Nonfiction: Letters from Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum

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I can only imagine so many search engine combinations. His Name. His Nickname. His Name New Jersey. His Name Obituary. His Name New Jersey Obituary. His Name Death. His Name Suicide. But as far as Google is concerned, he is still alive at this point, which is good. Or, rather, he is as invisible on the Internet as he ever was. An old wrestling buddy wrote a blog post about him three years back, called him a “human roller coaster,” but that’s it.


I am missing letters. A lot of the letters. Most of the letters. Although L. and I corresponded regularly for about three years, and sporadically after that, the only letters I kept were mailed between January of 1994 and September of that same year. While his handwriting took on different slants and sizes, it is reliably recognizable as teenage boy script, and the paper remains consistently creased from the force with which he pressed his pen.


We are no longer kids. It is a Friday morning at the end of April 2015 when I see a Facebook status update from L.’s wife that reads: “OMG WTF WHY WHY WHY.”

“OMG WTF WHY WHY WHY” is not particularly uncharacteristic, as far as status updates go, for his wife. Over the year or so preceding “OMG WTF WHY WHY WHY,” I’d witnessed her rage on Facebook about weight gain and “friends” (her quotes, not mine) who undermined her and talked behind her back. She also wrote, about a month earlier, that she was having a good day, and that L., who was tagged in the post, should not to give up on her.

So “OMG WTF WHY WHY WHY” doesn’t have to mean anything to me. Not at first. But beneath the status, the first comment reads, “I am so sorry, I know we never met, but [L.] was like my big brother. If I can do anything please let me know.”

Over ten hours or so, the status collects questions. My friend’s wife never responds—she still hasn’t, even now.


Although we’d known each other as very tiny children, it was through letters after I moved away at the age of 14 that we became close. I don’t know who wrote first, but alone in my family’s new house in Virginia, which smelled of fresh carpet and paint and was still unharmed by doors slammed too hard or spilled coffee, those letters became a kind of rescue mechanism. They meant I was not entirely friendless, and they meant that someone cared about the panic I felt at school as I neared the cashier with my tray filled with rice and gravy, chocolate milk. Cared that when I was handed my change, I would have to find a place to sit. L. would write, “How’s that guy from art class?” and “Sorry you’re lonely. They sound like hicks but you’re really cool.” I do not recall whether I gave his concerns the same attention in my own responses.


In the top-left corner of the envelopes, L. would not only put fake return sender names, but fake addresses too, which always struck me as dangerous. What if it was lost? How would we ever know that I’d missed a letter if he miscalculated the postage and all the United States Postal Service had to go on was “Elvis Presley, Graceland” or “God, The Sky”? I wondered what the mail carrier thought of Jimmy Hoffa and Andre Agassi and Juan Valdez and Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum sending me so many letters.


Things L. writes to me in the winter of 1994:

  1. He likes a Katy. She’s really pretty. He’s not sure why he likes her. “Maybe
    it’s the Christmas Season or something!”
  2. A boy named Nick that I had a crush on before I moved “has a problem
    with Irish people—yes, you! And me too!”
  3. He is obsessed with the 1952 film The Quiet Man. The movie is mentioned or quoted in four different letters, and, eventually, he sends me the VHS. The main conflict, set on a family farm in the greenest Technicolor version of Ireland, centers around the unapproved marriage of a former boxer to Maureen O’Hara. At some point, money is thrown into a furnace to burn. In the end, after a physical fight and some pretty stereotypical Irish drunkenness, the family comes together again.


Over the next week, I search his wife’s page. I am both aching for information that would explain how I should feel, and, at the same time, relieved to find no updates.

What I do find are pictures of L. on social media as a handsome, if often disheveled adult, smoking, usually outside, near mountains, or under a blanket with his cat in his lap. His sister posts, without comment, a picture of the two of them. Her friends tell her in various brief comments that they’re sorry.

