—A tribute to a friend
What do you do when you get the worst call about someone you just saw?
Sitting at my cubicle, staring glassy-eyed at the computer monitor, I listened to my mother’s voice mail. Her voice was somber, deeper than usual.
“Hey. It’s Mom. Give me a call. I need to … talk to you. I just heard Sutter died. And … … I’m having a hard time believing it. Do me a favor … call … one of your friends and find out if it’s true. Thanks.”
I sank in my chair, hand to an open mouth. The air grew heavy, sounds became muted. Suddenly spreadsheets and cubicles seemed as torturous as they were inconsequential.
Sutter? I just saw him three months ago.
I logged onto social media and messaged a friend. Is it true? But I already knew the answer. Soon, messages had flooded my phone. Our worst fears confirmed. Suicide. By gunshot.
I stayed home that night replying to texts and calls from hometown friends. The images … the voices … from that recent day seized hold of me. The tears, like rivers streaking the valleys of my cheeks.
Sutter and I had grown up together, kindergarten through graduation, but become distant after high school. I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in eight, maybe nine years, though I knew vague sketches of his life since. A failed marriage. Both parents had battled cancer. Childhood home ruined by a tornado. Like me, he’d struggled with alcohol abuse.
He’d lived in Memphis after college but had recently moved to Fowlkes Landing, a small lake community 40 miles from our hometown. He’d also joined Facebook. If photos can summarize a life, he spent his days hunting and fishing.
He contacted me out of the blue soon after. “Next time you’re home, we should hang out,” he wrote. Actually, I was traveling home that month. We agreed to meet while I was there. “I’ll call in a few days,” he wrote.
He phoned that week. It’s weird catching up with someone after ten years. Where to start? Life in a nutshell. His dad had suffered a relapse. Doctors had removed his tongue. As for Sutter, he’d quit his job a year earlier. The work environment was toxic. He’d spent those months at the lake but had just started a new job in Memphis. He worked there during the week and spent the weekends at Fowlkes Landing.
We agreed to meet the next Saturday. “If I’m not home, just let yourself in,” he said. “The code for the lock is 5150.”
My laughter pierced the phone line. 5150, an album from Van Halen, Sutter’s all-time favorite band (David Lee Roth era, not Sammy Hagar). He still adored the group after all these years.
I drove to the lake the day wearing my 1984 Van Halen t-shirt, hoping to give him a thrill. My nerves were racing double-time. Why is that? Fear of my life being judged? Of a strained relationship? Awkward silences? I sped past the driveway three times before pulling in. Taking a deep breath, I stepped out of the car.
Sutter bounded out the side door, shouting, “David Lee Roth!” Running toward me, he exploded into a grin, that Sutter grin—the trademarked teacup smile, as if sketched by an animator. He gave me a monster-sized hug.
He’d put on some pounds but looked great. Thick hair (I was instantly jealous), sun visor turned to a crown. “Come on in,” he said. “Let me show you the cabin.”
We entered through the kitchen. A Sprite bottle rested on the counter, a full cup to the side. “Can I get you something?”
“What do you have?” I asked. I was on vacation, a beer sounded good.
“Water. Sprite. Coke.” As if reading my mind, he added, “No booze. I’m not drinking.”
He handed me a Sprite and gave me a tour: the living room, the deck overlooking the lake. “Oh, I’ve got something to show you. You’re gonna love it!”
He disappeared, leaving me on the deck that was covered with fishing gear—tins of worms, cane poles and fancier rods leaned against the railing, peanut butter jars filled with something more rancid-smelling than peanut butter.
Sutter returned, cheeks flushed red, eyes twinkling, holding a glass case with a baseball inside, the words “Hot pitch!” written in red letters next to the seams.
We’d played on the same baseball team in junior high. Our team came in last place, but he and I made All-Stars. That season, Sutter threw a no-hitter. I was the catcher for that game, shouting encouragements to him with each throw. After the last out, we all mobbed Sutter then signed the ball. I wrote Hot Pitch! smack dab on front.
I held the case with both hands, staring at the words written so long ago. “I can’t believe you still have this.”
“Follow me. I want to show you something else.”
In the living room, he sat me in a leather chair next to a swiveling magnifying glass then fetched an ancient-looking pistol. He swung the glass my way and held the gun underneath so I could look. On the handle, a German swastika.
