I have written, oh, perhaps several hundred obituaries. This may be the most difficult one, and because of that it merits an unusual approach.
The fact is that I was lucky. For nearly a quarter century, I got to call Mike Roberts my best friend. For the last nine of those years, while he was the magazine's circulation director, I also got to call him my coworker. Many of you knew him as the booming voice if you called the NSTCW office or as the boisterous, ponytailed quipster if you went to any of the shows hosted by the magazine.
He and I always joked that a friend will help you move, but a best friend will help you move a body. We'd have unquestionably done that for each other, but the truth is that if anyone perished around Mike it's probably because they died of laughter.
I well remember the first time I saw him. He was at a local pub regaling a group of people with stories about the antics of his deaf rescue cat, which he had appropriately named Whome, as in "Who, me?” I thought: I'm going to make friends with this gonzo comedian.
And so it came to pass.
Many of the stories of our hijinks do not translate well, being of the "you had to be there” variety. Trust me, the time he and I dressed up my stuffed bears in the publisher's skivvies was a fall-down-on-the-floor laff riot. In person. In print, it falls as flat as some of Mike's punchlines.
And those punchlines were even funnier when he ruined them, as was his wont. At a Christmas party many years ago, he did a 20-minute setup for a mildly off-color Christmas joke involving a singing parrot named Chet. By the time he had done the intricate and heavily embellished windup to the pitch of a batter-flattening punchline, he owned that room.
Then, when he meant to deliver the grand finale, singing in full voice, "Chet's nuts roasting on an open fire,” it came out as the standard "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire….”
Pause for effect, as a crowd of 30 stared in silence for a couple of seconds and then realized: He trashed the joke. It was far funnier than if he'd done it right, and no one laughed harder than Mike.
One thing he never got wrong: imitating people, for he had the gift of mimicry. Accents, gestures, vocabulary, he was an artist when it came to doing impressions of anyone. I overheard him mimicking me numerous times, and he utterly nailed it. His imitation of me throwing a hissy was … well, me, throwing a hissy. And righteously funny.
He wasn't secretive or mean-spirited about it. He'd just as soon imitate you in your presence as behind your back, for he shone with an audience. Flashback to when he was looking after me when I'd broken a toe (not for the first time) and he said, "This is most people walking,” as he studied the floor and watched where he was going. "This is Nancy walking,” as he looked skyward and whistled and mimed reading a book and slamming into random pieces of furniture.
That's the thing. He could make you not only accept your own foibles but hoot at them. What a gift.
It wasn't all sunshine. No serious, longterm friendship gets dealt that hand, nor should it, for then at least one person is holding back on reality. Sometimes we disagreed and sometimes we flat-out argued, but we supported each other through decades of the deaths of parents and friends and pets. (Yeah. I saw him weep. Get over your macho selves. People cry, and I wouldn't be close friends with anyone who doesn't.)
He wasn't a touchy-feely-huggy person, so when the going got unspeakably tough he'd say, "Tips!” and wag his fingers. We'd wag-touch our fingertips, resolutely nod to each other, and say, "We can do this. And a thousand other things.”
Mike hit thing 1,001 and couldn't bear the thought of 1,002. The publisher will address that in his column.
I think of a line written by a local survivor of the Civil War when he'd lost everything and was in the maelstrom of Reconstruction: "Here I stand, a blasted stump in the wilderness of life.” Suddenly losing one's longtime best friend, with all the shared trust and experiences blasted down to one person instead of two, feels something like that. But I stand. One of us has to.
Yes, it's the strangest obit I've ever written, but Mike would be disappointed if it weren't. He's up there, looking down at me and wagging his fingers and saying, "Tips! You can do this and a thousand other things.”
I feel certain that he's also trashing the punchline of a joke, leaving Saint Pete helpless with laughter. Mike is singing, "Chestnuts roasting … no, wait!”