The scribble on the back of this thin, over-handled photograph does not say what year it is, but only gives the child’s name and age. Little grooves of snow run down the rutted hills beyond the icicle’d eaves of this house’s porch. A similarly-styled house sits next door. This middle child with pleasant dark bangs peers warily toward the corner. Is an adult about to arrive to mess up the elements of the photograph which she has arranged? The dull doll with bonnet, last month’s gift; Buster Keaton dog; an unidentified boy squinting into the sun, his feet close together, holey skullcap kicked askew. Was he placed against his desires here? The young, brilliant developer of this scene [Hazel Marie Dennis née Elliott] has her hands placed on the roll-top desk in front of her. A teacher: she’s pretending to be the teacher: they are her class. She is trying to be in control of the situation.
At the time, I recall feeling just happy and mindless, unworried, flowing along with whatever was required of me. I did what I was supposed to do: an obedient, observant and somewhat melancholic child….
Infrequently, but always according to some Always Wrong drunkard’s timetable, Lank Elliott, GrandMomma Elliott’s last child–the one truly ever-lost dark person of that family–the confirmed bachelor–eased his Fairlane through the weeds to an abrupt halt before the ancient house of his father.
Of course, we kids were hiding behind clumps of trees or in ditches, playing at first but then seriously spying on him; we’d watch as he flicked his cigarette into the weeds, slowly got out, stretched, rearranged his pockets, spit, and rolled his neck around for comfort with that all-too-bland, impenetrable manner he had. He might then reach back into the car for his deck of cards, and only then sidle up toward the steps, his hair glistening with smelly Vitalis, his spotless white shirt catching late light. This croupy cough grumbled out before you heard “Momma? Diddy? Anybody home?” and then the sound of a wooden screen door thumping open and shut. Low greetings.
As a young English-major-to-be, I came to see how his nicknamed had been configured from the words blank, dank, and slink. Humored by everyone, cut acres of slack, Lank never stumbled around or babbled or otherwise evinced any outward signs of inebriation, even when he most certainly was. Other relatives noted this for us. Still, the smell of transmuted beer–unknown to kid noses–seeped out of the edges of his clothes.
Later on, slightly older, I was in on some Hearts games and got to know him a very little bit better. He had the odd manner, a hang-dog manner, rarely smiled, almost never spoke unless asked a direct question, and seemed to be most suited to the thick, wide eyebrows of most of his Elliott kinsmen.
It was not the only unexplained nickname we had to suss out. The adults were always ultra-careful, quick to hush us or each other when we came close to the answers.
His death? Ignominious, near Alexander City, in a small trailer. A very hot day.
© 2018 Thomas N. Dennis
[excerpt: “Sacred Devices”]
– So it gets like this: you never see the person and you never talk to or text the person for awhile, whereupon a lank, easy wonder (nourished by insecurity) starts to grow: Is it that they don’t want me around anymore? Why don’t they want me around anymore? Have I displeased this person? Morbidly bored this person? Said or done something that makes them quite suddenly allergic to my existence? If only there was a way to contact them (yes, quite, a sacred device through which our voices might be transported via air waves! Splendid! O: waitaminute), a dialogue might emerge. I should learn why they do not wish to speak a word to me besides lol or ttyl (I was in the hospital, I got hit by a truckload of pharma last night) and if they tell me how I have (if I have) offended, changes or amendments might, I say might then be made to my behavior or apologies made for my speech.
– Did you always have this accent?
– Fake accent. Sorry.
– Well, longer ago, it would be a piss-and-moanfest about “unanswered letters” or “he never returns my calls” but in the 20-teens it’s: A text is sent and there is no reply. Why no reply?
– That’s it, exactly. And I am sort of feeling like a teenager in this situation. I … I find myself doing things simply to get a response, since there is no response at all, and if that is not borderline hebephrenic, well –
– Hebephrenic it is. Point made. What do you do, oh wait, what have (heh heh) you done?
