Saying Goodbye To Marvin Bays
It was a hot, lazy day in late summer when Marvin Bays stopped on his motorcycle and told me that he was going “up on the hilltop” that evening and asked me if I wanted to come along. I don’t recall why I would have been out in the street in the heat of the day then. Maybe I had been mowing someone’s lawn in the neighborhood. But here he came, flying up the hill on that black motorcycle that had been famous among our class or at least our crowd, if you could say that he and I were in the same crowd, which was at least an open question. I know there were many who would have thought us close buddies. We lived near each other and both had played basketball through our junior year. But those who were closer to the matter – like people who really knew me or really knew Marvin – knew that there was a gulf between us.
We had never actually fought it out in a fist fight, but we had had an all-out wrestling match a few years before that continued over at least three of the neighborhood lawns and ended in more or less a draw. It started over some kind of stick or baton that he wanted to take from me and for the first minute or two it felt and looked like play. But it was my stick and I wasn’t about to surrender to him and so on we went, into full battle. I was surprised that I hung in as long as I did and, looking back on it, he must have been, too. I had seen him make mincemeat out of several other guys at school – guys I would never have taken on myself. I never wanted another taste of that and so I avoided him as much as possible, even though that cost me socially in the years following.
But there he was that afternoon, in all the sound and fury of that motorbike, and he announced his intentions for that evening as if it were an invitation to the king’s banquet. I knew better by then, but had nothing else to do and so I told him that I would be around and ready to go after it fell dark.
The cicadas were almost deafeningly loud that August evening, but I heard the cycle blocks away and stepped into the cone of the streetlamp to make myself obvious. He unhooked a brown grocery bag from the rear of the seat and handed it to me. I hopped on and we sped recklessly through the cool darkness to the top of the hill and to the parking lot of the swim club that had been closed for the season now for almost a week.
He hid the cycle in the weeds and took the bag from me and took out a pack of cigarettes and matches and lit up and headed through a hedge to the fire circle where he and his real buddies had spent night after night for the last couple of years. Come on, he said. You ain’t gonna get cancer just sitting here.
I had been in the fire circle only once years before when it had been the property of my older cousin and his friends. Since Marvin Bays and his bunch had taken it over I was persona non gratia. The fire pit was black ash, but the ring around it was white cigarette butts. Marvin knew exactly where the makings for the fire were and he had a flame going in moments and took a can of beer from the bag and popped it open. Foam sprayed around, some of it sizzling in the fire. You ever drink beer? He asked me. I mean ever?
I brought you up here to tell you about my plans, he said.
This was not a complete surprise, as all of his real friends had already shipped off to colleges within the state. I was, through luck and a wealthy, childless relative, heading south to a prestigious, private college and my term did not start for another week yet. He had no one else to talk to and he was rather famous for having plans and needing to share them.
He told me that Marilyn Reese, his girlfriend, had dumped him. This I already knew; there probably wasn’t a soul in town who didn’t know it. Despite the fact that I held a low opinion of Marvin Bays, it did appear to me that Marilyn had used him unfairly and I whole heartedly shared the disdain for her that had been bandied about among us all. In fact, my opinion on that score did not change until I had daughters of my own in high school. Then I realized that Marilyn’s parents’ fervent prayer must have been that she would rid herself of Marvin Bays and that doing so would have involved some real strategy and not insignificant risk to Marilyn.
You see, Marvin said as he pulled on a cigarette, I’ve got this whole thing figured out. People around here are short sighted. They think I’m just a loser and she’s better off without me. I’m going to do one stint in the Navy and by the time I get back here Marilyn will have found out what she’s been missing and will be ready to get back together. You’ll see.
This was in 1967. You think you’ll get sent to Nam? I asked.
Doesn’t matter, he said. Navy is Navy where ever you are. You’re just stuck on a ship. You clean and mop and put up with the heat and that’s really about it. Not much to it, really. I’ll make money. Have money in the bank in two years. Learn a trade. You watch. People are laughing now. You know who was over at her house before she went off to school?
Yeah. I heard Dan Dines was over there.
Right. Dan Dines. Can you even imagine that? What an embarrassment it would be to be with that guy. I ought to kick his ass, just as a matter of principle. I may do just that before I leave.
I did not hear of Marvin Bays’ death till long after the fact. I was a junior in college then and was playing in a rock and roll band in a club in North Carolina. There was a girl from our town who was in school there and she came to me between sets and asked if I knew that Marvin had died. She said that his family had moved and all of the arrangements and services had been up in Pennsylvania. The Navy had paid for everything.