A farewell letter to Lee Roy Chapman

No One From Here Gets Out Alive

by Chris Sandel


Last week I got the phone call. You know the call I’m talking about: the one that concludes your favorite book and tells you that your friend is gone forever. Lee Roy Chapman slipped from my grasp, and the story I never wanted to finish ended abruptly with a gun and a bang, as if someone cruelly tore the last chapter from its weathered binding. Lee Roy was the definition of a true mystery without the benefit of a judgmental review in the newspaper to follow.

Lee Roy and I grew up together. He wasn’t the same back then as he was in the last few years of his life, but he was always a significant pull on my will and on my thoughts. In the early years, it was all so simple. We listened to our parents’ versions of what they thought music ought to be, and they passed it down to us like an elder sibling’s school clothes. We didn’t have much of an identity to call our own at the time, but it was clear to me that Lee Roy had questions, and he had a voice that sounded much older than the decade or so years of age he was at the time. He was just a boy, but he was constantly questioning what he believed to be false and he didn’t easily give away his precious trust. We had dreams back then. Dreams of Life and Love and Happiness. I don’t know exactly when it was, but something went horribly wrong along the way

During those lost summers of the 1980s, after a long day of running over mailboxes in Lee Roy’s truck, we would retreat to my parents’ house, where a select group of similarly lost ones would always be gathered around pool—their only concern being the temperature of the water, and maybe what music we were listening to. The stereo would be blasting out of an open bedroom window of my mother’s house. The playlist of choice was usually a vinyl record of Jim Morrison’s An American Prayer, and each of us knew every word of that album. We would recite it to one another as we pulled bongs and watched the world pass us by. It was as if we were watching a VHS tape, stuck on fast forward. At sunset, the clouds were red, pink, and yellow and they seemed to fly across the sky, faster than I could seem to register them as they drifted by. Life was like that back then: one afternoon, with “Inagaddadavida” stuck on repeat, spinning relentlessly on the record player outside. I remember one sunny afternoon when that vinyl record became so hot that the needle dug a trench into the album and caused the music to slowly drag itself into silence as the record stopped spinning.

It was during those same summers when a new and revolutionary night club opened on the corner of 18th and Boston Avenue. It was called SRO. I think it was modeled after the trendy New York City nightclubs that had become so popular at the time. All kinds of people went to SRO. But it was the “Club Kids” I remember the most. The Club Kids were sort of the ‘90s equivalent of the hippie movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. They dressed in these elaborate outfits and they all wore tons of makeup and skimpy outfits, regardless of gender. And they would dance the night away on Ecstasy or whatever drug they could get their hands on at the time. I was only 16 or 17 at the time, but I had a few friends who were part of that scene, so I quickly found a comfortable place amongst them—and all it cost me was an occasional (and uncomfortable) squeeze of my ass.

As my endeavors became more primitive, Lee Roy withdrew and became more cerebral than he had ever been in all the years I had known him. Maybe he heard something the rest of us didn’t that hot summer day when “Inagaddadavida” was forever silenced in my backyard, something that forced a transformation in him that I don’t believe ever reached a conclusion. Our likes and dislikes became undeniably separated, and as a result of our increasingly different interests we grew apart in a way that I can’t quite describe, even this many years later. Or, maybe he was just growing up in ways I didn’t understand at the time and still possibly don’t. But, whatever the case, something changed in him. It was beautiful at times, but you could tell it was hinged upon something very dark. Sometimes he wouldn’t speak for days. And when he did, it was often bitter and laced with disdain.

And then it happened, and at the worst possible time for Lee Roy, as he seemed to be very vulnerable and unsure of his own identity. I was sitting at the bar at SRO one late afternoon. I had just finished cleaning up the place from the events of the night before. With nothing to do, and an hour to waste before the place actually opened, I turned the huge projector screen on—it covered nearly an entire wall of the club and it usually showed odd images and music video clips as the music played at night. But at that moment, I had it tuned in to the local news.

It was an important breaking story, the talking head on the screen told me. A woman was murdered by her boyfriend, who later killed himself as the police arrived. A cowardly series of events, at best. I watched in disbelief. I had never experienced sudden loss like I did when they announced that the woman who was Lee Roy’s mother. I knew her well. She was family, and it hurt me like it would to lose an aunt from another state—a relative I knew I loved but wasn’t quite sure why. For Lee Roy, it was life altering.

Lee Roy went into a self-destructive/self-defining mode. He moved to Austin, Texas, and became very involved in the music world—his heroes, at least a great portion of them, were from Texas. Bob Wills. Waylon and Willie and all the outlaws of the music industry. I would visit from time to time, but each time I left Austin, I was more concerned about him than I was after each prior visit, and each time I left, my hope for him dwindled. To fight my own demons, I had relocated to New Orleans for the time. Sadly, I did this for a lot of the same reasons Lee Roy left Tulsa, but none of my woes were nearly as significant. Sitting in a New Orleans bar, I would be drinking with a midget on a unicycle to my right and a six-foot-five drag queen to my left as a hurricane rolled into the French Quarter.

Lee Roy came back to Tulsa and the birthplace of what would eventually be overwhelming guilt about the history of his town—he came back to where it all started. I think he intended to find himself, and I think possibly he did find a man named Lee Roy Chapman who was full of even more questions and was now smart enough to unearth the answers to his queries. And then he did what he could to make his home a better place than it was before he put his enormous thumbprint on it.

Meanwhile, I stayed in New Orleans and continued to slip away until I eventually landed in a locked-down psych ward back in Tulsa with help from my family. This is where I decided to pass my time writing the novel that had been aching inside of me since my earliest memories. A strange and unlikely reunion for Lee Roy and me. Two very different paths led us back to each other. And this time as partners in anti-crime, no less.

I wrote fiction that was based in fact, and I told secrets by telling truthful lies that I, for some reason, felt inclined to make public knowledge. My medium became books of “fiction.” And Lee Roy, true to his original form, chose non-fiction. He had a knack for investigative journalism, which also told similar types of secrets about boogie men, but he did it with a bit more punch than I could possibly generate with my best of left hook. His stories affected the world of influence in Tulsa, and he targeted the hypocrisy in the power infrastructure of the city. It quickly became clear to me that nothing I was publishing had near the impact on our culture to what Lee Roy was putting out there. While I was warning of dangers in our everyday lives—rapists, robbers, and murderers under the blanket of protection called “fiction”—he was telling you exactly how it was and what would happen if this or that particular activity continued. He was fearless. He took on the big dogs and I bullied the puppies. Lee Roy was always stronger and tougher than I will ever be.

The last day I saw Lee Roy was the day before his death. He had been telling me for years that he didn’t want to read my novels because he didn’t want to have an opinion of my work, outside of what we had done together. But, that weekend he told me he had read a chapter in my second book, a chapter called “Lee.” I wrote about him as I saw him. About his mother and how I felt as if that loss had never quieted itself enough for him to find peace. In response to what I had written, his words were a simple “thank you.”

Lee Roy will always be with me. I carry him with me wherever I go.


Originally published in This Land: Winter 2016