But it’s not this adult person I imagine when I shut the computer. Usually I see him as a seven-year old in his red soccer t-shirt, identical to my own, and black shorts and kid-sized white shin pads. He is very small compared to everyone else, but his thick brown hair and light blue eyes indicate that he will be a handsome adult. Other times I remember him in one of his older brothers’ grey suits—a brother who egged our house when I was a child, who was mean to my own older brother. The suit was too big in the shoulders, as L. ran messages of anger and hope between the Girls’ Side and the Boys’ Side of our eighth grade graduation dance in the dimly lit cafeteria of our South Jersey middle school. No one had a crush on L., and this left him free to be an intermediary, cajoling the boys into asking his female friends to dance, telling the girls which boys to avoid because they made a remark about our breasts. He interjected his own commentary as well, not always kind, but all-knowing and seemingly insightful, taking on the persona of, perhaps, a bookie who really wanted you to win but couldn’t guarantee anything.


I am getting married in three months and L. wasn’t invited. That’s how close we are, which is to say, not very. It is possible, although it seems impossible, that the last time I saw L. in person was in 1996, when he came to the county in Virginia next to mine for a mid-Atlantic wrestling tournament. We were both in high school. If I am right, then twenty years have passed since L. and I last hugged. That night in 1996, I remember a girlfriend and I picked him up, along with his wrestling teammate, in my small, old, black Nissan with the turquoise racing stripe, and we must—we must—have gone somewhere, but I just can’t remember where.

These missing details and others make for a haphazard investigation, both of our history and of my own strange grief now. As I try to make sense not only of what I am beginning to believe is L.’s death, but also of why I feel so stricken by the loss, I wonder whether I can even legitimately feel this, tell this.

The next day, I think I attended the wrestling tournament, because I can picture the blue mats, smell the boys peeling off their plastic suits made to make them sweat ounces and ounces, but I can’t recall whether I actually saw him on the floor.


For the first two weeks, there is no sign of any memorial-like commentary at all on my friend’s Facebook page. The last thing he posted was a Huffington Post article titled, “’Yoda’ Spotted in Medieval Manuscript.” It just sits there at the top. Some legacy.

I read further and further back in time. I click More Stories. More Stories. I learn that L. is no longer was in touch with his parents. He has a litany of grievances against them. They apparently killed his pet many years ago. They overworked him. His anger bounces from mother to father. I find, buried in a 26th comment, a story about when he was five years old: “I was walking with my grandmother and i asked if she was ok bc she kept stopping she said she just wanted to look at the stars- i believed her and my wonderful mom used that to point out how stupid i was for not knowing my grandmother was having a heart attack. I felt like i killed my grandmother bc i was too stupid.”

And then, perhaps what will come to feel like the oddest post: He writes that when he was small one of his parents fell asleep with a lit cigarette and burnt his childhood home down, but blamed him somehow. Not that I necessarily would, but I don’t remember his house catching fire when we were children.

I’m making him sound crazy, but I don’t think that he was.


Things L. writes to me in the spring of 1994:

  1. “I have grown too, I’m taller than [name redacted], [name redacted], and [name redacted]. O.K. So, they’re all girls so what.”
  2. “Guess what geeky [name redacted] did? Give up? He tried to kill himself. Now he’s in a mental hospital—and he likes it. [Different name redacted] also tried to kill himself. It’s like an epidemic.”
  3. He’s been thinking of paintballing Nick’s house. L. writes, “Imagine the commotion.” Perhaps this is retaliation for Nick hating the Irish, but perhaps not.
  4. He’s been working out every day and maybe by summer he’ll be able to “pick up girls at the beach.” He tells me, “Honestly you don’t know what it’s like when no one even looks or thinks of you.” It’s signed, “Confused and desperate your pal.” Included with the letter is a flyer for his family’s landscaping business, a clip art lawnmower, a shamrock, and their last name in loopy script.


Nearly two weeks into searching, I see a status update from a girl I went to kindergarten with. She says she will miss L. When someone asks for clarification, she writes in the comment box that he died in a fire. And when someone else comments that they haven’t officially identified the body yet, she writes, “But it was his house.” […]

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Jessica McCaughey’s work has appeared in The Colorado Review, The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Best American Travel Essays, and Phoebe, among other publications. Jessica teaches academic and professional writing at The George Washington University in Washington, DC, and earned her MA in English and MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University in Virginia.

Read More: A brief interview with Jessica McCaughey