“My grandfather took this off a German soldier in the war.”
“Damn,” was all I could say. Not every day you see a Nazi pistol.
He drove us to a crawfish festival in Obion, a small town north of the lake. On the drive, he spoke of his marriages. Both had ended unpleasantly. As he talked, I marveled at his honesty—baring his soul, willingly sharing those personal, revealing details. We were both the same age, single, and without children. It’s tough at times.
“But if God has someone for me, he’ll bring her into my life,” he said.
The Obion fairground was decked out with cotton candy booths, mini-rides for the kids, llamas and camels, and of course, a crawfish booth. “I’ve embraced my inner redneck,” he said, almost in a song. He ordered two pounds of crawfish, telling the server, “This is Mike Green. He’s from L.A.!”
“L.A.?” she said in a thick, beautiful drawl.
“He was an actor. Now he’s a writer.”
As she brought the order, Sutter reached for his wallet. “Let me get this,” he insisted.
Later, at the cabin, we discussed alcohol and drugs. Addiction. He’d been going to a recovery group and was ninety days clean. I couldn’t shake the sense he was running from something. But regardless, the simple life here agreed with him.
“You look happy,” I said. “At peace.”
“I love it. I hunt with two guys named Mud Cat and Rooster. Guess what Rooster does for a living? Skins hogs for Jimmy Dean sausage. They laugh at me for being educated.” He giggled that trademark laugh, staccato chuckles rolled into one long stream, from the gut to the heart—and that was all Sutter. No pretense. No mask. Just that jug-sized smile and a blushing face.
Two high school friends joined us on the dock to fish. Sutter led me to the side railing where the cane pole rested, as well as a huge floating block of corn.
“Mike Green, I’m giving you the prime fishing spot. I put out new chum this morning.” He wriggled a small white worm onto the hook. “You can’t miss.”
He obviously didn’t account for my L.A.-ness. Within seconds, the worm disappeared from my line. He put on a new one and swatted my back. “You’ve been in the city too long.”
I lost the next five worms and finally started baiting the hook myself. After a half hour, he switched me to the spinning rod. After a brief instruction, he handed me the pole. “You’ll catch something for sure.”
I tried but soon had turned the line into a tangled mess. “Happens all the time,” Sutter said, going to work on the knotted string. “Hold on,” he shouted. “There’s something on the hook!”
He pulled in the line. Sure enough, there was something—a fish. Well, perhaps in my imagination. Was more like a minnow. But a catch, nonetheless!
“Pose with your catch, Mike Green.” He snapped a photo on his phone. “This is going on Facebook.”
That night, the four of us went to dinner. We ate well, fried catfish and hushpuppies, and told stories. Debated the best Van Halen singer: David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar. Sutter almost dropped his tea hearing my answer. “I thought you were a purist, Mike Green! How can you say Van Hagar was better?”
I needed to leave, so we said goodbye to our friends and returned to the cabin. Standing by the cars, he gave me a python’s hug. “Come back and see me sometime.”
I answered with a nod.
He straightened his smile, his blue eyes threatening to become pools. “I love you, man.”
I turned away mine—they’d already turned so. “I love you too, brother.”
The memories now fade. Instead, I picture Sutter sitting in his truck in Memphis, gun in hand. What went through your mind in those final seconds? Wavering doubt? Resolute certainty? Did you already know at the lake?
What did you think about in those seconds, as your fingers gripped the steel? The downfalls, the joys? The pain of watching your mother and father battle cancer? The sorrow of failed marriage?
Does your childhood come to mind? The magnolia trees in your front yard. Dottie, the family beagle. The football years. Do tears cloud your eyes and dirty your cheeks? Or had you shed those days earlier?
If I hadn’t spent that day with you, I might could file it away. Keep myself shut off from feeling. But we spent those hours, fishing, eating crawfish. I say a silent prayer, thankful to have shared them with you. I
I love you, man.
I love you too, brother.
The last words I would speak to him. There could be none better.
Farewell, my friend. My Hot Pitch, Van Halen-loving, kilowatt-smile-to-share-with-the-world brother. I hope you’ve found the peace you searched for … full, relentless, and secure.
Photo credit: Saddlebunch Keys, Austin Neill