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We didn’t ride bikes too often, but that’s what I remember doing with Joey McKinstry.

We would be out back behind his parents’ house, and he was fearlessly catching air off a ramp we set up, while I would, every now and again, go off the same ramp with far less courage.

At some point we were sitting side by side, our bikes discarded.

“Who do you think is the biggest daredevil in school?” Joey asked me, not-so-secretly hoping I would say him.

I wish now I had just let him have it. Instead, I did this thing I still do to this day: I demurred. I started listing people who might be bigger daredevils than Joey.

He wasn’t happy with this, and had trouble letting it go.

He was competitive. He wanted to be the biggest daredevil at Thetford Academy, despite being just a 7th grader.

I did not relent that afternoon, but perhaps one day I would.

*********

When I think of Joey, I think of him with a bloody nose, wearing a Patriots jersey. Number 87, Ben Coates.

It’s a specific memory, but also a thumbnail for an entire life.

We would, as a group of young boys overflowing with testosterone, play tackle football to commemorate birthday parties, one-against-all in a game we knew we probably shouldn’t call “Smear the Queer” but did so anyway. 

When you were tackled, you tossed the ball in the air and someone else would grab it, until they were tackled. Then you would repeat, until Joey McKinstry got a bloody nose.

It always seemed to happen as nine of us would be piled on his body, his legs still moving, somehow still standing until he wasn’t anymore, blood trickling out of him like a leaky faucet.

*********

Joey was one of those people who actually did have an infectious smile before he died.

So often that seems like the thing to say at a funeral, but with Joey, it was true.

He looked a little bit like Adam Sandler probably did as a child, but with curlier hair. Actually, he loved Adam Sandler from what I can remember, and especially “The Waterboy,” that late ‘90s movie about a kid who has trouble fitting in until he finds football, and channels all his inner rage into his tackles.

*********

Joey had an older brother named Chris, who was a race car driver in the summers at the old dirt track 20 minutes to the north, a whole world away.

One day Joey wanted me to come over and even arranged for Chris to come pick me up, which was an entirely new idea to someone who had never been in a car operated by a driver who wasn’t a parent. I asked my Dad what he thought, and it probably sounded like a good way to avoid 20 minutes of driving on a weekend, so he said yes.

Chris pulled up with his buddy Matt – easily the coolest, most-crushed upon jock in our school at the time, the kind of kid who would show up to Monday morning assembly with a black eye and all the boys would speak in hushed tones about how they might earn themselves a black eye as cool as his.

Joey was in the backseat of Chris’s white, ‘86 Ford Mustang, a two-door rag-top convertible with a case of beer in the back.

I hopped in the backseat, adrenaline pumping, having no idea how this would go, the case of beer underneath my feet.

Just as we were about to pull away, my father came out to say hello.

In a panic, I tried to do anything I could to make the 18-pack of Budweiser invisible, including failed exercises in telekinesis. I didn’t have a firm grasp of what beer was, or what it did, but my instincts told me my Dad shouldn’t see it.

My father exchanged some words with Chris while my panic rose to new heights in the back seat. Eventually, my old man finally relented, turning to me and saying, as always, “be good.”

“Thanks dad,” I croaked, and we were off, backing down my paved driveway and onto Route 113, its pavement a whole new glorious frontier with a 17-year-old behind the wheel.

On the dirt road that led to Joey’s house, Chris opened it up, pushing 65-mph in a 40-mph zone. I clutched the grab-handle until my fingers turned white, and looked over as Joey laughed at my visible discomfort.

I noticed for the first time that Joey wasn’t wearing his seat belt.

*********

Joey killed himself on March 20, 2001. 

He went home after school, made some phone calls that went unanswered, and made a decision.

It wasn’t too hard to understand where he got this idea from – a best friend of Chris had shot himself a couple of years before, and was lionized as a fallen hero.

Beside our baseball field sits a plaque dedicated to Andy Cloud. 

His initials were featured on our school’s baseball caps for years afterward, and Chris’s race car was turned into an Andy Cloud memorial.

Joey got a bench.

It sits on our school’s campus with a nice view of the mountains across the river in New Hampshire.

Some five years later, a page was dedicated to Joey in our senior yearbook. I can’t remember if he was brought up at graduation, but I imagine he was.

Sixteen years later, sometimes I speak of Joey with Dylan, a best friend who used to get into all sorts of trouble with Joey, as the two lived on the same dirt road, a short bike ride away from one another.

Sometimes as we drink beers, we wonder what Joey would be up to these days.

He would most likely still be living in Thetford, and almost definitely in the area. Maybe he would be working construction, or some other form of skilled labor, just like his brother and his father.

He would have the girlfriend he so desperately wanted before any of us could quite picture what that meant, maybe even be married. He would definitely have nieces and nephews – Chris is now a father, married to a girl who grew up down the road. She was friends with Joey, too, back in middle school, before he killed himself.

Still, it’s hard to picture Joey as a settled down 29-year-old. He will forever be a boy who never got to become a man.

*********

In the garage of the house I grew up in, about ten yards away from where Chris came to pick me up that day, Joey’s old Mongoose BMX bike sits against the wall.

He left it there one day, but I don’t remember the circumstances. I do know that we realized it shortly after his death, and have been paralyzed regarding what to do with it ever since.

At first we wondered if his parents would want it. Then we thought maybe we should throw it out. Now it collects dust, and reminds us of Joey when it catches our eye anew, having been there this whole time.

For me, that bike lives on as the embodiment of a lesson learned, a reminder of the things I should have said.

It was always you, Joey. You were the biggest daredevil I knew.