I didn’t know the guy all that well, so I can’t really tell his story, only what I’ve perceived of it. That, to my mind, is quite intriguing enough to get on with.
His name was Lee, and quite a few people called him Little Lee, with good reason. He was short, but no weakling. He was in fact stout and barrel-chested and looked quite fit, sporting a fierce little face surrounded by closely cropped hair which he sometimes shaved off altogether, and an amazingly long, thin strip of blond beard. This facial hair made him look like a miniature Viking warrior, or one of Tolkien’s Dwarves. He loved the latter, probably because they gave him some precedent for small people being tough as nails.
And tough he was, at least tolerably so. He was a security guard, mainly transporting money hither and yon, and you don’t get to do that kind of work unless there are some grounds for believing that you can handle yourself. The fact that he had this job was, however, more than a little ironic, but I’ll get to that.
My pal Rick had known Lee forever, and they were thick as thieves, and a while after Rick and I became friends, he introduced Lee to our little circle. He didn’t show up often, but he had a fine sense of humour and was as opinionated as the rest of us, so he was good fun and always welcome whenever he decided to join us.
He was rather original, one could say eccentric. One of the first things he told us was how he was more addicted to caffeine than anyone he knew, to the point that he sometimes woke up at night and had to have a couple of cups of coffee in order to go back to sleep. This kind of reaction to stimulants is something I associate with bipolar disorder, but I never saw any signs of it in Lee.
Other things I could observe first hand, like the way he would bring his “crafts” to our gatherings: he would sit there chatting while using small tools to fasten one metal link to another to create chainmail coifs, the kind medieval knights would wear under their helmets. He said a full chain shirt would be too much work, but he would happily toil away at the coifs, gaining in skill and dexterity as time went on.
Then there was his surprising lack of cynicism. He was full of bluster and loved talking tough about what he would do to anyone messing with him, using a big, defiant voice that to me always came across as an act. And I do believe it was, because the mildness and sense of right and wrong would readily come to the surface at a moment’s notice. My friends and I had a brutal jargon, and when I was once enthusing over the usefulness of little old ladies for determining whether or not a wire fence was electrified, Lee went all stony-faced and used his gruff voice to tell me in no uncertain terms that such things weren’t funny and that I should have more decency. I got a little annoyed – I was only joking, and he was behaving as though I was tossing an actual little old lady at an actual electric fence – but in the end we both let go of it, and now I find this side of Lee rather endearing.
By the sheerest coincidence it wasn’t long before the company Lee worked for took over the money transports for the store where I worked, which meant we saw more of each other. Before even appearing from the elevator at my job, he would boom “Experience Points!” (that’s a video game thing if you don’t now) to let me know he was there, and while conducting his business he would regale me and anyone else in the back office with stories. One of my co-workers, a little old lady (whom I had never once thrown at an electric fence), all but choked on her tea when Lee told us how the food dye in a soft drink had turned his tongue blue so that he looked like he’d just given “an oral orgasm to a Smurf”.
Sometimes at work he would have time to go outside for a smoke, and then he would usually be more serious. He would talk about the dogs he and his girlfriend Liza bred. Later on, I got to meet a couple of them, and they gave truth to the adage “like master, like dog”: they were vicious-looking little furry crocodiles who couldn’t have been friendlier. During those smokes, Lee would also talk about Rick and the way he was in a rather hopeless living situation due to financial troubles which had in part been caused by Rick’s and Lee’s friend Keith, who had been rather reckless in his youth. Here too, Lee’s humanity would shine through, his empathy for Rick equaling and surpassing mine in soft, pensive comments that I found quite touching.
Lee had problems of his own, of course, as we all do, although his main one was, like most things about him, rather odd. One day he told me, as a continuation of the talk about Rick’s money trouble, that his, Lee’s, job represented a conflict of interest, by which I took him too mean that as a security guard he represented, to some extent, law and order and was expected to behave in a certain way even on his own time. He didn’t. It turned out, and this was the first I’d heard of it, that he was a member of a biker gang. Not one of the really bad ones, but one fond of causing a bit of a ruckus which sometimes necessitated the intervention of the police. Lee’s employers had evidently had a talk with him about this behaviour, even though nothing had come of it as of yet. I’ll admit to being a bit surprised. For all his bluster and gruffness, I had a hard time picturing Lee as a serious hell raiser, but he was adamant about the whole thing being a real dilemma, and insisted that if he’d been able to afford it, he would have quit his job immediately out of loyalty to his gang. I tried to sound like I understood completely, whereas in reality I had no idea what to make of such strange allegiances.
