Matt Gillick is from Reston, Virginia. He is a graduate of Providence College with a degree in English. In spring 2015 he was named the head editor of the Wish Dish.com. His writings have appeared in Aaduna Magazine, The Wish Dish.com, the Alembic, and inconnu magazine.
The wrong part with hearing that he died was that no one called me, no one shot me a text. I saw it on Facebook. An ex-girlfriend of his posted it. It said something like
“Rest in Peace, Carter Williams. We lived and loved and had a beautiful thing together. Even though we are not together anymore I will always love you. God needed one of his angels a bit early, I suppose.”
My knees hit the floor and my head knocked against the corner of my dorm room desk. I remember it being around seven on a Tuesday afternoon. My desk lamp was the only light except for what was coming off the computer screen. Didn’t feel the hit on my head at all. A groan just came out of my mouth but I didn’t want the groan to leave. If it left then the feeling would go away so I cupped my mouth. No one was in the room, so I was able to cry. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. He was gone. A good friend not much older than me and he was gone. Learning later that he’d been in a moped accident where he died in the emergency room of internal bleeding. Doctors didn’t feel it necessary to give him a full MRI. Christ, Carter laying in that bed squirming and moaning asking for help, bleeding inside. Flowing into places blood is not supposed to go. His organs splattered with redness inside, invisible.
No tears. None. But just an empty opened in my gut. The words aren’t even there to show the empty, it just digs into you digging itself in like a trench and hoping you won’t hold out. The cliché is true, you actually feel part of yourself go away when you lose someone. He couldn’t be gone. Only a few years ago we were on stage dancing to Godspell’s “Day by Day.” He was the first guy to greet me on the first days of rehearsal. Carter was the one who played Jesus and his portrayal was nothing short of remarkable for high school productions at least. The guy made Jesus look more like Carter and Carter look more like Jesus. Some people in the drama department didn’t like the casting because he was black. I played one of those supporting roles and it was my first time acting. The way he’d bellow out those songs with such charisma even though his singing voice was average at best, you got taken in by his struggle with the octaves. The heaving of the ebbing verses throughout the musical, he’d grab them and put raw life into them as if they were being said for the first time. This is what it must have felt like to be in the presence of a living God or whatever Jesus was—
Opening night and no one could find Carter, not backstage, not getting makeup. Nowhere. The director was freaking out, out of her mind and pulling her hair out. She needed to find her Jesus to get mic’d up. With her storming around backstage and the props being situated at center stage and people flying all around for their last minute preparations in the darkened theater behind the curtains. I was just in shock that this was actually happening, the auditorium was actually getting filled. People are really seeing this. The director found me and grabbed me by the arms. Her small hand squeezed my triceps in gentle urgency.
“Matt, we need to find Carter. He doesn’t have his makeup, costume, or anything as far as we know. Please find him.”
I nodded in a okay-um-well-okay type of way and went to the dressing room area on the second floor of the auditorium. He wasn’t in the main room but I heard some rustling behind a closed door of one of the private dressing rooms. The dressing for the shy people. I opened up the door and Carter was in the room staring at himself in the small mirror in the small room. He was wearing his white costume suit. To his right was a plastic handle of vodka, nearly a third was gone. Swaying a bit in the chair, his light brown eyes looked like glass marbles staring at me through the mirror.
He sighed, “Get ou’ here Matt.”
Did he really want to be alone? I didn’t care, he wasn’t going to screw this up for everyone. I closed the door and pulled up the chair next to him and took the handle away.
“Dude, what are you doing?”
Hiding his eyes in the crook of his arm, “I jus’ can’t do this, man. Why’d I even do this?”
“Hey, you’re going to kill tonight, okay? It’s okay to be nervous—”
“Let’s jus’ cancel't—”
“Oh no fucking way. You might be the lead in this but this show is not just about you. So, get your shit together and get mic’d up,” he looked at me like a shattered window and I put my hand on his and said, “You got this.”
He lifted his head and looked at me and after a while of him staring at me, looking around, then staring at me again. He nodded “okay.” With that, I put my hand on his shoulder and walked out, hoping that somehow he’d get it together—
The orange light in my room made my shadow go against the wall and I saw my outline trembling but, I wasn’t feeling anything. God dammit he was gone.
