Finally. That’s what I thought when the reporter from the Times called about Greg.
Every reading I went to, every opening, every show from Chelsea to Bushwick, I talked about Greg and Cara: about our time together at Wilmott, Greg’s music, and the tragedy that took him from us. I’d corner any art-schooled, trust-funded loft-dweller who’d listen and say, “Someone needs to tell Greg’s story.”
Invariably they’d say, “You’re a writer. Who better than you?” So I’d have to explain that of course I’d written about Greg, how could I not, but I only know how to write plays, and getting the backing for a show about him, enough to do it right, on the scale he deserved, was tough right now. If they knew me, or knew of me, this would surprise them. “Didn’t you win that Kennedy Center Young Playwrights thing?” they’d ask. “That’s got to count for something, right?” I’d tell them that was a long time ago, another lifetime, when Greg was still with us and I believed Broadway was just waiting for me to remake it, and Cara was the spark that kept the fire burning in both of us. The music industry had nearly missed out on Greg, and I wasn’t going to just wait around for the theater industry to wake up from its stupor. What I needed was someone who could get the word out right away. Someone who could make Greg’s story, our story, into news.
I never doubted the call would come. I’d prayed for it. Don’t get me wrong: that wasn’t the source of my confidence. I mean, I figured God owed us one, me and Cara, but I’m not the kind of Christian who thinks of Him as a wish-granting genie. The reason I was so certain was that I’d put in the time. I’d gotten to know the right people. That was why the three of us had come to New York in the first place.
Truth be told, Greg and Cara never really settled in. They missed Ohio something awful, especially Wilmott, with its red brick and redder maples. I tried to get them excited about steampunk exhibitions and political burlesque, but the two of them preferred to hole up in their crummy apartment in the East Village, playing at the domesticity they would have had if they’d stayed behind: Cara canned green beans; Greg searched the animal shelters for an Irish setter in need of a home, though he knew their place was too small. I’d forward them invitations, and Greg would just say he was allergic to cheese cubes. So I had to network for all of us. You see, I said silently to Greg when the reporter called, I told you it would pay off in the end.
He said his name was Mike. “Amy Wright told me about your friend.”
Amy had been in a few of my one-acts back when I was killing myself trying to get into festivals. You try hard not to be too impressed by people in this town, but I was impressed that Amy had an in at the Times. I’d been hoping to get to someone at New York magazine, maybe Esquire. But the Times?
“How do you know Amy?” I asked.
“We dated last summer,” Mike said, which didn’t exactly answer the question but was enough for me. That’s what I admire about New York: people are sophisticated about their relationships. They hook up, they break up, but they stay cool, keep each other in mind. The door is always open to exes—and friends of exes.
“What she told me was really sad and interesting,” Mike went on. “She said I needed to talk to you to get the whole story.”
I waited a beat to answer. I’m an award-winning playwright. I know how to build suspense.
“He was a genius and cancer ate his brain. That’s the story, man.”
Mike cleared his throat. Some directors and actors I know hate that sound, but I understand what it means: someone in the audience is unnerved. You’ve got your hook in him and he feels the pull. “Could we meet in person, maybe tomorrow?” Mike said. “It doesn’t feel right to talk about this on the phone.”
“I’ve got prayer group till ten,” I said, “and I teach an improv class at five. Anytime between, I’m yours.”
I suggested we meet at the High Line. I can’t stand hanging out in the coffee shops, surrounded by all the laptop jockeys working on their “projects.” None of the successful artists I know do it. If you want to be out in the world, be out in the world.
For decades, the High Line was a blight; now it’s an inspiration, tall grass and taller flowers sprouting between rusted rails, all kinds of cool art installations claiming the dead space between buildings. And who’s responsible? Just a couple of guys—one of them a writer— guys with a vision, guys who knew how to line up the right people. The High Line is my kind of place.
Mike was about my size, which is to say short, but he was stocky where I was wiry, grizzled where I was clean-shaven. And his clothes—no comparison there. The summer between high school and Wilmott, I signed up for an exchange program, spent a month in China. The lasting legacy of that trip was the five three-piece suits I had made to order, still the best hundred bucks I ever spent. I was wearing the gray pinstripe for my meeting with Mike, a white shirt open at the collar, no tie. Mike was wearing jeans and a Columbia hoodie. Taking him in, I had to revise my opinion of Amy just a little.
She slept with him? New York Times, I reminded myself.
“Which section do you write for?” I asked.