When you get beaten up at a biker club, I think you’re well within your rights to demand to at least be beaten up by the actual bikers. That’s no more than a reasonable expectation, after all. My life often has a sense of the surreal, however, so when I got my ass handed to me at a biker club, it was by a rather random individual with mental issues and an inability to hold his liquor, an individual who like myself was merely a guest at the club and had no connection to it. To cap off the absurdity, and in direct opposition to the reasonable expectations quoted above, the bikers then expelled me from the premises for disturbing the peace. OK, so they were a little rough when getting rid of me, but on the whole they were disappointingly civilized about it all.
I hadn’t really wanted to go to the party. I’m a bit of a chicken, and Rick’s enthusiastic gushings about “biker club” and “lots of booze” rang a warning bell or two in my head, but it was his thirty-fifth birthday, and Lee had gone to some trouble arranging the party for him at the club, so I thought I’d better put in an appearance. I’m sure I also thought “what’s the worst that could happen?”.
Lee and a few other club members acted as security, and the rural red-and-white wood building was by some miles too cute to be the headquarters of a mean band of road ruffians, so I was lulled into a false sense of security. There were too many people for my taste, but for Rick’s sake I was happy about the turnout, and I got a chance to talk to him, Lee and their by now reformed friend Keith, all of whom were affable and brilliantly entertaining people. I got drunk, much like everyone else, and struck up a conversation with the mentally troubled individual I touched upon earlier (I have no idea how Rick knew a psycho like that, but there he was), and within another hour or so I was on a train home, nurturing a few cracked ribs and a profusely bleeding, equally cracked nose, not to mention a pair of knees that wouldn’t work properly again for a couple of years. But this isn’t my story, and I mention this violent incident only because it was the precursor to the last time I saw Lee for half a decade.
It was a couple of weeks after the delightful bash (ambiguity of expression fully intended), and I was sufficiently recovered to make my way to Rick’s for an evening of drinks and banter. Upon arrival I was surprised at seeing Lee present, his demeanour halfway between his usual brusqueness and a delicate embarrassment which he clearly didn’t know what to do with. I acted weirdly myself, putting on a deeply uncharacteristic chirpiness which told the world that being beaten into a pulp of meat and bone fragments had certainly had no emotional effect on me.
Needless to say, the general mood in Rick’s living room was a bit awkward for a while, before Lee, his mighty chest expanding with a large intake of air, told me that he blamed himself for the misunderstanding, and that it had come to his knowledge that I had in fact not been the instigator of the fight, and that he was sorry they had ejected me rather than my assailant.
You must understand that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to me. The number of times anyone has apologized to me for … well, anything, I can easily count on … no, I can’t, because like I said, that doesn’t happen to me. It was a grand thing, and I found myself almost tearing up, a reaction that was made even harder to contain when Rick said he had called up the psycho and told him they were no longer friends and that he could go to hell. That’s the quality of friends I had back then, and I did love them for it.
Lee didn’t stay long, and when he left, I got the distinct impression that he had heard I would be there that day, and had turned up only to deliver his apology in person. Lovely thing, but I had no way of knowing that this was the last proper conversation I was to have with him. In fact, after this I only saw him once more.
“I think I’ve lost Little Lee”, Rick said, genuine sadness in his eyes.
I thought it a rather melodramatic utterance both in wording and content, but we were a little bit tipsy, so some of that was to be expected.
“How’s that?” I asked, becoming aware as I spoke that I hadn’t actually seen Lee myself for a couple of months, whereas he normally showed up at the store once a week or so.
“He’s not returning my phone calls or texts”, Rick elucidated, “and I can’t get hold of Liza either.”
I’d had Liza on Facebook for a while (Lee didn’t partake) until I’d grown tired of her posting twenty pictures a day of her bleedin’ crocodile dogs. Lee had emphatically stated that he did not want any children – I guess that’s why she got obsessed with the whole dog thing.
Rick went on to say that he hadn’t been able to get in contact with Lee for months, and I did grant this to be a peculiar thing. Rick, Lee and Keith were childhood buddies and had gone through all kinds of crap together. For Lee to suddenly break off contact after all these years was just this side of unthinkable. I asked whether Rick had any idea what the reason might be.
“I may have slept with Liza”, he said sheepishly.
