Gary, on the other hand, owned and operated a builder’s supply store in Sparta, which, when I first got to know Mark in elementary school, was located just across the street from the school. We would sometimes go there after school and hang out, which was fine with Gary. We especially liked being there during the ACC Tournament, which at that time — much more so than now — was like an official holiday in the state of North Carolina. The only way to get in the NCAA Tournament in those days was to win the conference or win the ACC Tournament, so the stakes were high and everybody in the town — including the kids — had a favorite team.
Gary’s favorite team — and our favorite team, by extension — was the N.C. State Wolfpack. When he was a kid himself, he had sold concessions at Reynolds Coliseum when the Wolfpack played. He had been a huge fan ever since, so naturally, during the tournament, when State played, the store became Basketball Central. We would slip away from school and watch the Wolfpack, hunched around the set, sweating every possession, high fiving after every basket.
I am not sure if there have ever been two boys who genuinely loved basketball as much as Mark and I did. We played together on both the elementary and high school teams, and we played pick-up basketball every chance we got during our school years. Luckily, it snowed frequently in the winter months, and every time school was canceled, we would get Gary to take us to the gym, where we would play basketball literally all day long with anyone else who showed up. Usually, we had more than enough for five-on-five. Mark was the point guard, and I was the shooting forward. Neither of us was particularly athletic, but we both had good instincts and were good shooters, and our team won most of the time. He loved talking smack to the guy guarding him, and then breezing past him for a layup or a pass to me for an open jumper. It was a glorious time.
Afterwards, Gary would pick us up and we would go back to the apartment for spaghetti or, if the roads weren’t too bad, a trip to Galax to see Gary’s “woman friend,” who had a son and two daughters, one the same age as us. He never minded me tagging along, which I did many, many times during those years.
Mark and I were also rock and roll fanatics. We learned to play the guitar a little, and we spent countless hours listening to the great classic rock bands of the day. Better still, when one of our favorite bands came to the Charlotte Coliseum, Gary would take us, drop us off, and then go to dinner and a movie with his woman friend until the show was over, and then pick us up and drive back home. We saw Fleetwood Mac, the Eagles, KISS, Boston, Foreigner, and Heart, among others. There is no telling how many of those tickets that Gary bought for me, or how many meals he paid for.
I stayed over so often, I had my own tooth brush. He always treated me like another son, asking me questions about my day and about school, joking with me about girls, laughing with me, genuinely interested in my life. Every night before bed, he would go over our breakfast options: country ham or crispy bacon, scrambled eggs or an omelet, French toast or blueberry pancakes, whatever we wanted, since breakfast was the most important meal of the day. And every morning, we would wake up to find a bowl of dry cereal on the kitchen table and Gary already gone to work. This became a running gag that I relished and played along with every time.
On Thursday of last week, I was just coming out of a formal dinner party when I got a text message from my aunt that Gary had passed away. I sat in my car for a few minutes in the dark and rain and just let the memories soak me.
Not too many years after we graduated from high school, Gary sold his business, married his woman friend, and moved out of town. I never saw him again, but I have thought about him, his humor, and his remarkable kindness often over the course of my life. If my son had a friend who started showing up in my home as often as I showed up at Gary’s home, would I be so generous, so willing to take him in and make him feel welcome, not just as a visitor but as an important part of our lives? Could I be that giving, that kind?
After the funeral on Saturday, where Mark spoke and then sang a song that he wrote for Gary, all of those in attendance were invited to share a meal at a local restaurant. We shared stories, laughed, and took our time enjoying a wonderful meal.
Of course, Gary picked up the tab, just like always. Afterwards, we said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch. It was getting dark out. On the way home, I found a classic rock station. Boston was singing “More Than a Feeling,” one of the first songs that Mark and I learned to play on guitar all those years ago.
“I lost myself in a familiar song,
“I closed my eyes, and I slipped away.”
I thought about my breakfast options for tomorrow morning, laughing and crying, and cranked it all the way up.