Mike took one hand out of the marsupial pocket of his hoodie and scratched his beard. “I freelance for a few different sections.”
A freelancer. I smiled to hide my annoyance. I wondered if he’d pitched the story yet, if the Times was even interested.
“I think this would be a good fit for Our Towns,” Mike said.
I’d never heard of Our Towns. The name made me suspicious that he was going to portray us as a bunch of hicks who’d been chewed up and spit out by the big city. Be cool, I told myself. He hasn’t even heard what you have to say yet.
“Hey, you’re the writer of this little piece,” I said. “I’m just the subject.”
Mike squinted at me. “Isn’t Greg the subject?”
“Source,” I said. “I meant I’m just a source.” On impulse, I grabbed his shoulder and squeezed. “But you’ve got to understand. This is a story about the three of us. Greg, Cara, and me.”
I looked Mike straight in the eye and waited. He nodded and pulled his other hand out of that baggy front pocket. It was holding a tape recorder.
“How do you want me to start?” I asked. But I already knew how I was going to start.
“Amy said you met Greg in college?”
All three of us were from small towns outside Cincinnati. Wilmott was something else altogether, a tiny campus lost in rolling farmland. It was a place for church-raised kids to prepare for a decent, thoughtful life of hard work and service. But even out in the heartland, among the righteous, there are the weirdos, the ones who can recite every word of Monty Python by heart, who hear God’s voice more clearly in Jeff Buckley than the chapel hymns. That was me and Greg. He was the first to respond to my bulletin board posting, “Sketch Comedians Wanted for Something Completely Different.” And when I played him “Hallelujah” for the first time—the two of us sitting Indian-style on my dorm room floor—the tears streamed down his face onto the lumpy dun carpet.
Years later, when Nonesuch finally called with the contract offer, Greg told me he owed it all to me. If I hadn’t introduced him to Jeff Buckley that night, he would’ve never known to write his own songs. If I hadn’t been there to lead the charge, to grab him by the scruff of the neck, and say, “I know this is what God wants for us,” he would’ve never come to New York. The Kennedy Center thing was a real boost for a young artist, but Greg’s success and the part I played in it—that’s what I’ll always be most proud of.
Mike nodded every so often, but it was hard to read him. He could’ve been hanging on my every word or weighing his dinner options.
“So you and Greg were tight from the start,” he said. “Where does Cara come in?”
I smiled, the way only the thought of Cara can make me smile.
“Cara? Cara doesn’t come in, man. She’s the through line.”
Mike opened his mouth, but before he could ask for an explanation, inspiration struck. As they often do, the right words just came to me: “Greg and I were the stars of our little universe, okay? Cara was the sky.”
Greg and I majored in Divinity, took Introduction to Pastoral Ministry together our second semester. Cara was the only girl in our section. Of course, we both noticed her severe beauty: long, straight hair; sharp nose and chin; delicate, ballet-slippered foot tapping under her desk, like an urgent telegraph. I also noticed her noticing Greg. How could she not? The guy was six feet tall, captain of the swim team, jaw like Batman; he played guitar on the quad and held his sides when he laughed. I saw from the beginning how it would play out. I swear I even saw myself presiding at their wedding. And I was never once competitive or even jealous, because I knew I would be her best friend, just as I was Greg’s, and the intimacy among the three of us would be absolute. That was God’s plan for us.
She was always the practical one. In that first class together, while Greg and I debated the finer points of theology, challenging our professor on predestination and biblical literalism, she asked questions: How does a ministry support itself? Do pastors get 401ks? A year later, when Greg and I had the shared revelation that our true calling was art, she switched majors without thinking twice, graduated with a degree in business administration. I teased her, of course, called her “Business in the Front, Business in the Back,” but she was unflappable. “Someone’s got to have their feet on the ground,” she said. “God knows you boys don’t.”
She booked Greg gigs around campus and even a few engagements at townie bars, unheard of at the time. For me, she found rehearsal space, wrangled budget-conscious alternatives to my grandiose set and costume designs. When my first student play went up, she lorded over the till, refused to let us blow the take—all forty-five dollars of it—on a celebratory keg. I knew then, no matter who I ended up sharing a bed or a name with, I’d never be more cared for. I’d never feel more loved.
Our senior year, when I found out I’d won the Kennedy Center award, she was the first one I told. The play was about a minister who defends a painter accused of making sacrilegious art. I’d been reading about the showdown between Giuliani and the Brooklyn Museum, saw the potential there. Sure enough, there was interest in New York. I’d known for a year the city was our next move, but I also knew I’d need Cara’s help convincing Greg.
