Again, in preserving some of these older pieces, I find I must be willing to overlook what I feel are certain obvious weaknesses. In the present case, I do it for memory’s sake, and for its biographical and autobiographical value. My friend’s death when we were eighteen, the time that led up to it and which immediately followed, I count as one of the saddest, most fortunate experiences of my life — sad for obvious reasons, fortunate for the doors and windows his loss opened in my youthful knowledge and thinking.
Letter to a Friend
From the quiet street I followed the walk to the front door, tapped lightly, waited a moment, then let myself in. Your mother smiled as she passed restlessly through the room with a bundle of linen, tired, grateful for my intrusion. She turned one way in the hall, I turned the other. I found you on your side in bed, holding yourself up with your elbow, a barricade of pillows behind. Beside your bed was your easel. On the easel was a small canvas. On the canvas was a bright oval bouquet, glowing red, almost finished. In your right hand was a brush. With impatience, you said, “Look at this junk. What kind of person wants something like this?” Then you smiled.
You were eighteen, your body was dying, and your obstinate spirit was raging in the moment as the winter sunlight stared at us through the window. The light failed to warm your arm, fell lifeless on the floor. It failed to understand its mission, and all that you had done. Or it simply lacked the strength to carry on.
Your room was crowded with paintings, each bearing your last name in the lower right-hand corner. Some were hanging on the walls, others leaning along the floor. A few that disgusted you were stacked in the closet. Later today or tomorrow, this one and that one would be gone, replaced by small sums of money. The money helped pay for your treatment. The paintings helped you stay alive. I knew them all, watched them become alive and solid one by one, the faces, the flowers, the rocking chairs, the vases, prematurely aged by grief and brightened by your subtle, wicked sense of humor.
While we were talking, a man came in with a bible. He knew he was an imposter, and he knew you knew, too. He closed his eyes and recited a short prayer, wishing he were in Tahiti with a woman not his wife, then made his escape. We heard him say good-bye to your mother at the door. We heard the door close, and we two friends were left alone again in our coffin. We talked about the holy rollers, the time you had gone to see them, and how they made you laugh as they flailed on the floor. You were like a boy peeking beneath the tent flaps of women’s dull-brown skirts, crawling in to see the circus of the traveling salvation show.
I went to your house every day. I followed the walk to the front door, tapped lightly, waited a moment, then let myself in. Your mother smiled, grateful for my intrusion. I stood at your bedside, kept watch until you were gone. I found you later at the local funeral home, where in public the same imposter made religious claims about you that were untrue, then gaily shook my hand as I came forward to help carry you away. I found you again at the hillside cemetery, waiting motionless beneath a sky you had painted especially for the occasion. I hugged your mother, your father, your sister. I said good-bye.
Songs and Letters, March 23, 2005
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Categories: Songs and Letters