by Anna (Nussbaum) Keating
Vinnie loaned me his jacket one night when we were sitting in his basement bedroom listening to the Fugees and catching up. He’d been smoking in the stairwell leading into his room. Because the door had been open, it was cold. Vinnie let me pick out a jacket. I chose the red and blue plaid. It was one of his purchases from Goodwill. “That was only a dollar seventy-five,” he told me smiling. The jacket smelled like him, like Marlboros and sweat and Calvin Klein cologne. It had a grease stain on the sleeve from when he’d worn it while repairing his old Ford. Its cotton exterior and nylon lining were worn and smooth. It felt good and I wore it home.
He went to Mass on foot every Sunday in middle school . . . Afterward he got doughnuts and ate them on the roof of the nearby hospital looking at the sky, and smoking.
The next weekend I went to a party in my hometown wearing Vinnie’s jacket. Vinnie couldn’t come. I walked in and surveyed the scene. I felt sure I was the youngest person there. It was full of twenty-somethings who for whatever reason had hung around Colorado Springs after high school either to work or go to community college or both. Everyone looked ironic and beautiful and disaffected. Women had elaborate tattoos that hung like necklaces across their collarbones and dipped into their bosoms. People had piercings in their cheeks and lips and tongues and eyebrows and bellies and noses. I shoved my hands in the pockets of Vinnie’s jacket and breathed deeply. I slouched confidently through the crowd. I danced to the punk band in the basement, and smiled at people who didn’t smile back. Vinnie’s jacket made me feel safe and loved and cool, the way he made me feel.
I told him all about the party the next morning on the phone. At first he laughed ’cause it was funny, but he kept laughing at the sound of his own laughter. It took off. He let me keep wearing the jacket through April and into May until he decided I might as well keep it. Forever. That’s what I did.
I saw Vinnie the night before he died. I rode my bike over to his house. I signed his yearbook. I hugged him close, all warm and alive. He’d lifted me off my feet and held me in the air for a long time. We’d promised never to lose touch.
Vinnie died in June, right after graduation. He had been in pain, but he wasn’t a complainer. No one knew exactly what was wrong. He’d been losing weight. He’d had exploratory surgery and had been seeing various doctors, one of whom suggested a psychiatrist. He thought the weight loss might have been caused by anxiety. Vinnie took too many of the painkillers he’d been given by the shrink and they stopped his heart. It was an unintentional overdose. That’s what we were told. The night he died I had gone to the movies. I saw a movie about a man who blew up the world, and I came home to find my mother waiting on the front porch.
She called me inside and said, “Anna, Vinnie Franz is dead.” All I could do was sob and scream “No. Don’t tell me this!” because Vinnie was my friend. He was the person with whom I was my best self. With Vinnie I was funnier, smarter, braver, kinder, more beautiful, more faithful. Or at least that’s how I felt. He was the last person with whom I could still be a kid, long after I could no longer be a kid with myself. He was fun. I called Vinnie every day, and he called me. We didn’t even say hello anymore, we just picked up the phone and started talking where we’d left off. He was the one who made me laugh so hard I couldn’t see. He was the one I yelled with. He watched out for me. He kept all my secrets. And he was dead.
Adults want to focus on why Vinnie died. They want to know who was at fault. But that doesn’t interest me so much. What interests me is how one friendship can teach you about loyalty and laughter, and how one friendship can carry you from one road to the next.
When Vinnie died I wanted to go back to the days when I first met him in sixth grade. The kid was crazy in love with God. He sent me notes in class about how much Jesus loved me. He went to Mass on foot every Sunday in middle school; his mom and sister didn’t attend. He sat in the back. Afterward he got doughnuts and ate them on the roof of the nearby hospital looking at the sky, and smoking.
This past summer everything started burning. My state. My church. My world. Wild fires raged in Colorado. The hard part at such times is waiting to see what will be consumed, what will endure, and what will change forever. They say that death is a part of life but for much of my life it wasn’t. Now I go to Vinnie’s grave at Evergreen Cemetery and I sing to the sod. I take long walks and converse with the air, but the subject isn’t there. I walk at night wearing Vinnie’s jacket and search the sky. Dry lightning illuminates the muddy red clouds at dusk and the blue gray clouds at night. I’m looking for my friend.
My jacket no longer smells of him. It smells like me now. Sometimes I think there’s nothing left. Then I tell a joke he told me and people laugh, or I check my oil the way he showed me, or I let a guy pay for lunch the way he used to do, or I put on mascara Jersey style and I know he’d approve. I think about all those days and nights spent in each other’s friendship, and the days when he was my only friend. We loved each other, that’s what I take with me.
This has been a hard story to tell. Because I don’t want to sell out my friend and I also don’t want him to be forgotten. But I do want you to know his name.
This essay first appeared in Commonweal in 2003. It is reprinted here with permission. Since it’s original publication a priest in Oregon named Gary Jacobson has been saying a Mass for Vinnie every year on the anniversary of his death.