Scene 1: High Up on That Hill
A massive oak tree shades two grave markers, high on a hill along a narrow gravel road that rises up to a grassy knoll. The oak's branches dip, down low, catching the last strains of R.B. Morris strumming his guitar and the low voices of those gathered together today.
"Jack Delano Renfro," says the marker on the right. "CPL US Army. 1932-1985."
"Brad Barron Renfro," says the marker on the left. "July 25, 1982-January 15, 2008."
Today is July 25, 2008. It would have been actor Brad Renfro's 26th birthday, had he not died of a drug overdose seven months ago.
Instead, this band of 10 or so fans and friends, led by his aunt-by-marriage, Karen Holt, has declared this Friday—every July 25 from now on—as "Froday." And they are here to celebrate, and remember, this man they loved and still miss, whether they knew him in person or from following his every move in a silver-screen career that began when director Joel Schumacher hired Renfro as an unknown 10-year-old to play a tough-but-tender fugitive in 1992's The Client.
The formalities at the tiny, country Red House Cemetery in Blaine, around 25 miles from North Knoxville, where Renfro was raised by his paternal grandmother, are over. Morris performed two songs and spoke of the days when Brad would hang out at his Lincoln Park place and brainstorm. He's said polite good-byes, adroitly turned all conversations away from his own fame and back to Brad, and ambled back to his car. The fond wishes and memories sent via e-mail from fans as far away as Slovakia and as nearby as Knoxville have been shared; tears have been shed.
But the group, including a mother-daughter duo from California, a fan who drove from North Carolina at 1 a.m. and has been here since 6 a.m., and Alicia Staton, a Knoxville RN who met Brad through his step-grandfather Pete Holt, is still milling. They duck down to their autos for smokes, walk back up through grass accented with tiny purple flowers, periwinkles. They're fully enjoying the luxury—stifled in the every day—of talking about a person who's now dead, at great length, without making anyone sad or uncomfortable.
"He never packed any clothes—you'd have to give him a T-shirt—but he'd always cook for you," says Holt, who's there with her willowy blonde 13-year-old daughter, Peyton Alexandria. "Allie watched him in Tom and Huck when she was small and he terrified her, coming out of the mud in that scene, When we were going to Mark and Kim's, she'd want to see him, but she'd say, ‘Is he going to have that mud on him?'"
Mark is Mark Renfro, Brad's father; Kim is Mark's second wife, Brad's stepmother and Karen Holt's sister. When the idea of a Froday started coming up on a fan website, Holt says she knew Mark wouldn't be up to the interaction. His grief is too fresh, particularly since his mother Joanne Renfro died just two weeks after Brad. "I told him, ‘I know you can't do it, but can I represent us?'" Holt remembers.
And that she's doing, with the others politely, not fanatically, hanging on her every word. "I'm just a fan," says Jeannie Mathews, a twentysomething from Manchester, Tenn., who did not know Brad was from Knoxville until he died. She starts the melted Butterfingers talk. Got to have some for Froday. "That's what everyone was saying, even before we said, ‘Let's get together,'" she notes.
The reference comes from The Cure, where Renfro's pre-teen character "fixes" a meal by microwaving candy bars. "He makes them look really good," says Mathews.
The attendees talk a lot about Brad Renfro performances. "There's a piece of him in every movie he made," says Karen Jones, a small woman who came in from upstate New York. "Except Mummy an' the Armadillo. That's why I don't like that movie."
Jones met Renfro briefly. "That's all it took," she says. "I don't want to go into why, but I was crying in a restaurant and he came over. I was also raised by my grandmother, so we have that, too."
The group discusses which films they should watch together tonight at length. "Not Hollywood Flies," says Jones. "You wouldn't like that. He dies in that."
They take more time deciding what happens to the Froday flower arrangements—cascades of color in baskets. "Yeah, Brad wouldn't care," says Holt. "He'd be like, ‘Take these flowers, leave me a cigarette.'"
That reminds Tom Sharp, a dark-haired cosmetology instructor who came in from Winston-Salem, N.C. "Will you assist me?" he asks Holt. She does, and they leave a cigarette and blue plastic disposable lighter for Brad, crooked in the arm of a boy angel statuary a few feet behind his grave marker.
"There's that missing lighter we always had to look for," quips Holt.
Scene 2: The Audition
Later that evening, the same people, looking genuinely at ease, like maybe they vacation together once a year, are in chairs facing a screen at the back of the dining room at the Gourmet Market. This is towards the end of the Froday reception. Mark and Kim Renfro did show up, along with Renfro's teenaged stepbrother Dane; the fans and friends are still reveling in the contact. But the Renfros are gone now and the others have settled on their first video: the tape of Brad's audition for The Client.
He's composed, a beautiful boy with chiseled planes on his face, know-everything eyes, a ready smile, talking to Mali Finn, a legend in the casting world.
Finn murmurs a few words of direction, has him run a line. "Get off my back!" he says as his eyes flash comprehension, his teeth clench, just enough—a natural.
His vocabulary, sweetness, and focus are all impossibly heightened in this boy of 10. This new teacher he has now, Lawson? "I can respond to her," he says.
Dennis Bowman, the D.A.R.E. officer who famously submitted Renfro for consideration for his first role? Tell us about him, says Finn.
"He used to be on bike patrol!" Brad snickers. "The first time I met him, I started yelling, ‘I smell bacon.' ... He didn't even hear me, he thought I was some little hoodlum."
But eventually, after D.A.R.E. was done, "He gave me a chance. And I gave him a chance."
Scene 3: A Toast and a Poster
On the corner of the buffet table rests an album with just a few snapshots of adult Brad, newly 25, at his last birthday party in California with his platonic roommate Karen Lacey and her sister, Christy. "Those two and their brother Kenny were Brad's extended family," says Holt. "Karen said she had to twist Brad's arm to get him to celebrate his birthday."
There's carrot cake in the photo, and here, too, a regal round version from MagPies, with names of select Renfro movies piped in icing along the side. They make one more toast at 10:43, "when, as Mark would say, he came kicking and screaming into this world sideways," says Holt.
She thanks the others in her speech for getting her through these past seven months. "You think the world stops for your grief," she says. "It doesn't."
She and Staton note conspiratorially that they have earned $750 for the donation to D.A.R.E. in Renfro's name, with the T-shirts and all.
My Very Own Poster made by Brad as a 10-year-old is on the table as the core group discusses how much longer they can politely stake out the Gourmet Market. "The Cure, next," says a bleary-eyed Sharp, made emotional by the audition tape.
The poster was given to Holt just a couple of days ago by Rita Kemper, one of Renfro's childhood teachers. It's got glossy guitar magazine cutouts everywhere. Under "Things I don't like," he's pasted only a picture of Pee-wee Herman.
And he's filled in the blanks. "I wish... I could go to a Led Zeppelin concert. I wish... I could go to a Ramones concert.
"I wish... for a million wishes."