– Nothing, really. But listen. Do you know how you have that friend who always complains or who is always in a funky down mood or who is always tripping off on some godawful Main Conspiracy Lane (like the afterlife, you don’t want to go there) and so you do everything you can to avoid running into them at the office or campus. You might even cross the street, going, Ah shit here comes trouble!
– I know where you’re going with this. They create the scapegoats they become, don’t they? Escape-goats? When you do run into them, they’re all paranoid, like Why don’t I ever see you anymore or Why are you avoiding me? And you say, I’m not. But you want to speak the truth, at this point, you want to tell the person –
– that the reason I’m avoiding you —
– It’s that you are always pestering me about why we don’t get together like we used to, that’s why I am avoiding you. It’s a tautology and a Plutonic relationship at once!
© 2017 Thomas N. Dennis
[Two Rats, Van Gogh, 1884]
The last time I saw my friend G before his death, he had called me for computer help. “Yahoo has changed everything and I can’t find a particular folder,” he snapped. “Dammit, I know it’s there but I can’t find it.” I told him I’d be over shortly but before I walked over to his house, I sat for more than a while at the coffee shop considering his situation. I will admit to being in no hurry to go look into the face of death ravaging my old friend.
Nine months ago, just after turning 57, he had received the news of his Stage IV lung cancer. His treatments were now over and he was living at home, attended by several caretakers, staving off pain as best he could. The woman who knew him best said he had good and bad days. I had known G for four decades. Two days separate our birthdays. Quite different in personality – I always a bit shy, sensitive to craziness, whereas G was a people-lover, always chatting up strangers at coffee shops and maintaining many complex friendships and relationships about which I knew very little. Our vices and metaphysical interests were similar and kept us running into one another, and we both liked to read, to drink and blather on about philosophy and fancy word-flights related to comparative religion and “non-ordinary” states of consciousness.
We were demographic doubles: each left a sort of rural home area, and not unlike a bunch of other kids of similar age, we eventually slipped into the rather impoverished Southside of our state’s largest (yet not quite saddest) city. I just counted up ten different places I lived within three years’ time, and G probably moved more often than that. I remember many of his apartments and houses; paintings and prints he owned went from place to place. We freely borrowed books from one another–an open invitation existed always.
Way back in that almost unimaginable and barely still rememberable time, the first half of the Seventies, I fancied an astonishingly horny mother of three, and it may have been he who (because of her) first called me a kept boy. I can imagine it: L drops me off in her Volvo and squeaks her wheels out of the underground parking deck, I walk in and order a patty melt with coffee, sit down next to G.
“So,” he would snicker, tapping that Kool into the ashtray, smirking slimly toward someone nearby or perhaps at our table. “Neil’s become a kept boy.” Grinning so I’ll know he’s joking. Pish, I say. Posh.
I distinctly recall him coming into the all-night coffee shop we all hung around in at the time; he had just driven back from California. He was dressed well, dark lank-straight hair as long as I have ever seen it (barely touching his fancy multicolored shirt collar), and he did not take off the pale-colored sunglasses the whole time we talked, which was mostly Adventures in Wild Debauchery Out West. I eventually got to know him better because we were often in the coffee shop at the same time and fell into conversation. Our interests coincided more than in later years, when he began to become more interested in stock-market matters and investments than, say, the Emerald Tablets of Trismegistus, G.I. Gurdjieff, or yoga’s debt to shamanism. But then again, in later years, as I grew my company 401k, I found it helpful to have his advice on crucial fiduciary matters.
G was outgoing in a way I could only aspire to be, always smilingly happy to see anyone who came his way, whether he knew them personally or not. Unless he was distracted by something, he gave you his full attention when you were in front of him. I doubt he had any enemies. He knew a great number of people at all times of his life, I think, and it wasn’t only because he dealt pot.
By this I only mean he became known as someone to whom we pot-smokers could always turn to in times of great aridity – he would have something for sale. If he didn’t he’d share with you what he had. There were times when he’d give me part of a quarter-pound, with the understanding that I would bring back what I could not sell. Thus the poor (or under-employed) could enjoy quality marijuana.