I’d made so many mistakes in my time here leading up to that moment when I found out he’d passed. My drinking was on another level of screwed up, my temper lost me plenty of job opportunities (well actually internships), I had not made many (or any) friends since I’d been to college. But, here I was: at a liberal arts university studying English while he was struggling to get onstage somewhere. He was visiting a friend in Miami and took a buddy’s moped—I had the opportunity to cry, alone. Right there where no one would judge and I wouldn’t have to explain anything to anyone through my tears. But I didn’t. I still couldn’t feel the shakes, my whole self was on shocked Novocain but there was no sting on my cheek. It just crept up. My bed was soft, I wanted to crawl under; the news just didn’t register yet, my body still thought he was here. Like he’d show up at my door. I needed to talk with someone then maybe it would come. But no one would understand past this room’s orange glow reflecting my ugly sadness. The grief, the sadness, the tears, so needed the tears so I could move on. That’s how some of these things go. Once you have a cry and feel shitty for a couple days you usually feel you can move on because, finally, your grief is acceptance. I didn’t have that, not yet and the empty hurt. The empty is nothing but it takes away—I went through my contacts and called a girl I used to be close with from drama. She was the first one I came across and didn’t think how the conversation would go. I really wanted a drink.
My presumption was that I’d be able to talk and spill my guts or something, to get any type of closure. What I had forgotten about Kate was she talked about herself as if she was the conversation altogether. Her voice moved so fast but had a tone of no-please-listen-my-life-depends-on-it type of feel. There was always something she needed to unload onto other people. But I was still listening to the dial-tone on her end.
She had already found out. I could tell.
“Matt?—hfff!—is that you?”
I had to answer, “Yeah…yeah it’s me Kate. So I guess you’ve already heard, huh?”
And here came the anvil, “Oh my God, yes, Oh my God I can’t believe it. I don’t know what to do Matt. It just doesn’t make sense. Do you know what happened? I’m just so confused that this happened! I’m shocked. Matt…”
“Alright, alright hey. Hey. Calm down, Kate. I know you’re upset. We all—
She started laying down the self-pity party, “I don’t know what to do. I’m trying so hard not to cry right now. I have to give a presentation and having this on my mind is going to get me a bad markup. God dammit—
“Kate, Kate!” I was pissed but didn’t want her to yell at me and get more upset, “listen to me okay? … you got to be strong. Hold yourself up for a little longer, okay then you can have your cry. Okay? I need to talk to a few more people and ask about the funeral. I’ll talk to you later.”
“hfff—okay Matt, thank you, thank you. Just so awful. Just—
I hung up the phone. She could have pulled me into the conversation again and I actually did need to speak with other people. Before I called my parents I got up from my bed and walked along the grey-green fuzzy shag rug to see the mark on my head in the mirror. Not too bad, just a rough looking bump.
The funeral was to be held back in Southern Maryland where his immediate family was from. I needed to get there. The room was darker and but bigger like pockets of dark matter just made everything more separated. Bed was further away from the desk and the desk chair was further away from the rug and any movement caused the whole thing to shatter. I didn’t sit down for another hour.
Somebody was going to come in eventually. I called my parents to tell them and they had already heard as well. How come all these people didn’t contact me? Am I just not that important or am I always that guy who’d always be the first to call? During our talk I tried to sound as level-headed as possible but in reality I was confused and angry and voided. They sounded like what supportive parents are supposed to sound like. There was compassion, questions, and sympathy. After about five minutes I wanted the talk to end and kept giving them hints but they probably thought they were being supportive by staying on the phone. We made arrangements for me to fly down back to Virginia to attend the funeral. I tossed my phone on my bed, Evan opened the door and came in.
He saw the look I had and knew something was wrong. We hadn’t known each other for long because he’d just moved in from another dorm building on campus. He wasn’t a friend and he knew he wasn’t a friend but, he knew I was troubled right then. Just remembering the way Carter and I spoke to each other how the ensemble sang “By my Side” to him before his big death scene nearing the end of Godspell—Evan told me to come with him next door to chill with his friends. He only knew the whole story when I told him later in the year. But at that moment I knew he’d be someone I could finally call a friend, a guy who wouldn’t ask but had that instinct you weren’t in a good place. It’s kind of like when people sense a car is going blindside them so they swerve away. I followed Evan into the room and saw his friends playing video games talking about how some team was going to do on Sunday, I wasn’t paying attention. I needed a drink.
It felt nice though, being around people. Even though I was still thinking about Carter and how much that must have hurt. Lying there, asking while he’s falling apart from the inside out, “Will somebody please help me?” Wonder what the doctor or nurse thought when they just saw this greying, stiff, black kid lying on a rolling bed. He’d look pretty healthy minus the gaping mouth and discolored mocha skin and the total lack of movement. A puzzled look? A call to their superior? Or just roll him into some room where the put the dead?