Yeah, I’d heard that story before. Apparently there had been a party where much alcohol had been imbibed and many memories blacked out. The morning after, Rick and Liza had awoken in the same bed, mostly clothed but with no recollection of what, if anything, had transpired the previous night. Depending on your mindset, this kind of event – or more likely non-event – might be enough for someone to wish no more to do with an old friend, but even if Lee had been the type to dismiss Rick due to this, and I don’t think he was, there was still the fact that it had occurred years ago and that Lee had been aware of it for most of that time. Why would he be on chummy terms with Rick all that time and then suddenly decide to shut him out? It made no sense, and I told Rick so. He agreed, but said he had racked his brains and been unable to come up with any other reason for Lee’s behaviour.
I did think it strange myself, but the only additional information Rick could provide was that nothing had befallen Lee; Keith had seen him several times on the town during these silent months.
Lee and I weren’t close, and we never spent any time on our own, apart from his brief visits to the store, so I won’t pretend that I lost any sleep over his disappearance from our lives. But I did wonder, and was reminded every so often when Rick would bring it up, sounding more forlorn and bewildered each time. As things turned out, I eventually got an explanation. Rick never did.
Four years later Rick dropped dead from an aneurysm, the sort of thing you think only happens in the movies. For various reasons the funeral had been delayed, so I’d had time to go through a couple of phases of grieving, but on the day of the burial, I was mostly just feeling numb and depressed. Despite my preoccupation with the enormous void left by Rick, there was a curious tingle at the back of my head as I wondered if by any chance Little Lee would see fit to turn up. It was hardly the foremost thing on my mind, but it was persistent and wouldn’t go away.
The funeral was on a bright day in early September, and as I walked up the asphalt path among well-tended lawns, I could clearly see a gathering of familiar and unfamiliar figures around the stone stairs outside the non-denominational chapel. One of them was Keith, standing out, being at least as big a guy as Rick had been, and lo and behold, he was talking to a small, compact figure who could only be Little Lee.
Approaching, I noticed that Lee was chatting in his accustomed way, covered in that thick veneer of crusty cockiness that I’d never quite believed in. He seemed perfectly at his ease, as if there were no questions in Keith’s mind regarding the reasons for his absence of several years. When Lee noticed my presence, he behaved pretty much the same way towards me, greeting me as if we’d seen each other only yesterday.
Not only did he behave as usual, he looked basically the same as well: hair closely cropped, long strip of beard twisting and fluttering in the mild wind, face that of a self-assured fighting dog. The only real difference to his appearance was his clothes. He was wearing a nice, crisp white shirt instead of his usual denim and leather attire, and this was of course hardly unexpected in view of the event at hand. I was rather bemused, though, to see the incongruous thing he was wearing on top of the shirt: a thick denim vest that made him look even stockier.
I didn’t need to see the back of the vest to understand that it was one of those biker gang things that say “Fire Demons” or “Hell Blazers” or something of similar unoriginality, the kind of things worn by members at all opportunities, since they were always expected to “represent” the gang. I didn’t react much to Lee’s getup, except inasmuch that I thought the combination of biker vest and dress shirt rather comedic. I was, like I said, rather numb, and there was something more important poking at my mind than Lee’s dress sense: I wanted to ask him why he had abandoned Rick.
I didn’t ask. I think my reasons for this were fairly good. While I did exchange some news and low-key jokes with Lee outside the chapel, I really wasn’t in any shape to initiate a serious, potentially hostile discussion – I was simply too sad and tired. My other reason was more rational, and would have been rather clever if it had worked out. The thing was that Rick had mentioned that if he were to die, he wanted his friends to have one hell of a party in his memory. Rick’s fiancée, who was already tottering under her grief and all the chores and all the bickering with relatives, had reluctantly arranged for what she regarded as Rick’s last wish, so the day after the funeral there was indeed to be one hell of a party in her and Rick’s apartment. I cunningly thought that asking Lee about his disappearance and non-contact would be far easier at the party, where we could get away from other people and fuel our conversational courage with generous libations.
Having resolved to proceed accordingly, a certain apprehensive gnawing disappeared from my belly; one I hadn’t even known was there until it went away. Clearly, I had subconsciously embellished the question of Rick and Lee with an importance that perhaps it didn’t deserve, as if it was part of Rick’s estate, an unfinished bit of business that I needed to clear up on his behalf.
On the chapel steps, Lee told us of his trip there. He had of course travelled by motorcycle, and had been pulled over for speeding. I couldn’t help but notice from his story that he must be known to the cops, since according to him they had commented snidely that he was looking unusually dapper today. He recounted his response in that tough guy voice he favoured: “Yeah, you usually dress for an occasion like a funeral”. This comment and his explanation of it, that he was going to pay his last respects to an old friend, had made the cops let him go without fining him. The story interested my currently vague, anesthetized mind. Lee was giving lip to policemen now? Policemen who knew him at least by sight?
