Once on a rock by the sea sat five boys singing. I was one of the boys and so was my friend Kyle Billing. The others were bashful at first, but Kyle and I raised our voices and soon everybody joined in. Against the sound of the crashing surf we sang unselfconsciously, anything we could remember: “A Fugue for Tinhorns” from Guys and Dolls, “Be Our Guest!” from Beauty and the Beast, and Row, Row, Row Your Boat. We recited tongue twisters and lines from movies, told stupid jokes, and argued about the existence of God. After the sun set, we crossed a dark road by starlight and stayed up late in the beach house, talking and playing games.
I was fifteen and a freshman, and the other boys were seniors in their first summer of life after high school. I had been allowed into their circle by its leader, a dashing blond boy who had been both captain of the tennis team and the lead in the spring musical. I idolized that group as my high school’s artistic elite. One of them designed lighting for the school plays, another played the jazz saxophone and had read everything, another had a caustic wit, and another wrote a column for the school paper. Kyle painted and drew and he was good. His paintings not only looked like what they were supposed to, but they had style. Looking back, I imagine that I was tolerated by that bunch more with kindness than real affection, but with Kyle I remember always feeling like an equal.
He was tall and slender, with floppy brown hair which he was always running his fingers through in a kind of befuddlement with everything. He managed to crack everybody up without quite trying to. His impression of Steve Martin as Ruprecht from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels cracks me up even now. In a school of sunny courtyards and boys in athletic gear, Kyle gave me permission to sit in the shade in rumpled khakis and a black blazer. How many lunches did I spend, happily admitted into the inner sanctum of his social circle, the banquette around a nicked up linoleum table in the back of his maroon van, invariably parked right next to the bright green campus lawn.
I remember a walk I took with him on the beach where we sang. We rolled up our khakis and meandered through the tide pools, looking for signs of life and not finding much. Just after abandoning our search, we found a lone pool that had it all: a starfish, hermit crabs, a miniature seaweed forest, and a tiny Aladdin’s cave of multicolored agates. We returned to the group like a pair of explorers who have found a lost city.
There is a piece of music that will always make me think of Kyle. We were all driving up into the mountains near Lake Tahoe and either he or I convinced the boys to listen to the soundtrack to Thirty-two short films about Glenn Gould, which had just come out that summer. Forced to listen to classical music, the groans of boredom and protest mounted until right before “Allegretto from Sonata No. 17 in D minor” (I had to look that up, I know the piece by ear but not by name). Kyle spoke up and got the guys in the front row to keep the tape in for that track, because, he said as he glanced at me, “It is the magical one.” I still think that bit of music is magic. Kyle, thank you for defending that magic and co-creating this small memory, which I record here.
After graduation, Kyle was bound for The Art Institute of Chicago. He told me about a project he and his classmates did on “The Artist’s Role in Society.” He and his pals served dinner rolls and butter to the class for their presentation. They made a video of themselves rolling up to people on the street, standing up, and holding out a microphone, asking “What do you think the artist’s role in society is?” Such an irreverent attitude toward a school assignment shocked me, and confirmed my view of him as a devil-may-care badass.
In 1999, I was sitting in my dorm room at Yale, which overlooked the gravestones of Grove Street Cemetery. I got a call from an old high school acquaintance whose kindness I’m grateful for but whose name I don’t remember. She told me that Kyle had been shot while loading supplies into his new studio in Sacramento. He had been held up at gunpoint next to that maroon van. He was 23. The only response I was capable of at the time was to go down into the cemetery and sit on a bench and read aloud Lycidas, an elegiac poem John Milton wrote in 1637 for a Cambridge classmate who died young. I wish I’d been able to let Kyle’s family and my old friends know how much he’d meant to me. I wanted to make amends now by finding some lovely couplet from Lycidas to reproduce here which would sum up my grief for Kyle. I reread the poem. Turns out it isn’t about Milton’s friend at all and it’s not really about grief, either. It’s about Milton’s neurotic desire to be a famous poet. As a poem it’s quite good. As a eulogy it’s egotistical and pedantic and totally sucks.
So I made this insufficient eulogy instead.
Kyle, you are remembered here. You will always be remembered, and you are greatly missed.