What drew us all to Clayton Joyner was how alive he was.
I met Clayton in Ms. Pearson’s class in the 2nd grade at Camelot Elementary. While a lot of friends came and went, I was close to Clayton the whole time I lived in Virginia: 2nd grade through 7th grade.
Clayton and I shared a deeply silly sense of humor. He once made this video at Brian Rowe’s house that at the time I thought was about the funniest thing I’d ever seen: In the backyard, Clayton shouts to Brian’s brother, Michael, “Did you know that your dog is in my lawn?” “I have no dog,” says Michael. And then Clayton shouts, “Well I don’t have a lawn!” Suddenly, Clayton has disappeared and there’s a little smoke bomb where he was standing. Offscreen, Clayton laughs a stagey villainous “HA HA HA” kind of laugh. That’s it, that’s the whole video.
He laughed a lot, sometimes maniacally.
Once Clayton chased me around his house with a large kitchen knife, cackling. When I ran into the living room, he stopped chasing me, shut the french doors that led to the living room, and stuck the knife in the gap between the doors, slicing up and down so that all I could see was the knife’s blade. I thought, “what if I ran up to the doorway right now? I’d die.”
In his backyard, Clayton once demonstrated the makeshift blowtorch you can create with WD-40 and a lighter. There was a dead squirrel in his yard and he tried to burn it.
Clayton’s slight unhingedness was part of what made him so fun to be around. You didn’t relax, but it was worth it. You could relax later.
Clayton and I loved all the same bands: Bush, Smashing Pumpkins, Silverchair, Stone Temple Pilots. He also liked AC/DC, who I’d never heard. He introduced me to Marilyn Manson, singing “Sweet Dreams” and “Beautiful People” on the way to school. I wondered, “Who’s she?”
One time for my birthday, me and my friends got to stay at a hotel. I found Clayton and Brian dropping tiny objects off a high balcony near the people below.
Clayton was one of the best athletes in our grade and I was one of the worst. The only time we did a sport together was summer after 2nd grade when we were both on the Camelot swim team. Clayton was already a natural and I couldn’t hack it. I didn’t sign back up the following summer, but we still went to the Camelot community pool all the time.
We played a lot of video games together–Nintendo in his basement and PC in his dad’s office. He introduced me to Commander Keen and Wolfenstein 3D. He was my only friend with an Atari Jaguar and a Virtual Boy.
Clayton’s house was a five-minute walk from mine, and had the exact same layout as mine. I loved that our houses were twins.
Clayton made my parents a little nervous, but my parents and Clayton’s parents liked each other, so there was never any danger of my not being allowed to hang out with him.
One time, Clayton and me and a few other boys got sent to the principal’s for beating up on Curtis at recess. It had all been in good fun until it suddenly wasn’t. In Principal Chubb’s office, I cried. I didn’t think of myself as the kind of kid who got sent to the principal’s office, so it was a huge blow.
One time Clayton and I were roller-skating in his basement and my fist went through the window.
For awhile, he started this thing where he’d shout, “Fluffy!!!” in a weird falsetto voice. He had us all doing it, especially when there were fluffy dogs around but also all the time.
The first time I ever saw porn was in Clayton’s basement. It was terrifying.
One Halloween, we all met up at Clayton’s but the group was so big that we naturally all split into two groups. Later in the night, my group started to hear stories from the neighbors about the mischief Clayton’s group was getting into: eggs, TP, etc. We all reconvened at his house at the end of the night, counted our goods, and watched one of the “Treehouse of Horror” episodes of Simpsons.
My parents used to say that Clayton would go to jail or become president.
Clayton was the first kid in our friend group to hit puberty. Once in sixth grade, he very casually told me about how he and Nate Richman took Alyssa and Veronique out to the movies. I was so disappointed to hear that it was officially on. I wanted to protest that we were still in elementary school, that going out on dates was what middle schoolers did. Sometime before or after that, another girl told me, in front of Alyssa, that Alyssa liked me, and I just could not even process it. I think I said something like “okay” and left.
By 7th grade, though, I was very much ready to start dating girls. The meanest thing Clayton ever did to me was this: I was getting up the nerve to ask out the girl I liked, and I everybody could tell where it was going because she and I sat together in at least one class and hung out in the halls and stuff. And on the bus on the way home, Clayton called me out on it: “You like Jeanette. Gross. She’s too skinny and pale.” I denied liking her, and then I never asked her out. But Clayton was just being a 13-year-old–I just wish I hadn’t been so concerned with what my friends thought of me.
But Clayton was well aware of his power over others and often would use it charitably. The rest of us would pick on someone uncool and Clayton would suddenly, almost at random, come to their defense. “Noli is cool!” he’d declare. “Noli is my FRIEND.”
As a kid, there was always a part of me that was too cautious, too uptight, but I liked that what Clayton drew out of me was the opposite. His example gave me the courage to start casually swearing on the playground.
One time in 7th grade, after we got off the bus, he yelled something at me and I turned, smiled, flipped him off, and then kept walking home. The only reason I remember this moment is because for 12-year-old Gabe, this was the kind of moment that passed for badass.
Before I moved away, Brian invited me over for a sleepover. When I showed up, Clayton and all the rest of the guys were there to give me a surprise going away party. But instead of shouting “surprise” with a cake, they all pelted me with water balloons. Then Brian’s mom gave me a big pail of water balloons and I had my revenge.
For years after I moved to California, I’d have dreams about my reunion with my Virginia friends. I’d run into them somewhere random and immediately we’d all be friends again, right where we left off.
Our one online interaction was when we found each other after the dawn of Facebook. Here’s Clayton’s message in its entirety:
The man, the myth, the legend. Gabe motha fuckin Durham how the hell have you been……!? It’s been sometime since the days of Mike Tyson’s Punch Out on Guinevere Dr. My Mom still lives up in Camelot and I’m now kickin it at VCU. Good choice on Pepperdine man, I know you had some family connects, and it’s down by the beach boiiiiiiiiiiiI! Plus the girls are only ranked the hottest in the nation. Hit me back sometime and if you’re ever back East let me know, We’ll burn this mother down one city at a time.
My reply to this message was kinda friendly but didn’t match his enthusiasm. Why didn’t I strike up a conversation, find out what he’d been up to? Why didn’t I try to see him the time I came through town? Maybe it’s because I’ve always been a little embarrassed about how much my old Virginia friends mean to me. I moved away and in my head they all moved on without me.
I never got to meet Clayton in person as an adult, but it makes total sense that he was so loved in his career as a swim coach. People happily followed him his whole life–It never occurred to us not to. That’s the kind of coach kids want to work hard for.
In an email last week, Brian told me a great story about adult Clayton that shows just how much he stayed himself:
The last time I saw him was back in the late fall, we went canoeing and camping with a group of 9 guys along the Shenandoah. Most people brought extra clothes or food… Clayton brought a crossbow. He said that it was to prevent a, “The Hills Have Eyes-type situation”. Nobody got shot but he and Randy did manage to capsize their canoe in near- freezing water, so as usual with Clayton there was never a dull moment.
I loved Clayton, envied him, feared him a little, and was glad he liked me. I felt “chosen” the way a truly magnetic person can make you feel chosen. Behind all the crazy was a huge heart and a creative mind. My childhood would have been so much more boring without him.
Love and sympathy to his mom, Nancy, his sister, Kristin, his girlfriend, Jana, and all the friends he left behind. We miss you, buddy.