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  • Writer's pictureMike Matson

The Indispensible Character

Updated: Apr 14

If you live long enough, hundreds, if not thousands of people will come in and out of your existence. The depth of your connection with a very finite few will help define your own raison d’être.


Duane William Smith was one of mine. He died last month. I had given up social media for Lent, or I’d have found out sooner, not that it would have made a difference.


We met at Mr. D’s IGA in the Sweetbriar shopping center in northwest Wichita. As 18-year-old “courtesy boys,” we personified Mr. D’s homespun euphemism for young men hired to sack, carry out and stock groceries.


He and I shared the three interchangeable priorities of young men on the move. Girls, cars and beer. In 1979, we were roommates in the Indian Hills apartment complex on west 13th. We came of age at the pinnacle of the lighted dance floor, polyester/platforms, steady/rhythmic thrum of disco.


“I think,” Duane once yelled over the loud and shiny music, “we’re gonna be a goddamn subculture.”


In the day, in our crowd, he was Duane the Man, a nickname that captured the essence of how we viewed him. He would never have called himself Duane the Man, but when someone else did, he held his head a little higher.


As I worked through dozens of pools of word vomit that would become, in essence, a memoir of my early adult life, I regurgitated everything I could remember about the people, places and events. It didn’t take long for Duane to emerge as the indispensable character.


In writing the book, my aim was to highlight what I had come to recognize as my own behavioral traits that led me down a path toward addiction.


The key to successful creative nonfiction, I have learned through experience, is getting the nonfiction right. I traveled back in time, immersed myself in the popular culture of the era, and grew my hair long. Most importantly, I reconnected with those whom I loved, lost, or let go. Two reasons. Accuracy, and to see if maybe, just maybe, they might be willing to come out and play – one more time – in a very public way.


The journalist in me worked up a little questionnaire, a tool to secure Duane’s permission to use his real name in the book. I primed the pump with my memories and how I was fleshing out his character: “Intelligent, above the fray, wiseass with underlying insecurities.”


“I actually INSIST that you use my real name,” Duane replied. “But I would like to review that a bit. I would prefer to not be subjected to literary psychological vivisection. We all have our demons.”


It turned out Duane and I were visited by the same demons. Writing a book about mine gave him the imprimatur to ask for help with his. In his last couple of years, Duane found his way to rehab. I don’t know if he was sober when he died. I went to rehab three times. It took psyche-altering, core-shaking loss before my recovery gained purchase.


It doesn’t matter to me how he died. It does matter that as young men, we shared a life-defining period of time. It matters that we drifted apart, reconnected and relived the glory years. It matters that he asked for help, and I was able to offer it.


My own literary psychological vivisection revealed a young man so self-obsessed that he could not realize the true value of friendships while living in the moment. One of the log lines of Courtesy Boy:


“It’s about having good friends but lacking the skills to keep them when you need them most.”


My guess is there’ll be no ashes to ashes, dust to dust rituals, no funeral. No family, save a brother and his kids. As far as the notion of resurrection to eternal life, Duane flirted with atheism, but he also talked of “sailing the cosmic sea.” His memorial will be the memories of those fortunate, happy few of us he deigned worthy to let in on the wry inside joke.


Duane lived a few degrees outside the mainstream, which manifested itself in intellect, a lightning quick wit, OCD, and a grim sardonic life view that demanded further investigation and very often made sense.


Why should his death be any different?

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