It didn’t matter he was gone yet, with all this coming through me in silence, I felt some degree of comfort to be among the living even though I felt lifeless. I wanted to drink, really badly. That bite vodka had at the end of my tongue—Then that voice of what would Carter think of this? came into my head and stopped the urge. You doing him Justice by putting yourself into a stupor? I didn’t have a drink until I got back from the funeral. All of Evan’s friends were asking me questions, these guys really wanted to get to know me or maybe they had the same instinct as Evan and they tried to distract me. I don’t know. I would answer their questions half-listening, I wasn’t all there in that room with them. I was still reading that post on my computer in my room, shaking like stilts supporting an old house on the shoreline. Their floor smelled like stale beer frosted on the tile. One of Evan’s friends’ roommates came in with a declaration.
“It’s been a long day and I need to eat something bad for me,” he yelled.
Every one of them said they were up for some crappy food. All except me. I didn’t want to move in on what they had as friends so I prepared myself to go back to my room, alone. They all stood up while I stared at the frosted beer-floor emptily. I don’t know who said it:
“You coming, Matt?”
I, glass-eyed, said yes. It was a really nice to feel included like that. While we ate at some burger joint I thought that once I got back I might actually have some, you know, real friends.
The next morning I left the campus in the quiet dark of beginning winter. My steps along the walkway to the taxi parked at the entrance gate were quiet, soundless. That moment felt like it was for Carter, nature remembering their Godspell Jesus, or he might have been giving me an insight to what he was experiencing then, a silent isolation—
The plane ride was a smooth ride, I felt nothing. Not even the cabin pressure popped my ears. My head was filled with he’s gone, he’s gone, he just can’t be gone. That one time we smoked weed behind the auditorium the week of the show. We had one of those real conversations about who we really were. It was late in the evening, a hard winter night where the dark was coal with no fire to burn. Rehearsal had run too late.
“Man, I’m saying to you. Have some more confidence in yourself, Matt. You’re too likable to be quiet,” he said before taking another drag from the joint. He passed it to me.
“But dude. How do you even know if people like me? I don’t even know if half those people in there know I exist,” I took a hit and coughed cancerously.
“Are you listening to yourself? How can you find out if people like you when you don’t know if you like you? I sure see a lot to like. Just be as genuine as you can ‘cause it’ll get you far. But hey man. That shit you gotta figure out on your own.”
We stayed quiet for a while, listening to “Prepare ye the way of the Lord” being sung through the auditorium wall and we laughed. The night was not as cold and not as dark in that particular moment. He—sir? Excuse me, sir!
The flight attendant had to practically shake me to ask if I wanted any refreshments. I grunted no and saw we were descending into Reagan National. My mom and dad were waiting in the pickup lane outside. We exchanged hugs and pleasantries. Mom was holding back because she was always happy to see me since I was never home but she didn’t want to appear too excited given the circumstances. The funeral was the next day at noon and I wanted to go to bed. But I barely slept at all. Laying there with my feet hanging over the undersized mattress—
Carter’s death scene on the cross shattered me. I can still hear that booming music, the shaking scaffolding our Jesus was strapped too. How the actors and me below in blood red clothing kneeled at the base crying and wailing at the inevitable. Then that long haunting, sob drowned lament “Oooh God. I’m bleeding. Oooh God. I’m dying.” Seeing him tied up, I saw the light shine his tears until one of them fell directly on my hand. My chest hurt and I let out a loud regretful moan, like I didn’t want it to leave. I hardly slept at all.
I got up at around ten and had breakfast. I put on my suit at 10:30 and got into my car I’d left back home because my parents didn’t trust me with that thing in college. And they were right not to. I got in the car and wondered when I would ever cry or even if I could cry. The smooth highway rolling under me pulled myself into wondering if my drinking these past two years had numbed me all the way through and I would only feel empty. Sunlight shined at my back, unable to see what was behind me in the rearview mirror. What was going through his head while he was riding down the brightly lit Miami streets with the ocean current salting his face? Who was he going to go see? That sedan railed into him and sent him flying and falling hard on the sidewalk curb, contorted. People looking around for the other to do something as he slowly returns to a blurry, painful consciousness. I pulled up to the church.
The Baptist Congregation of Christ was in the middle of Maryland farm country. Neighborhoods were few and far between the fields and leaf shedding woodlands. Woods in the distance had a gaining tint of dark brown. The vegetation with the exception of the trees had a fading yellow green like the way someone gets with a failing liver. Service had already started and I heard the mass of people inside giving fiery responses to the equally fiery minister. I hurried in as the cold, sunny wind picked up.
