June 11, 2012
I’m at work when Lenny tells me that Jeff Cuttner has died. His news arrives as the innocuous chime of an instant message, the intermittent soundtrack of my empty office. It’s a link without context, and it takes me a minute to make sense of the Florida daily-news website that subsequently pops open. The entire article is barely a hundred words. A car accident, four in the morning, driver suspected to be asleep at the wheel. And Cuttner’s stats of course: six-foot-five, three hundred ten pounds. The article closes with a quote from his agent, calling it a tragedy.
It’s genuinely surreal, Lenny says through the neutral text of an internet window. Jeff Cuttner. Dead in a car accident. In Florida.
Jeff Cuttner, formerly drafted ninety-first for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, formerly a starting lineman for NC State, formerly the first Division I scholarship from Port Jefferson in twenty-seven years, formerly Earl L. Vandermeulen high school team captain – all-American Jeff Cuttner looks exactly the way he did a decade ago. He has the same pushed-forward crew cut, the same flared nostrils, the same smirk. He’s bigger probably, though I can’t tell for sure. The article’s accompanying thumbnail only shows him from the shoulders up.
Then Lenny’s off on a tangent, explaining how he discovered this in the process of losing a grand on his sports book—which is not an uncommon occurrence lately. Lenny has come to the conclusion that he’s spent the intervening years since our time together on the Port Jeff little-league team as an undiagnosed depressive. He’s not happy about the resultant gambling problem, but it’s since become a feature of our friendship, every part as unremarkable as our reminiscence over the town in which we grew up.
Lenny says: maybe it is tragic. Hometown heroes and all that. He would’ve gotten handshakes and free beers at Tommy’s Place. Now he’s dead.
Lenny adds: he really was shitty to all those kids he nicknamed animals.
And I should be working on a marketing presentation about how to sell more Advil, but instead I’m thinking about how Mike Steinman—whose shoulders were forever hunched under the weight of his giant Jansport—did kind of look like a turtle. Jeff Cuttner made a point to remind Mike of this whenever he found Mike in the school hallways, on his way from Social Studies or coming back from gym class with a ‘V’ of sweat at his collar as big as Mike’s face. He would yell TURTLE in his rolled Long Island drawl so that the ‘r’ softened and the ‘l’ overtook the ‘t’ and the whole of it rang off the windows. This went on for so long that the kids in Science Olympiads started calling Mike Turtle as well, helping to absorb some of the nickname’s blunt force. Danny Lin, whose parents were physicists at the local university, became Squirrel by similar means. Kevin Harkins with his toothbrush-spray of acne got Aardvarkins on account of phonetics. His was a barking diminutive that could be heard around corners and in stairwells—a clutch of barrel-chested guys all stuttering ar-ar-ard-varkins in chorus as though they were coughing.
Not everyone got an animal. Calvin Milner, another football player graced with many athletic gifts but few social ones had his interest in the air force subsequently transformed into Milnertary. Calvin’s coronation was initially made in good spirits—he being one of Jeff Cuttner’s own—until he was caught getting blown by his fat girlfriend in a Chevy Trailblazer at PJ Cinemas. After that the tone of Milnertary (and the subsequent bestowal of Lewinsky on his girlfriend) assumed a violent edge. In that moment, it was as if the substance of Calvin’s life became altered. It was as if Jeff Cuttner could suddenly peer forward into Calvin’s future and see how he would later come out as gay, how he would go on to an inauspicious aeronautics degree from a small technical university, how his father would be arrested for embezzlement and spend several years in a state prison, how the Milner family would fall to shambles, divorcing and selling the McMansion they owned in Port Jefferson’s gated community. To remember Jeff Cuttner’s voice, shouting at Calvin across the linoleum-floored cafeteria, was to believe that even then he knew what was coming, or somehow presaged it.
And yet, the way Jeff appears to me most clearly is in the school library where I went to hide at lunchtime. I’d managed to make it almost as far as April without an incident, but somehow, one random day, there he was at the next table over, hundreds of pounds of track pants and sweatshirt, calling me by name. The shock of it still spikes like a sense-memory: my black jeans bent in at the knees as though bracing for a blow, my eyes downturned, my hands shaking. He calls my name again and I have no choice but to acknowledge him and to see what he wants. To undoubtedly receive my own mantle. Except when I do, he says: yo I read your story in the lit mag. That’s fucked up how that girl shoots the guy.
There’s a memorial on Facebook, Lenny explains. Apparently a lot of people loved Jeff Cuttner.
My boss pokes his head in about something that’s late by a half-hour, but I don’t hear him, not really. I’m thinking about Calvin, about Mike. I wonder if they’ve heard the news.
John Fischer is a writer and marketing consultant. A graduate of Vassar College with a degree in music composition, his writing has appeared in PANK Magazine, Palooka Journal, the New York Observer, and the Random House anthology “Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers.” He has on thin professional pretenses: commuted to Disney World, attended the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, toured the various convenience-store chains of the Tri-State area, and been interviewed about trends and culture by Newsweek, ABC News, and Monocle Magazine.