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“My middle brother passed away suddenly yesterday.”

After the shock and grief set in of the horrific news, I unfurled yellow-black police tape around the Facebook post. A crime had been committed. Mike was stolen from us all.

As career-minded, undergraduate music students at Cal State Northridge, Mike and I spent almost as many hours hunkered down in our practice rooms inside the music department building as we spent sitting outside together in the breezeway, chatting about music, dream orchestras we’d die to play with, different types of customized percussion equipment, and whatnot. The only difference between the two of us was what we were doing. I was resting my face from punishing repetitions of the “Ride of the Valkyries” as my bass trombone waited back in the practice room.

Mike was always sitting on a bench, a practice drum pad resting on his knees, a metronome rhythmically hammering out a tempo, and a pair of drumsticks beating away, working on Swiss Army triplets, alternating rattamacues, and fifteen-stroke rolls. Yet he still engaged with me or anyone in conversation. Even on a break, Mike worked his ass off, and simultaneously gave of himself to you in the name of music fellowship. Mike was a dedicated musician and a great guy.

But here’s the thing: Mike earned a special place in my friendship hierarchy, but he wasn’t in my Top 5. He occupied that space of not quite a bestie, but easily miles above “a dude I know,” and wholeheartedly a notch above a buddy. Despite the complicated nomenclature of who he was to me, I’ve been wrecked by his passing, and I don’t know why. The mystery continues…

I can’t recall the last time we spoke face to face.

Whatever that particular day was, when we sent each other off with a “See ya,” there wasn’t a memorable laugh, or a spike of charged energy in the air as he and I departed from the place, or when we were leaving from the thing because those salient details remain as unremarkable today as they were at that moment.

Years later, he was one of those Facebook friends you added immediately with never a question in your mind.  Only that’s it. He was a “Facebook friend,” a friend from the past who I kept up with solely on my timeline, and nothing more. The Facebook friend from the past. No follow-up phone calls, no DMs. Mike became one of the many faces from the California phase of my life that would speed by on my timeline as quickly as passing a billboard along the 405 freeway.

Mike’s posts made me stop speed-scrolling to honor the moment.

Every now and then, a post of his would catch my attention and I’d stop to inspect. More often than not, it was a picture of the backside of empty unoccupied percussion equipment on stage, at a church, in an open plaza, awaiting the chance to add rhythm and drive to a concert not yet begun.

His snare drum head was always pocked with hundreds of marks where he hit it in perfect time; his stick bag leaning against the floor tom as tape-wrapped handles and mallets jutted out, ready to be grabbed during a four-bar rest to change his sound; an iced coffee of some persuasion in the foreground, whatever magical elixir he needed to get to the gig, through the gig, and to celebrate the gig, since that was how the picture was captioned: Gig.

Funny thing about Mike was he loped. He was a loper. If a caveman had impeccable time, a charming personality, and a good sense of humor, that would be Mike. He loped around his percussion equipment too. Seeing the unoccupied drum throne in the pictures, I could easily imagine his pyramid-shaped body (little head, semi-wide shoulders, arms descended outwards) playing with a dizzying dexterity. It was awkward to watch, but it was magical to listen to. His playing was grace under loping. Sadly, his chair in those pictures remains empty forever

The latest rumor is that he had a heart attack…. Maybe.

Depending on your point of view, he was either only 54 or he was at least 54. When does a heart attack make sense? When they’re in their 50s? Their 80s? For all we know, Mike could’ve been felled by a mysterious food-based illness or maybe he was gored by a charging rhinoceros that curiously showed up at the community college where he taught. (Charging rhino in suburban Los Angeles? It could happen. I’ll add that to the file of possible causes of death.)

Days later, common friends and strangers who feel the exact same way I do fill his timeline with tributes, shock, and mourning. Despite the commonality of grief, it doesn’t add up. Doesn’t make a lick of sense.

How could Mike be gone?

I leave my emotions where they are and I step back so I can ask a few questions about the case:

  • If he wasn’t one of my close friends, why can’t I stop thinking about him?
  • If I haven’t spoken to him in 28 years, why did I break out in tears while playing Eric Whitacre’s “October” this week?
  • Who decided this was his time to go? Because I’m sure as shit no one consulted him.
  • Is this the beginning of a pattern? Should I expect more of these unexpected passings from the ranks of my acquaintances, pals, colleagues, friends? Will there be a serial build-up of similar deaths in my future, on my timeline?

Something was stolen and it’s a mortal lock that I’ll never get it back.

Police tape remains unfurled, only now it is wrapped around me, my brain, my heart.

The case remains unsolved.

Jay Heltzer

Jay Heltzer writes attention-challenged fiction, plays bass trombone, digs sloppy fountain pen sketches, and is in pursuit of the perfect cheeseburger.

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