Virgil stood on the corner of Virginia and Grove streets in the pouring rain with a gun dangling from his right hand. His head was bowed, his shoulders slumped, but his legs were firm and spread the perfect distance to assure maximum balance.
I had just gotten out of Nicky Johnson’s VW Beetle having recognized Virgil as we drove by. I was no more than ten feet from him. I opened my umbrella before doing anything else then took a step toward him and said, “hey there Virgil, what’s going on?”
He turned slowly and looked at me as if I just interrupted something important. His frown held firm and his eyes squinted but he said nothing.
“Whatchya doin’ and what’s with the gun? Need a ride?” The rain was coming down harder. Virgil wiped some from his forehead. He was soaking wet. The gun just dangled. Cold, dark and wet.
Still he said nothing.
It was the part of dusk when it's getting darker every second.
“You okay, buddy? What’s up?”
I’d known Virgil since we were in the first grade together. He’d always been the sweetest, gentlest guy in the world. Everyone liked him and he seemed to have it all. He came from a successful, loving, tight-knit family of seven. Virgil was the middle of the five children and his siblings were just as nice as Virgil and as smart too. Virgil was always a straight A student and a good athlete and popular with the girls. One other thing about Virgil was that he was loquacious and could and would talk about any topic under the sun but without dominating conversations. All this is to say that what I was witnessing was not only bizarre behavior but totally out of character for Virgil.
Eventually he broke into a half smile and said softly, “hi Graham.” Virgil looked like he was actively, physically looking for the words to say next but couldn’t find them. Finally, he just shrugged his shoulders. Then looked toward the VW where Nicky, who’d been driving, was getting out on the driver’s side. Nicky put on a hooded, yellow raincoat that was too small for him. Approaching us he asked, “so Virgil, dude, what’s going on, man?” That was Nicky, littering his speech with dude and man, and other words that made him sound more hippie than the boy genius that he was. Nicky had been accepted to Harvard as a sophomore but decided he didn’t want to deprive himself of the full high school experience. We were all seniors at Berkeley High.
Virgil didn’t respond to Nicky so I tried. “What’s happening, Virgil?”
Virgil looked straight down, his shoulders hunched forward, he emitted a great sigh. Then his head snapped up and he said, “isn’t it weird how you two are trying to act all normal and not saying anything about the fact that I have a gun or that I’m standing out in the pouring rain? I mean, let’s be honest. I’m sure you’re curious.”
“Okay dude,” Nicky said the lightness gone from his voice, “what’s with the gun?”
Virgil took the gun in both hands and, standing perfectly erect, pointed it at the space between where Nicky and I were standing as if he were aiming at a target. “Pow, pow,” he said still holding the gun.
I don’t know why but I wasn’t scared. As strange as Virgil was acting I knew him well enough to believe with all my heart that he wasn’t going to do Nicky or I any harm. He just pointed the gun into the distance occasionally saying “pow, pow” in a soft voice.
“Dude, maybe,” Nicky finally suggested, “you should put the gun away. Someone might see you pointing it and call the cops, or for that matter a cop might come along.”
Virgil looked at Nicky and smiled obligingly, lowering the gun to his side, but then quickly raised it again and put the barrel in his mouth.
“What the fuck, Virg?” I said a little too excitedly. Nicky, meanwhile, remained calm and said, “cut the shit, man, what are you trying to prove?”
Again Virgil put the gun to his side. The wind picked up and neither umbrellas nor raincoats was going to keep any of his dry. Didn’t matter to Virgil, he was soaked to the bone. We just stared at him and he stared straight into the distance.
“Graham, man, I’m getting wet and cold, let’s get the hell out of here and leave Virgil to his fate, whatever the hell that is.” I could tell Nicky didn’t really want to split, he was trying to get a rise out of Virgil, but I could also tell that Virgil was not about to fall for any mind games. The proof followed when Virgil said, “yeah, what about I see you guys later, no use you hanging around here getting wet. Plus its a goddamned school night.”
That was the first time I’d ever heard Virgil swear, it was damn near as shocking as seeing him with the gun.
