On Death, Work, and Sublime’s 40oz. to Freedom

Today, I have not been able to stop thinking about a woman named Lisa Wallace, “Wally” for short. We were the same age, met during high school when we worked together at a Steak’n’Shake in Grand Rapids, MI. Wally wasn’t what I’d called “pretty.” She was memorable. She was six feet tall and big boned with a kind of groove to her walk that looked like Scooby-Doo’s Shaggy on ice skates. Her hair was thin and blonde and cropped close to her scalp with just two long tendrils of bangs that ran down around her chin in a Chelsea. She wore a studded belt and meticulously dyed the stubble on her head into intricate leopard print and zebra designs, changing up the pattern every week. She wore black glasses and had a slight lisp that softened her voice, and I would describe her as a cross between a crust punk and a ska kid, because that studded belt held up a heavy pair of JNKO’s. I can say with most sincerity that she changed my life. And now she is dead. And two years after her death, I cannot stop thinking about her.

It started when I got a letter from a literary journal yesterday that said they were considering publishing a story of mine, one I’d written a long time ago that I’d forgotten about, which I’d submitted under Fiction, even though it was mostly true. I sat down yesterday and read the story–a short 800 words–and then I read it again and again and again, not because it was good, but because I’d remembered why I’d written it. Wally had died.

I was nothing before we met. I wore khakis and discount outlet monochrome sweaters, and I tried in vain to wear makeup that accentuated my cheekbones. The last album I’d bought was something from Matchbox 20, and the kids at my school owned several copies of Tonic’s Lemon Parade. I had been trapped, had nothing else, no other options. To top it off, most everyone in my family had never finished high school, and none of them had gone to college, but I was attempting to assimilate into the normal world of middle-class affluence at my school by applying to colleges I knew I’d never go to, because…what was the point? I’d been frustrated with life, with the apples the boys threw at my head in the lunchroom, and the girls who invited me to their houses after school as a joke, and being in the normal world taught me only that I did not belong there. Wally didn’t belong there, either.

We worked the third shift together with a handful of other night owls, and I think there was an arrogance that came along with that shift, something that told us we were invincible, living by our own rules. We were our own managers. Wally was surely her own. Her favorite song then was Sublime’s “Date Rape” off of 40oz to Freedom, and when she heard it, she’d punch a fist into the air and scream a quick, “FUCK THE MAN!” We drank Mike’s Hard Lemonade at the drive-thru window and frisbee’d plain white china plates off the roof of the building during the slow 4am hours. We’d watch the sun come up at the end of our shifts, would have bonfires and impromptu indoor camping nights, where we’d pitch a tent in the middle of her living room and drink until the television turned technicolor.

And then the unthinkable happened: I went to college. Everyone on the third shift had something else they were aspiring to, whether it was culinary school, an album, a tattoo apprenticeship, or cosmetology school, we all had something we were going to do if we could. But I left first. And that first year was hard. I watched countless History Channel documentaries on the Nazis and transferred to the S’n’S third-shift crew by my new house in Kalamazoo, but amid my depression and listlessness, I found it difficult to maintain the old lifestyle I’d had, the one where I’d lived by my own rules and slept through the daylight, and I broke, and I got a letter in the mail saying that I could not be in school anymore unless something changed. Yes. Unless something changed.

I went back home the summer before my sophomore year at school. I didn’t know if I was going to go back, yet. I didn’t know if I could do it. Nobody had told me that life could possibly get more difficult than it had already been. The night before I went back, I visited Wally. She was living with two of our friends at the time in a cookie-cutter apartment complex. We drank beers like the old times, only I didn’t get drunk. I was thinking about the move I had ahead of me. My classes were starting, and if I didn’t get my shit together, they’d kick me out, just like my mom had, just like everything and everyone else had, except for Wally.

I remember Wally drinking a lot. I don’t remember which one of us suggested that we go hunting for garden gnomes, but she was hyped on the idea, so we went. We got into her 88 Olds, drove around for only a few minutes and picked one up, and I said I wanted to go back. I said I was scared of getting caught. I said I was afraid of getting kicked out of school, and I couldn’t stay out late. I was terrified of this and terrified of that, and I just couldn’t do it. She turned to me, her eyes glazed, and said, “Then I’m going by myself.” I stood in the dark in front of her apartment and watched her drive away. An hour later, she came back with another gnome. It looked more like a Precious Moments doll than a gnome, and she threw it on the floor and sat down in the La-Z-Boy rocking chair to the left of me and said nothing, but I know what she thought of me. She had met me when I was nothing, and I was nothing again, a half-person who lived by other people’s rules and never questioned why I did it. What she would call a “poser.” Above all, I think she was disappointed in me, and I was, too, but I just couldn’t stop it. And that was the last that I saw her.

I’d heard from friends she had joined the Army. I was surprised, but I wouldn’t put it past her to destroy something broken from the inside and rebuild it anew. She was always like that. She was the one who’d put a hit of acid in your soda just to see what would happen, but she was also a woman of enviable principles about what she thought the world should be, and as tough as she was, she was also something of a Mother Theresa to abused animals, with whom I’d heard she was working when she died. But that was her way. She was like the embodiment of Ellis Island, taking the poor and helpless souls of the world, whipping them into shape, and giving them a motto, one I’ll hold dear for the rest of my life–Fuck it.

So I am thinking of her today, and I’m scrolling down her Facebook page, looking at the last two entries she wrote on her wall, one saying how she hates getting up early and another an exclamation about a new job. Around the same time as those last two updates, I’d accepted her friend request, had realized I hadn’t thought of Wally in many years and was for the first time in a long time grateful for Facebook. And a few weeks after that, despised it when it informed me she was dead. I typed on her wall “Happy Birthday!” and didn’t notice the funeral announcement from a few days before.

I wonder if it’s a silly thing to sit down and cry and grieve like I am for Wally right now when there are two years between her death and now and almost a decade between our last encounter. I am afraid to ask how she died, because I think I know the answer. She earned a Purple Heart in Iraq, lived in Texas after the injury, and was an extremely outspoken veteran against the war. I do not know what I would be if she hadn’t taken me under her wing and taught me to stop caring about things that don’t matter and to care deeply about those things that do. And maybe I grieve selfishly, because I’d taken for granted what she had given me, that strong base of chaos and anarchy and pushing things as far as they can go. To every exhausted college professor, adviser, or boss I’ve ever had: sorry, but Lisa’s in large part to blame for my being a pain in the ass to authority. And I love her still.

Me, Wally, and Ryan, sitting in a Steak ‘n’ Shake booth back in 1999. We had it all figured out. Fuck it, Lisa. I’m so happy I knew you.

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