It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
I’m trying to think back to when I first met him. I suppose we were both very young. He was a couple of years older, but I was way more clever, so it balanced out.
I remember the rides home from Granddad’s store in the back of the car. We had blank paper and pencils. That’s really all you need if you’re left-handed, and we were. We drew cartoons and comic books and debated whose characters were better, although the answer was clearly mine. The 20-minute drive always went by too quickly.
He was always my role model for mischief. Croquet under his rules became Destruction Derby, with the only goal to see who could destroy his mallet the quickest. Sticks and rubber bands became mesquite bean guns. Old tin cans were smoke bombs. The tree house behind Granddad’s store became the Pinky Outpost. Why the Pinky Outpost? I guess I never felt the need to ask. It just was. And that theme song. “We love the Pinky Outpost, the Finky Outpost, the Stinky Outpost, dum dum dum dum dum.”
Our younger brother, who had the misfortune of being right-handed and four years younger than me, was the subject of too many tag teams. Monopoly games were always two on one. Why, certainly you can have Boardwalk for $6 as long as it bankrupts Mike. Sorry, Mike. But he held his own (and got off the best shot ever in Destruction Derby, nailing Rick squarely in the chest in a shot heard round the world, or at least the back yard.)
We found God together. We happened across a wonderful set of friends at church, and became comrades in that way that happens when you’re young and searching for answers. We prayed for my grandmother; we pondered how you could rationalize God in such a screwed-up world; we spent the Summer of Pinto in the church parking lot. I heard “Yessongs” for the first time while watching a volleyball game on the roof of the church. That’s religion.
He taught me the fine art of the practical joke. He once was riding in the back of a pickup while working a summer job. His friend, who was driving, took a turn in such a way that Rick went flying out of the truck and landed on his arm. He was OK, but when he came home I found him in the workshop with plaster of paris and gauze. He constructed a cast on his arm, which he wore for days while his friend was consumed with guilt. Then he pretended to be overcome with the itchiness of it and pounded it to pieces with a hammer while his friend watched in horror. That, my friends, was a prank.
He sneaked me into my first R-rated movie, “Easy Rider,” at the drive-in. We had the soundtrack on an 8-track tape in the car for years. Barreling down an endless Texas road with “Born to be Wild” blaring way too loud. How could life be better than that?
We shared so much. A room, a car, a college, a life. He, of course, was a born writer. I attribute this chiefly to the fact that he recognized my superior drawing skills and had to find a different avenue to express himself. But, man, he could tell a story. When I found myself with no idea what to do with my life, he got me a job in the newsroom. I know hindsight always makes things seem more idyllic, but god, those were happy times. I’ve been a journalist since.
Once when we were working together, he asked if I wanted anything from the vending machine. Oh, just get me one of everything, I said. Five minutes and a cardboard box later, he came back with exactly that. One of everything. Sooooo many quarters. Those were the days of glue pots and Royal typewriters. Krug seeing how far he could kick a trash can. Deadlines and the dream of making the world better. We shared that. He still has most of the newsroom’s Royal typewriters. Smith boys don’t give up on stuff.
We shared an apartment, then he lived in a garage, and then I lived under a ping-pong table, and then we shared another apartment. I think I led to his first (and only?) encounter with marijuana. I had a batch of brownies on the counter (hey, this was the mid-70s) cooling when he was supposed to be gone for the day. I went out for a while, and when I came back, half of the brownies were gone. He had unknowingly ingested enough pot to float over a Grateful Dead concert. I never told him, but I like to think he must’ve written something pretty great that day. It’s weird. We were always like twins except I must’ve been a difficult labor because it took me two more years to come out. We had the same sense of humor, the same outlook on life, the same love of oddities and underdogs. He’s one of the few people I have ever known who understood me.
He took me to some of the best places I’ve ever been. Austin, the Armadillo World Headquarters just before its demise. On stage to meet Willie Nelson. On the sidelines for UT vs. A&M. The Kerrville Folk Festival when it was just a year old. Luckenbach before it became a thing. Big Bend, the Marfa lights, Pecos, six-man football games in tiny towns, Guadalupe Peak. He always let me come on his adventures in the Land Cruiser. It was loud, cold and uncomfortable. It was perfect. Brother Mike still has it. Smith Boys don’t give up on stuff. I might have mentioned that already.
And then we became adults, as adults often do. He found the perfect woman, moved, had kids. I moved to Austin, because that’s where he used to live, and then Phoenix, because that’s where my job went. Suddenly we were 12 hours apart.
The years go by so quickly. Next year, you think. And the year after that. And then a decade or two. But I’d see him now and then, and it was always like pulling down that old ratty pair of jeans in the back of the closet. They still fit just right and you wonder why the hell it took you so long to find them. And then you fold them up and return them to the top shelf, not to be worn again till that next special occasion.
And the stories. He told me about the time he went out to the country to interview an elderly woman. He had set up a time, and surprisingly for Rick, arrived in a timely fashion. He knocked on the door. Nothing. Knocked again. Silence. So he called her on his cell phone. She answered in a whisper. “I can’t talk,” she said quietly. “There’s a strange man at the door.” These are important stories whenever I wonder whether becoming a copy editor instead of a reporter was the right choice.
We had one last backpacking hurrah, a week at the Grand Canyon. i was aghast to discover he had brought nothing to eat but Nicholson’s jerky. Three days later, I was trying to pawn off my fancy freeze-dried stuff for a little slice of heaven. Never go through Mertzon without stopping.
When my company went under and I lost my job, he helped me get a new one. When I desperately wanted to quit because it was too hard, he just happened to be in the neighborhood after a six-hour drive, setting up his air mattress in the living room for no particular reason. I think we went a day and a half before he asked me how it was going and I spilled my guts. It’ll get better, he said. He was right. He was always right.
It’s funny when you get older. You realize what’s important. I have always had this dream that we’d be the two geezers sitting by the fire pit next to the old jeep, swapping stories while I pretended to play guitar. It would be the perfect closing act to a couple of great yarns. Bluebonnet tours and field trips to Terlingua. I’d bug him to write for no particular reason. Finally the Great American Novel. We’d stage a Club Sandwich whenever we damn well felt like it. You haven’t lived till you’ve heard his rendition of “West Texas Waltz.” It would be a grand finale indeed.
I guess that’s not going to happen. Dementia. The demise of all those stories, all that knowledge, all that history, all those memories. I don’t know what to do with that. I cry, I scream, I mope. He was the always the one constant in my life, the guy I knew would be there forever. How the hell am I going to figure out how to get to the top of Mitre Peak now? What exactly WAS the story about the beer-drinking goat mayor at Lajitas? What’s your best Ed Cole tale? Whatever happened to that Cowan guy? Whatever happened to us? Did we turn out OK?
He wrote a million columns that touched people’s lives in a way only a truly gifted writer with a kind soul can. He could make you laugh, and cry, and laugh again, all in the same paragraph. He wrote an award-winning play. But mostly I remember once I came home and on our kitchen table he had written a note: “Dear and worthless brother, happy birthday” next to a cake. It made me so happy. He always made me so happy. Why didn’t I ever tell him that? Is it too late to start now? I’m going to try. Smith boys don’t give up on stuff.
Life is funny …
p.s. he really IS a lousy cartoonist.