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Breakdown on the road to Mars

DAVID SILVA

I hadn’t seen my old buddy Mark Morton in awhile, so I decided one

day to drive out to his apartment in Norwalk and take him to a party

I’d been invited to. This would give us a chance to get caught up.

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Among all my friends from back home, Mark has had the worst luck

in life. When I first met him, he was living with his mother,

grandmother and older sister, Brenda, in a small house a few blocks

from mine. His mother worked 12 hours a day in a candy factory, and

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her paycheck and her mother’s Social Security kept the family afloat

for a few years. Then Mark’s grandmother died.

Her job more important than ever, Mark’s mother put Brenda in

charge of taking care of him while she was away. Mark was a

hyperactive, mischief-prone sixth-grader, and after a couple of

months of dealing with this, Brenda threw up her hands and started

spending all of her time at her boyfriend’s house. This was right

around the time Mark dropped out of school.

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Those brief years when he was home alone all day were a boon for

the rest of his friends. Whenever the mood came upon us to ditch

school, we’d go hang out at Mark’s, where the cartoons were always

blasting and the candy from his mother’s factory flowed.

He and I became great friends during this time. We were both big

dreamers, and would talk for hours about our plans for the future.

I’d tell him about how I would one day be the greatest writer who

ever lived -- that or a rock star. Mark would tell me how he would

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one day be either the kung fu champion of the world or the first

astronaut to discover life on Mars. Nothing seemed impossible. The

future was a wide-open road, and even though we were taking our

education for granted we knew -- we knew -- that someday we would

rise to greatness.

Then Mark’s mother died. It was one of those lightning-quick

cancer horror stories with which we’re all familiar. She was

diagnosed with stomach tumors one day, and two months later was dead.

Mark almost never spoke of his mother after that. Suddenly it was

as if this woman who had been the central figure in his life had

never existed. This puzzled me to no end at the time, because I knew

Mark had worshipped his mother, would fly at anyone with clenched

fists if he so much as suspected her name was being disparaged.

I’ve since come to understand that there are some heartbreaks so

profound we find ourselves unable to deal with them. Instead, we lock

our grief in a box and bury it deep within us, where it festers and

slowly poisons us over time.

Mark and his sister tried to stay together in the old house for

awhile afterward, but soon Brenda moved in with her boyfriend. Mark

took a job at a pizza parlor and found a small apartment in Norwalk.

The hits kept coming and coming at him, though these new troubles

were less the result of bad luck than bad personal choices. Looking

back, it seems what happened next was an inevitability. Mark met a

girl one Friday night, and nine months later was a father at 17. It

was about this time that he started to drink heavily, and that’s

where his troubles really began.

It seemed Mark couldn’t get out of bed in the morning without

stepping into trouble. I’d get a phone call that he’d been arrested

on a DUI. Or that he had broken his arm in a bar fight. Or had been

arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. The more I heard about his

behavior, the less I would go out of my way to see him.

“Dude!” Mark greeted me at the door when I showed up to take him

to the party. The sight of him was something of a shock to me. It had

been about six months since we’d last gotten together, and over that

time he’d put on a beer belly and his facial features had become

puffy and red. But it was good to see him. We talked and laughed

about old times, and got caught up on the present. Mark told me

things were going well for him -- he’d gotten a great new job and

that he had a beautiful new girlfriend.

“Dude! And she drives a Fiero!” he exclaimed.

We left for the party in my car -- no way was I going to be at

Mark’s mercy should he get drunk. We’d been driving awhile and were

passing Rose Hills Memorial Park when Mark said, very softly, “That’s

where my mother is.”

I looked over at him. “Really? She’s buried here? I didn’t know

that. When was the last time you visited her?”

“Not since the funeral,” he said.

“Let’s go see her, then,” I said, pulling off the freeway.

So we parked and got out of the car. All around us were rolling

green hills filled with headstones and plaques. I suggested we drive

to the office to find out where she was buried.

“Yeah -- wait, no. She’s over here,” Mark said.

So we hiked over a small hill, then Mark turned left and we

crossed over another hill. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks, and

there, at our feet, was his mother’s grave.

We stood there a long time. Mark’s eyes were filled with tension,

the way he would look sometimes when trouble was closing in on him.

He crouched down and started plucking away weeds that had grown

around the edges of the headstone. I thought to myself that he might

finally speak of his mother then, might say something about the pain

of losing her. But instead, he just stood up and brushed the dirt

from his knees.

“How did you know where the grave was, Mark?” I asked him. “You

said you hadn’t been here since the funeral.”

Mark was silent for a long while. Then he reached up and tapped

his chest with his right hand.

“I could feel her touching my heart,” he said, and nothing more.

And we left.

That was 20 years ago. I still get news about Mark from time to

time. I’ll hear that he was arrested on yet another DUI. That he was

on the run from some very bad men. That he’d been picked up for

assault and battery. I decided years ago not to visit him anymore. It

just wasn’t worth the risk.

But still I think of those days when we’d hang out for hours at

his place, watching cartoons and eating candy. We’d talk about the

future, that open road that could take us anywhere -- would take us

anywhere. It would take us to the heights of fame, to fortune. It

would take us all the way to Mars.

* DAVID SILVA, a Burbank resident and former Leader city editor,

is a Times Community News editor. Reach him at (909) 484-7019; or by

e-mail at david.silva@latimes.com.


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