“Dude, Virgil Morton cussing, I never thought I’d live to see the day, man. This really is a special occasion. Come on, Virgil let’s go to Oscar’s and get a burger and fries and talk things out.”
“No dice, Nicky. Anyway, I’m not hungry,” Virgil replied.
I’d been growing increasingly irritated with the whole scene. I had a raging alcoholic mother at home, an emotionally absent father and a brother fighting in Vietnam so emotionally I was always pretty strung out and ready to snap. I’d held it together because it was Virgil and he was a stable influence in my life. He was one of the last people on earth I needed to see whig out so I wanted to believe this would all be over soon with a simple and logical explanation. But it kept stretching out and I couldn’t take it.
“Enough!” I yelled. “This bullshit has gone on long enough. For crying out loud Virgil, tell us what the hell you’re doing with that gun and come in out of the rain. This is just too fucked up and it’s not right and it's not you.”
Virgil turned to me and he pointed the gun at his temple and pulled the trigger. There was a loud click. “The first chamber is empty the rest have bullets in them,” he said calmly. “I’m thinking of putting one of the bullets through my head so that I’ll be dead. Clear enough?” I couldn’t believe how calm he was and how matter of factly he spoke. He was staring straight at me, eyes locked to mine as if to demonstrate how serious he was.
“But why?” I asked meekly.
“You’ve no idea what goes on in my brain. That’s all I’ve gotta say to you or to Nicky or anyone else. I really appreciate your concern but you can’t be any part of this anymore. I need to sort this out myself.”
“But you can’t kill yourself,” I pleaded.
“The hell I can’t. If that’s what I decide to do — ”
Virgil was so focused on me that he hadn’t noticed Nicky who’d snuck behind him, the wind and rain being perfect covers for his stealth. Nicky grabbed the pistol and with the element of surprise easily wrested it away from Virgil. He ran up the street half a block and tossed the gun on the roof of a house.
Virgil stood helplessly and started to sob. It had all happened so fast. Situation diffused but now Virgil was crying his eyes out.
Nicky led him by the arm to the VW and I followed. Nicky forced Virgil into the passenger seat and I got in the back. Virgil was steadily sobbing. “I’ll take you home dude, if you wanna talk a little bit first you can.”
“You're not going to tell my parents about this, are you?”
“It’s none of our business to say anything to anybody, but listen dude, you’re going to need to talk to somebody about this.”
Nicky started to drive, it was only a few blocks to Virgil’s house. We took a right turn on Hearst when out of nowhere a station wagon came fishtailing toward us. Nicky tried to swerve his VW stalled. The station wagon slammed right into the front of the VW. Nicky was killed instantly and Virgil died in the hospital that night, never having regained consciousness after the crash. I came away with a broken collarbone and a fractured wrist.
We were seniors in high school seniors four months from graduation. Nicky was finally going to go to Harvard and Virgil had been accepted at Cal on a football scholarship. I was headed for a state college.
I’ve lived with the remembrance of that night for 47 years. Sure I’ve got a lot of wonderful memories of growing up with Virgil but I’m haunted by that night and the unbelievability of him thinking of offing himself and of his being tortured by demons. There’d never been a clue. After, I didn’t discuss with it his family. It never seemed my place. Whether they knew about the gun and whatever was torturing him I’ll never know. What’s the point talking about it?
I remember Nicky too and how cooly he handled the situation, disarming Virgil so neatly. Of course I think of the lost potential of Nicky who everyone agreed was headed for great things. How could he not be with a brain that mastered calculus as a high school freshman and had understood basic economics in junior high.
The mystery of Virgil’s behavior and the accident added to the misery I lived with at home and made escape to college even more welcome. Of course I couldn’t bury those feelings with distance so I took quite quickly to the drinking scene at college and later delved into drugs. I managed to graduate and get a job but it was years before I was able to straighten myself out through 12 step programs and psychotherapy.
Certain pains never go away. I think of Virgil spending his last moments, crying uncontrollably over a torment known only to him. I think of Nicky doing a good deed and dying in the process. I think of how weird and unfair and cruel and capricious life is. I think about Virgil and Nicky and never make sense of it. Maybe I'm not supposed to.