[I recently re-told the story of the first Thai stick that came into my possession. G, doubtlessly one of the first in town to acquire salable quantities of it, gave me a price that seemed just outrageous, egregious, irresponsible and impossible. I was stunned. Was my old friend trying to rip me off? What marijuana could be that good? “Listen. This is different stuff. This—” holding it up for me to sniff—”what does that smell like?” It smelled of Christmas, like a piece of a spruce tree cut open. After I tried a bit of it, I understood the price differential. Later that day I looked in the mirror of my apartment as I walked in the door, and there was Lao Tzu, plain as any day in ancient China, with his Ho Chi Minh string beard and everything, right where I myself should be in the mirror. The image sifted away as I turned on a light, but I’ve never forgotten it. Thanks, G.]
Through the decades, I always saw him from time to time but never spent a great deal of time together apart from the week we both spent as day-laborers, helping a guy install bank vaults across the southern part of the state, back in 1976 or so. We never got out of touch completely. “Give me your number.” “Where you living now?”
One story, among many that could be told: in 1984, I visited a house he and his wife were renting, far out of his usual urban haunts in the woods beyond suburbia. He said, “You like Dylan, right?” I demurred, saying I’d quit listening so much to Bob since he went all Jesus-freaky. G, excitedly: “You gotta listen to this album. Guy from Dire Straits on guitar. You gotta listen to Infidels.” Sitting me down and beginning to roll joints, he made me listen until I was almost unable to find my way back into the city. (A great, and mostly unrepeatable album. We speculated on who Dylan was talking about in “Man of Peace.” I can’t think of many people with whom I could have had that conversation.)
He worked for years and years, toward the end, at our local university’s computer department, night shift (as I myself worked nights and often wound up meeting him at crazy hours to do a deal, have a beer, discuss war and finance), but they let him go just one year before he would have earned retirement pay. Never one to just say the hell with it, he sought out any kind of work he could find at the university – to fill up that gap of time, even with a great drop in pay, it would be so worth it – and the job with the special monkeys, feeding them and cleaning their stalls, became his way out.
“They’re pretty smart,” he would say, and then sheepishly admit that one Capuchin mother had torn through his protective glove. “I wear two pairs of gloves now.”
If he felt resentment at his employer – well, he had to. “They fire you and then your only option is to work with primate excrement for one year, like something in a fairy tale that scientists tell their kids each night or something – ”
Besides that, the monkeys were dangerous. “They told us that one of the preconditions of working there was this, that if certain of the monkeys bit us or scratched us, we might have to spend some time in quarantine.”
I was astounded. “So you could be bitten by one of your monkeys, get quarantined and be living in an undisclosed fucking location somewhere for weeks while they.”
G nodded, a thin half-smile on his face, and smoked his Kool.
He pushed on, finished up the year of work with the monkeys, all the while cultivating friendships, travelling, living life as he wished, ignoring a bad pain in his shoulder-blade for months and months until, said a friend, he could ignore it no more. They were about right when they gave him 6 months to a year, depending on how the treatments went. I saw him shortly after this and he looked exactly as I would probably have looked in that situation: stunned, not quite able to process it. I personally could not stand to watch and drove off – I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone, is what I thought. But it was probably much different for G. Doubtless he went home and called his parents or other relatives, to give them the dour news. He started making preparations for whatever came next. Did he take one last trip to Mexico at this point, or had he already said his goodbyes to the country he loved so much?
Treatments and then in a few months, hospice – this is what came next. Everyone of a certain age is sure to have seen the ravages of death-bringing illnesses, and I did not have to follow G around to know what was happening with him. It seemed that I rarely saw him anywhere, and I will admit that I often pushed my mind away from the thought of visiting him. Friends who had seen him often told me of his increasingly weakened state. “But his mind’s still sharp.”
I went on over and knocked on his door.
“Here,” he said, turning on his laptop, “come on in, sit down right here.”
“How are you doing?” I put an arm across his back, about to give him a hug.