He’d spent the previous summer gigging around Ohio, winning converts in Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland. Somewhere along the way, he’d found his voice. The crowds in those coffee shops and basement clubs must have felt like they were at the Gaslight in ’62 seeing a kid named Dylan for the first time, only Greg could sing like an angel and work a room like Sinatra at the Sands. Sometimes the stories he told—dead-on impressions of his brothers, Billy Graham, the Irish setter he had as a kid—went on longer than the songs, which admittedly were still working themselves out. Seriously, if you didn’t get to see him live, you really missed something. Seems like the record company finds a new Jeff Buckley concert in the archives every few months. The only tape of Greg singing live is in a shoebox in my closet.
The point is Greg was happy with the way things were going. The buzz was building; the tour he had planned for the summer after graduation would take him as far as Chicago. He could be an artist and still be close to home. Cara was thinking about a house with a yard, trading stocks on the Internet, a kid bobbing on her knee. But all I had to say was, “You know he’s too good to stay.” She let it go with a sigh.
“God’s plan?” she said.
I took her hand. “No doubt.”
A few days after we made the decision, the two of them gave me a card with a picture Greg had drawn: three hands clasped together. Inside, Cara had written in her precise hand, “Will you marry us?” I still have it in the same shoebox with the tape of Greg performing. By then, I was an ordained minister. Greg hadn’t bothered taking the licensing exam. He figured, I’m an artist now, what’s the point? I was just as committed to writing as he was to music, but remember, I’d seen this moment coming. Besides, I figured being a man of the cloth would set me apart once we got to the godless cesspool of New York.
I performed the ceremony in the backyard of his parents’ house. Cara walked down the aisle barefoot in a simple white slip dress. Greg and I received her, he in a rented tux, me in the most formal of my Chinese suits. I spoke of what it means to have a path in life, of how important it is to have companions walking that path alongside you, and how blessed I felt to be walking with Greg and with Cara on the same path, together. They kissed, and then Greg sang a song he’d written just the day before that brought all of us to tears. After the picnic-style dinner, he and I dusted off some of our freshman-year sketch comedy repertoire. I’ve got to say, we killed.
Cara and I made the move in June. The plan was to live together until Greg joined us in September—he had to go through with the tour—and then I’d find my own place. I was living off my Kennedy Center prize, taking meetings with agents and producers. I tried to convince Cara to take it easy for a while, explore the city with me, but being Cara, she signed up with a temp agency right away. We’d reconvene in the evenings in our fourth-floor walk-up. No furniture, so we’d lie side by side on the floor, just like we did at Wilmott, drink wine out of pint glasses, talk about our days, about Greg.
“Was it different when it was just the two of you?” Easy, I told myself. He’s a reporter. He has to ask.
“Man, everything was different. I was a professional writer. Me, a preacher’s son from Nowhere, Ohio. Living above a lesbian biker club. Cara was the only part of my life that wasn’t different.”
Mike obliged me with a half-smile. “I just find it amazing. Greg’s off doing his thing while his bride and his best friend are living this exciting new life together. And he’s cool with it?”
“Greg was an amazing guy,” I said. “Isn’t that the whole point of this?”
Mike broke eye contact to look out at the river behind me. I could almost hear the machinery in his skull humming as it generated cynical thoughts.
“I talked to Greg on the phone every day,” I said. “I could hear in his voice how badly he wanted to be here.”
Mike shifted his gaze back to me. “And you?”
I stared back as hard as I could. “If I’d known how little time we had, I would’ve told him to drop everything. I would’ve told him not to stop for red lights.”
That last bit was a spin on an old Aaron Sorkin line. You know what they say: good writers borrow, the great ones steal. But the heat I put behind it was all mine.
Mike looked a little crumpled, like a balloon slowly losing air. A soft click broke the silence between us: the tape in his recorder hitting the end of Side A.
“How long was Greg here before he died?”
I wanted to tell him to flip the tape first, but I pushed the thought out of my mind. An audience is like a wild animal—a moment’s hesitation, and you’re dead.
“Ten months,” I said. “But we packed ten lifetimes into them.”
It took me a while to find my own place, so we all crammed in together for a few weeks. Even once I moved out, I ended up crashing with them half the time anyway. It was the three of us again, the plan was finally coming together, and it was both exactly and not at all like I’d imagined it.