During his recital of this little anecdote he was all bravado, the side of him that I had always found a little amusing and just a teensy bit annoying, but when he asked why certain other friends of Rick’s and mine weren’t present, I told him they’d been in an accident and was in the hospital, whereupon that other part of him emerged, all empathy for and worried questions about people he arguably didn’t know well and definitely hadn’t seen for years.
The funeral was what it was, and is a story for another day. Afterwards, Lee left rather abruptly on his bike, and I was in no state to spend much energy thinking about him.
I should have known Lee wouldn’t come to the party. Just like he had appeared at Rick’s place only to apologise to me for the biker club incident, he had gone to the funeral only for the specific purpose of paying his respects; he had no intention of reinitiating contact with any of us.
Rick’s apartment was crowded, something I have a hard time handling, but which in this particular instance I found comforting, since I liked the idea of so many people caring enough about Rick to turn out for his farewell binge.
And a binge it was. Rick had left his fiancée with an ample stock of rum, which she insisted we empty before the night was out. I usually don’t drink hard liquor these days, so I got thoroughly blitzed and still to this day don’t remember the last couple of hours we spent at the party. The earlier parts I recollect with all the more clarity. As the alcohol made people relax there was a lot of conversation about Rick from all kinds of people who had known him, and to me that was rather cathartic.
Perhaps naturally, I eventually gravitated towards Keith. He was Rick’s oldest friend and had the same kind of teddy bear cordiality. In the midst of a series of anecdotes about Rick out on the balcony, my consumption of rum obviously reached the perfect point, for all of a sudden I thought it the most natural thing in the world to ask Keith about Little Lee. I told him how distraught Rick had been over Lee’s inexplicable desertion, his agonising over the reasons for it, and the story about Rick’s maybe-maybe-not encounter with Liza.
Keith was just drunk enough to have that delightful twinkle in his eye that reminded me of Rick, which meant he was willing to take most things in his stride, strange as it may have seemed to him that I brought up this subject all of a sudden. Perhaps he was flattered to be asked his opinion, because he gave his words on the matter a serious attention quite different from the gregarious reminiscences he’d been spouting thus far.
Like me, he discarded out of hand that the Liza story would have had anything to do with Lee’s decisions. Instead, he told me things I didn’t know and which, more importantly, he apparently hadn’t told Rick, for whatever reason.
I hadn’t bothered reading the back of Lee’s vest at the funeral. Had I done so, I would have found that the name written there was that of a different biker club from the one where I’d had my head bashed in. That gang had been a bunch of rowdy motorcycle enthusiasts playing at being the real thing, that much I knew. The one that Lee had left them for was an actual, honest to goodness hanger-on group intimately connected with one of the big, infamous criminal biker gangs, one of those outfits who hope to one day be taken up into the main gang as full members. Lee had, then, gone from pretending to be an outlaw to actually becoming one.
Keith’s supposition was that this new gang had made certain demands on Lee. That would explain the fact that, as Keith told me, Lee was no longer living with Liza (whether they still had any kind of relationship I do not know, nor whether he still had his old job), and that he had broken off contact with all his old friends outside of the gang. From what Keith had heard from Liza, Lee spent most of his time living at the new club, which seemed to have in its statutes that at least one member must always stay in the building as a custodian and guard.
To me it all sounded rather sect-like, and it did make all kinds of sense in view of Lee’s vanishing act and his refusal to even grant Rick an explanation. My reaction to Keith’s information was a mixture of two parts: one was a species of elated revelation when I finally, after several years, received enlightenment, and one was a permeating, deep sense of sadness.
The party went on, within deepening alcoholic fogs. While I’m not proud of how drunk I got, I still appreciate the fact that I had such a complete blackout that I can’t remember leaving Rick’s apartment for the very last time. In some weird way, that makes me feel like I can deny the fact that I ever left, and that Rick’s and my friendship is a thing of the past.
So what’s my take on this whole Little Lee business? I must repeat that I didn’t know the guy very well, but sometimes a wealth of knowledge about someone can obscure the pertinent facts about them, so perhaps I am, after all, in a fairly good position to have an opinion.
It’s my belief that Lee, like a lot of more or less odd people, had been searching his whole life for belonging, for a group of people with whom he could fit in. He had an image of himself, a kind of persona he’d developed over the years, and in the end he was happy to find somewhere to belong which corresponded to the needs and wants of that persona. Does it correspond to the needs and wants of who he really is underneath all that external show? I don’t know, although I have my thoughts about that. And I have this niggling feeling that there’s more to those chain coifs than I have been able to work out.