“Don’t touch me, it hurts.” Startled, I pull back and now notice he has special clothes that seem to have been pinned together in a peculiar way. He doesn’t seem to be able to raise his chin from his chest but still manages to peer at the laptop screen as it warms up. One of his relatives, a quiet and demure lady, sits watching TV.
I find his lost folder. “Oh!” he exclaims. “Pardon me. This is my sister,” he says, introducing me. Then he got into the Yahoo folder and did the things he meant to do – something involving bills.
“He gets tired out really quick,” says his sister.
As if on cue, G rises and moves slowly back to a recliner, arranges himself there.
“Let me rest a little bit.”
“You sold those bank stocks yet?”
“No, I was going to ask you about that – ”
It seemed awfully hot but it was not really that hot inside the house that day. Of a sudden, it seemed as though he was gone (dark eyes closed, body limp and thin and stretched out). His sister seemed about to start a conversation with me, but upon hearing the word leaving, her brother roused himself: “You leaving, man?” “Ah, yeah…” “Wait a minute…” “What?” “Wait a minute.”
Whereupon my old friend began to extricate himself from the recliner-bed. “C’mon,” he said—a C’mon I’d heard hundreds of times—and began to amble, apparently in some pain, toward his kitchen.
His sister demurred: “Now you know what the doctors said about walking around so much . . .” And to me: “He’s got this morphine drip thing attached and—”
Interrupting her, G said: “I know, I know. Just a minute. Hang on. Reach up there in that cabinet,” whispers this ill man, “and get a baggie.” He maneuvered around to his closet cupboard and pulled out a grocery sack, from which he scooped a couple of handfuls of dry marijuana leaves. Quietly assuring him that I didn’t need this, he went on and filled the baggie up. I almost wept, just for a few short seconds . . .
His sister called his name again. He whispered a bit too loudly, “Don’t worry about her, she comes from north Alabama.” He almost giggled, but not quite. Rolling up the baggie and handing it to me, he whispered: “No buds but th’ seeds came from Amsterdam. Need to get rid of it all anyway.”
I said my goodbyes to him from just off his front porch, where he had arranged a chair so he could get a look at the parking lot of the coffee shop across the street, where a few sweaty people were moving about. “Is that Rich’s car? tell him to come see me, if that’s his car.” I considered staying, but the sister looked at me as if to say, Leave, so I can get him back inside. Please.
“Call me any time you need any help,” I assured him, escaping into my car. From nowhere he produced a floppy straw Mexican-style hat and was using it to shade his eyes as he sat down on his front porch. He still could not raise his head.
“Come back when you can stay longer.”
We waved, and I saw his sister appear in the doorway.
It was the last time I saw him alive, though I must say I’ve felt the touch of the memory of the dude’s spirit (was that memory of the touch or touch of the memory) many times since. It was not pleasant to attend his funeral, since I have no doubt he would not have wanted this preacher to try to save souls during his memorial service. I made a mental note (reddening the mental font and highlighting it): No preachers at any service associated with me after I have “transitioned.” (Lately, I read obits to find new words for dying, like “Sam shook his last Etch-a-Sketch Saturday morning at Rosedale University Hospital.” Please. “Barbara started singing with the angels last Friday evening.” Uh huh. Neil is starting a worm farm. I shrugged it off, however, and it was refreshing to see some of his friends making superb music in his honor, and to flip through a photo book his mother had made for the occasion.
Our lives contain scant dignity anyway; can’t we keep a bit for our deaths?
G’s life and death has marked me, because our lives spun their wheels and ruts in remarkably similar ways. I think about death differently because of him. I often miss him; while unable to believe that we shall get to see our predeceased loved ones at some later Cosmic Date, I would neither be surprised to see him in this trans-incarnated state nor would I lack for a greeting.
So: how good is the reefer in the Afterlife?
© 2012, 2017 Thomas N Dennis
I was inclined from the beginning to like Robert. He was a writer, had been one all his life. His father was a state trooper back in the Old Bad Days as well as a federal agent—there had certainly been some sort of drastic split early on between the father and son, with an invalid mother fraught and tangled between them—but let me say, after a few moments with this guy, despite all my natural urges toward friendship and wanting to have another serious writer as a friend, I heard an inward voice telling me something different: get away and stay away. Do not become this person’s friend.