The friendship was strong as ever. Greg and I still cracked each other up with our Cockney accents and inside jokes. Cara still rolled her eyes. We still stayed up all night, playing each other music, wondering out loud why there’s so much great rock and roll made by Christians but no great Christian rock. Cara still kept us honest and on task, saying, “If you boys are just going to jerk each other off, we could’ve stayed in Ohio.”
The part that didn’t live up to my expectations was the work. No, not the work—Greg and I were both coming into our own as artists, discovering what we could really do, realizing that God had given us the green light. The problem was the city. The city didn’t care. My play went up in a decent-sized black box off Broadway, but no one reviewed it. Greg was getting gigs, even an industry showcase, but his style wasn’t connecting with the skinny-jeans-and-mullets crowd. He was too openhearted to play it cool.
After a couple of months, he started pining for his fan base back home. “They want to like you. Here, they want to hate you.” I was frustrated, too, but I wouldn’t give in to homesickness. Did he think we weren’t going to struggle? He knew Proverbs as well as I did. “By long suffering is a prince persuaded.” He answered me with, “Like vinegar on a wound is one who sings songs to a troubled heart.” I asked him if Cara was putting pressure on him, and he said no. I told him if we left without making a name for ourselves we’d always feel small-time. He said he wasn’t sure he minded being small-time. I begged him to give it a year. He agreed.
Of course, no one has a more twisted sense of humor than God. I should’ve known that when the big break came it would come for Mr. I Don’t Mind Being Small-Time. One night, after opening for an established local act, Greg left the club to find David Byrne waiting for him on the street. Byrne said he’d never seen anything quite like Greg before; the closest was this indigenous singer in Peru who mixed plaintive ballads with traditional storytelling. He asked to hear Greg’s demo, and when Greg said he didn’t have one, he offered up his home studio. A month later the brass at Nonesuch were drooling over the tape. A month after that, Greg’s voice was purling through a Volkswagen ad—you know, the one with the good-looking guy and the good-looking girl racing up opposite sides of a hill in matching Rabbits. They both stop on a dime when they reach the summit, the grilles of the cars almost touching, as if they’re about to go at it like . . . well, rabbits. Greg sounds amused by the whole thing, practically sighing, “See you there, see you there, with the red leaves in your hair.”
When I saw that commercial, I’ll admit, I was finally jealous of Greg. A singer-songwriter can just drag his guitar from joint to joint until David Byrne steps out of the woodwork to be his guardian angel. A playwright needs actors and directors and stagehands and technicians. I’d decided I’d have to form my own company if I was going to get anything done, but the prize money was dwindling, and I didn’t have any upcoming commitments to entice the right people, the ones who could give my words the treatment they deserved. I felt myself becoming a guy who’d done something once, while Greg was striding from strength to strength, unassuming as ever. It had all happened too fast. At my weakest, I wondered if I should’ve let him go back to Ohio, if it would’ve made things easier for me.
God took care of that nonsense, too. The day of Greg’s first recording session for his debut album, the headaches started. By the end of the month, the tumor had been diagnosed, and I’d never be jealous of my friend again. I knew if I did nothing else in my life but help him through his trial, keep his spirits up so he could finish the album and find peace, I’d have fulfilled my purpose.
Right before all this happened, Cara got a full-time job with one of the companies she temped for. If it wasn’t for her health plan, Greg wouldn’t even have gone to the doctor for his headaches. Eventually, he would’ve collapsed, and even if we’d gotten him to the hospital in time, we wouldn’t have been able to afford treatment.
As Greg got sicker, Cara wanted to quit so she could take care of him. But she couldn’t lose the insurance. So I took care of him while she worked. I slung his arm over my shoulder and helped him down the four flights from his apartment to the street. In the studio, I held him upright while he sang, even though he was a foot taller than me. During those final sessions, he was determined to manage the pain and pour every last drop of himself into the songs. Even when he went blind in his left eye, his right eye just shined brighter, as long as the tape was rolling and he was making his music. At the end of the day, the light would go out and he’d collapse with exhaustion. I spent the last of my money on cabs to take us home from the studio.
After Greg checked into the hospital for good, Cara and I would stay with him most nights, sleeping in chairs. Once I woke up to the sound of her choking on her own tears. Before I was even fully conscious, I’d reached over and laid my hand on hers. Between sobs, she whispered, “How could God do this?” “Do you think God gives people cancer?” I asked.
“Do you hear him screaming?” she said. “He’s begging for mercy.
Why won’t God show him mercy?”