“…And we shouldn’t be mournful of our brother Carter’s passing. Carter’s got it made up there with Jesus, Noah, Moses, Esther, and all sorts of—”
He moved about in a vibrant bounce like he was trying to will everyone to meet his intensity, “Amen is right my friends! We down here! And he up there! We got the short end of the stick. The way we’re feeling sad down here is probably the way he feels about us right now. He probably up there looking down on us and saying ‘what are you crying for, guys? I’m fine. I get to spend eternity with my Creator. I’m worried about ya’ll!’ Please believe me when I say this—”
When the last show of Godspell came to a close, the whole cast went out to meet our families and friends to congratulate us. The first person to hug me was Carter, still in costume. He pulled me in, “Matt, don’t you ever forget that you’re a special person.” He let go and left me with a smile on his face as the rest of my friends and family converged on me and there was this moment; where all I saw was him and then he was lost in the crowd.
“…we all must move on with what is given and taken from us. I mean look at this man, he got no more hair left —”
I stood in the back with everyone facing the front. The place was packed. Damn…so many people loved him. The minister’s blackness seemed to blur in the dimly lit church. When he abruptly moved over to the right I saw the closed casket. He’s in there and I want to get him out. Come Carter just give us a knock. Carter was in that box, shut away from us all. How could he be in a better place when he was right there in front of us? There he was. It had been two years and I couldn’t even see his face. Then I saw the mother, father, little brother, and his girlfriend all sitting in the front row. None of them were crying from what I saw but, I could see the mother was shaking and her husband had his arm draped over her. I was there, Carter.
The service ended and the whole lot followed the hearse to this cemetery about fifteen minutes away. When we pulled up, the sun was in its waning hours as the congregation and I walked up the hill to where they’d lay him to rest. The rest of the cemetery was lined with gravestones of various sizes. The pallbearers moved slow up the hill to a dark green awning tent. I stayed far behind while walking up the grainy, muddy hill. It rained there last night.
Everyone was silent even in their movement. The empty in me got deeper with every inch moving closer to that cold place of rest. Once we got up to the hill I found a spot by the casket where I faced the minister and the head of that grave box laying there. Beside the casket was a hole covered by green carpet and next to that was a pile of dirt to fill it. The family sat in chairs closest to Carter. The mother couldn’t hold on much longer to her fortitude.
We all stood around the casket for what seemed like fifteen minutes. The minister silent. The wind was blowing at an alarming pace like it would snap someone’s mouth shut if anyone tried to say anything. I wore this grimace on my face as I looked at that casket. What the fuck did he do to get this deal? I was angry, not at God, not at me, not at anything at once. Only angry and at that moment. I thought I would never cry again, and then, I thought, Carter helped me one last time. He let me know that I was too jaded to feel anything except an eating away with every loss until nothing could be made of me. That grimace carried on and the wind blowing on the yellow-green grass tipped over to wrap itself around the ground as if the crab grass itself was mourning Carter and the wind was wailing to the hills. Then, the minister opened his mouth to spite the gust.
“We gather around our dear brother Carter for one last goodbye. While we are all saddened to have such a man taken from us, we must think ‘what a soul God has gained.’ We must all say goodbye at some point or another. And for this we sing:
And he sang with none joining, his voice was too beautiful to be accompanied and everyone was too sad.
Amazing grace, How sweet the sound. As those lyrics flew across the countryside I came to remember the final scene we did together. As Jesus, Carter had been laid to rest in the tomb to the rest of the ensemble cantering “Long Live God” with funereal music and the audience could not keep a dry eye. That saved a wretch like me! But then soon the music picked up and got more upbeat transitioning into a fast paced “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” Right after that, Carter jumped out with a burning, bleeding, thorn-crowned heart painted on his chest bellowing to the final finale. When the minister hit the second verse my eyes watered up and I began crying silently. I once was lost. I finally had cried the same way I cried at the foot of Carter’s cross and the same way he jumped out of that tomb. But now am found. My legs became uneasy and I could barely stand, my face still had that grimace but now tears were cascading down my face. I was so sad but I was so grateful because right then Carter had given me his last real gift: I still could feel. I touched his casket dripping all over as I stood over him. Was blind but now I see. I whispered something to him, got in my car and drove away as I saw the mother, father, and brother huddled around their son. The mother was no longer shaking. “Goodbye, my friend.”