I graduated from Richardson High School in 1994. Graduating with me that year was Joseph Belasco, who went by Joe or Joey, though I think he’d grown to dislike the latter by the time we were seniors. I remember him appearing at Westwood Junior High when we were in eighth grade, having moved or transferred from some distant place. From then until the Richardson Independent School District was done with us, Joe and I were peers. Not friends, but peers.
Senior year, ’94, we were both National Merit semifinalists. There were nine semifinalists, altogether, and though sharing that distinction did not overcome our natural, teenage cliqueishness, there was a bond. We shared many of the same advanced placement classes, notably Cindy Whitenight’s Literature and Creative Writing. In one of them—Creative Writing, I think—we were tasked to bring in a favorite piece of another writer’s prose to read aloud.
Joe chose a passage from Dennis Leary’s then-popular book No Cure For Cancer. This is it:
On my brother’s tenth birthday—I was six—we had a little birthday party. Just me, my brother, and my mom. And a chocolate cake. And little birthday hats. Singing the birthday song. “Happy birthday to you! Happy birthday to you!”
My dad was putting paneling in the living room during the ten minutes we weren’t in there. He was working with a circular saw. So this was the sound effect we heard come echoing down the hallway during the birthday song: “Happy birthday to you. Happy birth–”Zzzazow zzzazow zzzzzazazazow zzzzzazazow THA-THINK
And my dad comes waltzìng gingerly into the kitchen with his thumb hanging off at the bone. We’re sitting there in our paper hats with chocolate cake in front of us—our faces frozen in fear. I’m thinking, “Wow. Dad’s thumb is hanging off. Look at all that blood. Look at the bones. He’s probably gonna start crying any second now.”
And this is what my father says—his thumb is literally hanging by a thread of a bone, there’s blood everywhere, and he says—and I quote, “We got any tape around here? I need to tape this baby up.” My mother snapped. She starts screaming, “I’ll drive you to the hospital! Call the hospital! Tell them we’re coming! Ahhhh!” But he wouldn’t let my mother drive him to the hospital. That was too much of a threat to his masculinity—to be seen in a car driven by a woman. So he taped up his thumb with black electrical tape and drove himself—mínus one thumb—to the hospital. Never blinked an eye. He was humming as he taped it up in front of us.
We’re sitting at the table—paper hats, chocolate cake, blood, bits of bone. I looked at my brother and said, “Hey, pal. Forget about crying. Crying is over. We’re never going to be able to cry about anything ever, okay?” Our authority figure is a man who could sever his own head with a chainsaw, and he’d staple-gun it back on: PUN-CHIT! PUN-CHIT PUN-CHIT PUN-CHIT! “Fuckin’ head came off!”
Joe died at the end of 1996, around the time of my twenty-first birthday. Close friends reported an accident involving heroin. I don’t know as much as I should about him, either his life or his death, but I know that he read these words aloud to his friends, and his peers, sometime in the spring of 1994, and made all of us laugh together.