About three months after Todd Woods killed himself, the school put a plaque up in his honor. Shiny brass on a dark wood base. And like a lot of shiny attractive things, that plaque was very controversial. A lot of people thought that the school shouldn't be honoring a suicide. Others argued that it wasn't in honor of a suicide, but of a kid. The arguments were all pointless, obviously, because Todd was so popular—and more importantly, his parents were so loaded—that it was pretty much guaranteed that Todd would be remembered in a very dark wood, shiny brass sort of way for everyone to see, no matter how he died.
That plaque amazed me. I would stop and look at it every chance I got. I had absolutely no idea why Todd Woods had killed himself. I knew the same story that everyone seemed to know, that he took his dad's pistol out in the backyard and shot himself in the mouth, and that he was found face down in the rock-lined brook that ran through the yard. There were variations in the story too. Some people said he was found naked. Some people claimed to know weird details, like that he was holding a caboose from a train set in his hand. Everyone knew some version of the story, but as far as I could tell no one had any idea why he did it.
But it was huge. I remember Mandy Plummer running out of class crying a week after it happened. Some people missed school for days. The student body in general was freaked out. In fact, Prom was coming up, and the school would probably end up naming that after him somehow. A Very Todd Woods Evening, something like that.
There was an announcement early on that the teachers read to us that said anyone who wanted to go see the school psychiatrist, Dr. Wood, was encouraged to go and his door was always open, etc.
Dr. Wood. I'm serious. Not only did his name sound like a porn star, but it was almost the exact last name of the kid we were supposed to be upset about.
But I actually went to his office. Once. I hadn't even thought about going to see him until after the plaque went up and I kept finding myself staring at it. I thought to myself, "In a movie, it would be obvious to the audience that this kid staring at this plaque had some issue or two to work out."
So I went after lunch one day. I basically slammed into Ellen Trumbull as I was walking in and she was coming out, which almost made me turn around and leave, for a lot of reasons, whatever. But I sat down and talked to him for about twenty minutes, maybe? He was a nice enough guy, but he sort of sounded like everything he said was out of a pamphlet about talking to kids about suicide.
He asked me why I was there and I just told him. "I keep staring at that plaque they just put up for Todd Woods and I thought I should talk to somebody about that." The second I said it I was waiting for my chance to leave. It sounded so dumb. It sounded like I was saying, "Everyone seems to be having a killer time being upset about Todd Woods so I thought I'd give it a shot."
He just asked me questions like did I know Todd Woods (no), did I ever know anyone who died (two grandparents), did I find myself thinking about Todd's death a lot. That one I actually sort of lied about. The answer was, Yeah, I think about it all the time but I don't know why since I didn't know him. But that sounded like it came out of the same pamphlet he was reading from, so I just said, "Not really."
The bell had rung a few minutes after that. He actually handed me a pamphlet and I left and never went back.
Todd Woods was a guy who was, as they say on TV and in the movies, popular. Which, as I understand it, means that not only did he have friends, but that everyone else wanted to be his friend too. Except for the people who hated him because they couldn't be his friend for whatever reason, like because they were "losers," sub-rich, or not wearing the right shoes. Or because they hung out in the A/V room, like me and my friends did.
"Oh, the A/V room," I hear some people yelling. "No wonder you couldn't hang out with the cool kids." Well, shut up. I didn't say Todd Woods was "cooler" than me, I just said he was more popular. Besides, what does "cool" mean? Does it mean being a star athlete and getting all the ladies, or does it mean designing and installing a system of video monitors throughout the school showing the day's class schedule and school news, as well as whatever I felt like putting up on them from my command corner in A/V? I think the answer is clear.
In fact, in my own techie way I had paid a nice tribute to Todd Woods. Before he had killed himself, I had installed a camera in the ceiling above the intersection where the school's two main corridors met, to use as background video for the monitors. After he died, I got on a chair and aimed that camera at the plaque, as sort of a gesture, I guess, but also so I could continue to study that plaque from A/V.
I won't say I was obsessed with that plaque, but I will say I was fascinated.
Anyway, today it was Friday and the school day was almost over, and that was just enough to pull me away from standing in front of the plaque and getting nowhere with the mystery. It was the first really nice day of the year out, so instead of heading into A/V, I headed for the exit.
As I walked, it occurred to me that maybe Todd Woods's life had been much more complicated than it seemed. Maybe there was a lot of pressure involved in being a track star and dating dazzling girls all the time. Me, I didn't have a date to the Prom, but you know what, that was fine because I didn't want a date to the Prom.
I didn't have those big social problems and that was fine with me. My deepest darkest concerns were what video games would I play when Pete and I went to the diner after school, would our favorite club The Show really reopen as planned next week, and would I ever really be able to get an Xbox 360 to play Atari 2600 cartridges. A lot of people—even Todd Woods—could call me a nerd (fair enough) or even a geek (inaccurate), but that's fine by me, because nothing in my life was driving me to shoot myself in the mouth.
Certainly not girl troubles. Todd Woods had had a gaggle of them and look where it got him. Maybe if he had tried to get an Xbox to play Atari games like I was doing he wouldn't be where he was now, which was nowhere.
As I walked, the end-of-the-day bell rang and the classrooms started hemorrhaging human bodies into the halls. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and headed for my shortcut through the courtyard outside the library. I shouldered open the door to the courtyard, took three steps in the fresh air, and almost broke my damned neck tripping over a pair of legs. These were Pete's. He was sitting against the brick wall of the school with his legs out in a V in front of him, and squinting through his horn-rims into his sun-lit copy of I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.
"Bob," he said, either not noticing or not caring that he had almost just killed me, "you know what's very annoying?"
"Almost breaking my damned neck?"
"It's annoying that Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics do not apply to girls."
He didn't continue, so I stared for a second. "I always sorta assumed they didn't—"
"Girls don't have to do what you tell them, they most certainly can hurt humans, and they can probably hurt themselves, I'm guessing."
I held out my hand to help him up. "Why all the brain damage?"
He took my hand and I pulled him up. "I'll tell you on the way to the diner," he said, then just stood as we both looked each other up and down.
It was just occurring to me that Pete and I were dressed exactly the same, but with different clothes. I had on an old gray flannel over a Devo t-shirt, and jeans with a hole in the left knee. Pete had his own neater version of the same thing: A blue dress shirt—buttoned, but untucked—over a white t-shirt and khakis. (The girls of A/V, Jen Clifford and Jen Spencer, always asked Pete why he dressed like a pissed-off prep school kid.)
Even our white sneakers were nearly identical. The only difference was that about a week earlier I had taken a black Sharpie and written "NO" across the top of my left shoe and "FUN" across the top of my right. I don't remember why.
Any bizarre level of similarity between us never freaked me out. It made sense. We had been best friends since about fifteen minutes after we met in first grade.
Seeing us not-really-but-kind-of matching like this I said, "We look like a transporter malfunction," and then we both yelled, "I'm Captain Kirk!"
We did that a lot, Pete and me, communicate in Star Trek references, so I'll either apologize now or suggest that you get with it and start watching the best show you've ever seen.
As we walked out of the courtyard, I wondered if Pete and I would beat our high scores on Joust at the diner. I was thinking simple easy stuff like this because I didn't know what was coming.
And what exactly was coming? Was it the talk we were about to have? Was it later that night in the intersection? Was it the strange new fight that was coming up in the next couple of days? Or was it much later at the hospital? Maybe it doesn't matter exactly when it happened. All I'm saying is that it's hard to tell exactly when Pete and I stopped being best friends.