I watched her chin tremble—the chin I’d always thought of as imperious—and raised my hand to cup it. “He did,” I said, turning her face toward mine. “He gave him you.”
Her lips parted for a moment, then closed again: the saddest smile I’d ever see.
“And you,” she said. I wiped away a tear with my thumb.
Afternoon had faded into evening. I’d already blown off my improv class. I still had my key to the walk-up, so I figured I’d wait for Cara to come home from work. I sat on the futon where I’d slept so many nights, looking through the doorless doorway at the cramped bedroom. The bed was unmade, the sheets snarled and kicked aside. I thought about how much better I liked this place when there was no furniture in it, when Cara and I slept on an air mattress on the floor.
When the door opened, I was staring at a framed photo of Greg, Cara, and me back at Wilmott, Cara smiling properly at the camera, while Greg and I mug on either side of her. I’m fingering my chin like a philosopher lost in thought, Greg raising his eyebrow like it’s Santori Time.
“Who are those people?” I heard Cara say over my shoulder.
I set the picture aside. “Just a bunch of kids with a crazy dream.”
I got what I wanted: the Cara eye-roll. She dropped her company tote bag on the floor. “Sorry I didn’t go to that thing last night. I
just . . . well, I didn’t want to, to be honest.”
“I met a reporter today,” I said. “To talk about Greg.”
Cara glanced at me, then ducked her head into the fridge. “So you got what you wanted then. Beer?”
“He wants to talk to you.”
Cara didn’t answer. She was searching the one drawer in her kitchenette for a bottle opener.
“We can do it together,” I said.
“Did you tell him I was too fragile to do it myself?”
I moved the picture so she could sit beside me. “No. I told him you might not want to talk, but he said the piece needs your perspective.”
She sat on the coffee table facing me. The three of us had found it on the sidewalk and hauled it up the stairs together. “My perspective.”
“It’s the Times, Cara. Greg’s going to be in the New York Times.” She looked at me blankly, took a sip of her beer. “And your project?
Is your project going to be in the Times, too?”
“My project?” But I knew what she meant. I’d told her I was working on a new play, a musical actually. I was writing it around Greg’s songs. After he died, I was paralyzed for a time. But at the end of the day, I was still a writer, and there was only one way I knew to deal with the grief. The show would be a celebration of his music and his life, his devotion to his art, his faith, his friends. I told Cara it was going to be bigger than Spring Awakening.
I reached out to take Cara’s hand. She let me, but there was no response to my touch.
“Hey,” I said. “I didn’t say anything about the project. Come on.”
She cocked her head to the side as if she needed to see me from a different angle. “You didn’t tell him you and Greg started working on it together before he died?”
I pulled my hand back. “Hell no. Cara, look at me.”
She was already looking straight at me. Still, I felt the need to say it again: “Look at me. I didn’t say that. I promise you I wouldn’t say that.”
Cara put her beer down between her slender thighs and sighed through her perfect nose. “Good. It’s better if I say it.”
I wanted to answer her, but something happened to me then, something I’d never experienced before: the words didn’t come.
“I’ll say you suggested it to keep his spirits up,” Cara said. “He always felt better when he was working.”
“Cara . . . ”
“I’ll say it was all he could talk about. He thought of himself as just a guy with a guitar, but you, you were going to be the poet laureate of our generation.”
My tongue felt dense in my mouth. “Did he say that?”
I thought the smile she’d given me at the hospital that night was the saddest I’d ever see, but I was wrong. I closed my eyes.
“He loved you,” Cara said. “And I love you. So I’m going to do this interview for you. But after that, I’m going home. I can’t be here anymore. Do you understand?”
I could’ve gotten on my knees and begged her to stay. I could’ve said, “I don’t know if I can make it in this city without you,” and I would’ve been telling the truth. Then again, I could’ve said, “I’ll go with you.” “Forget the Times, forget Broadway. We’ll go home together. Have an Irish setter and a boy named Greg. You can trade stock on the Internet, and I’ll spend my life raking the red leaves in the yard.”
But I didn’t say any of that. God has a plan for each of us. I know it. And I knew this was all part of his plan for me. So I just said, “Whatever you want.” Cara leaned over and kissed me on the forehead. Then she told me she was tired.
As I walked down the stairs, I recalled what it was like having to hold Greg steady as we negotiated those four flights, one step at a time. It made me feel light, unburdened. I took my phone out of the pocket of my vest and started scrolling through my address book, all the poets and painters and dancers I’d met since I came to the city. I wondered where everyone was tonight.
By Daniel Browne