I was taken aback, seriously, at my own inner prompt. What am I talking about? This is a suffering fellow creature. I did not listen. I accepted an offer to visit and had coffee with him a few times over a short space of time.
I did visit him at the unutterably empty house he was trying to sell (“lawyer fees!”), to hear many unhappy tales of his non-American wife and how her joy consisted of enfeebling him. She tried to work against him, constellating his nights and days with all manner of misery.
As I listened to his grousing, I thought about how often fantasies of revenge seem to consume the minds not only of angry white guys but many Hollywood screenwriters. Word-fragments of revenge is all I got from Robert, a diffuse ill-will he never quite spelled out completely. It bothered me, and I soon stopped wanting to listen to it.
He had a young son and I was afraid I had heard, at one point, vague plans for a trip he might take after the divorce’s crushing finalities fell in upon him. Hm. Would he take his son and go, initiating an Amber alert in some other province?
I knew I didn’t want to befriend him when he told me of a game he and the boy played, when they were together, which was not often: it was a game, he pointed out, that helps a youth learn how to deflect aggression from others, and he explained the game using me as a replacement for his son. One person tries to touch the nose of the other, with the “learning” person blocking the other’s intruding hand. Though I can appreciate how one might benefit from this knowledge, I did not like this game. I would bet Robert’s kid did not like it, either.
The last time I saw him—though I am not certain it was he—was late last summer during the height of the drought. He seemed to have gained some weight or else wore more clothes than the heat dictated. Pale khaki shirt, sleeves gone, pants the color of a dirty tiger. Seated legs akimbo at a tight intersection not far from his old house, his non-cardboard sign lettered thus:
WILL MEDITATE FOR FOOD
No cars were pausing, but it was a bad place to beg.
© 2017 Thomas N. Dennis
It’s not that unusual to see youths of indeterminate age loitering about in public, cadging smokes, change, exchanging a little conversation. At this particular spot, a small, rather old and run-down bit of strip mall in a gentrificated neighborhood, there is hardly enough bourgeois pedestrian traffic to support two beggars — it gets busy in the middle of the day, when people are eating, visiting the local insurance agency or having their VCR tapes converted to DVD, and then again later in the day when the tavern (used to be a Latino food place) cranks up — but most of the time you see only a few people sitting at outdoor tables.
This kid appeared, Judy said, out of nowhere, sitting at the table outside the Subway, between Cool Beans Coffee Emporium and the shop run by Sikhs. He was not conspicuous at first. Nobody paid much attention. Some people gave him cigarettes, probably, but he said nothing to anyone about anything.
This began to bother Judy, and the others.
There are many reasons for such a silence, was her feeling. All of us have speechless days, composed of how many unspeaking perhaps tightlipped hours strung together. People ask What’s wrong? and you say, Nothing, I just like being quiet.
By the second or third day, the kid was becoming a subject of worry. He just sat there, a sort of 108-yard-stare to his gaze. The only thing she got out of him was a vague statement about his father dropping him off there at the strip mall. Judy was wondering whether she should let him sleep for the night on the old couch in the back. She believed in compassion.
–He’s shown no sign of violence, she said.
Harinam, the Sikh patriarch, used to wear his turban but they stopped that practice in recent years, so now he looks like any other middle-aged hippie slumped in a metal chair sipping chai, as the business-people hereabouts did in the mornings before things start picking up.
–It’s hard to tell about someone who never speaks, you know?
–Do you think he’s, like, simple?
–I saw him get very alert the other afternoon when he heard someone use that word, though they were using it in another sense and it had nothing to do with him.
–So what do you think, Hari, should I let him sleep in the back on that old couch?
–I wouldn’t let a dog sleep back there in the condition it’s in, but — he shrugged.
–Maybe just for one night. Then we’ll try to get something out of him and find who he belongs to.
–Like a lost dog.
–Like a lost dog.
© 2007 Thomas N. Dennis