I want you know I did your dirty work. I called Don and Jenny and Steve and some of the others and told
them you were dead. I accepted this chore as my obligation to you and them, feeling that they deserved to hear the news from a live, good friend. It just would not have been right for any of them to have had to read about you kicking-the-bucket in the
newspaper or from some second-hand acquaintance.
Please know that I am damn disgusted with you about the whole thing and that I’d like to give you
a good god-damn, kick-in-the-ass. You always said you’d die before you turned 55 and I be damned if you didn’t.
Yeah, I know. I can hear you say: “Tough. That’s just the way it is…ain’t nothin’ nobody can do
about it now. What’s past is past.”
I see you smiling when you say it, purposefully looking me in the eyes as I additionally clarify
that that’s bullshit and doesn’t make it right—your let’s-move-along, attitude irritating the hell out of me, just like it always did each time I challenged your proposed, casual indifferences. Well, anyway, you messed the day up for everyone and
that’s current! I realize now, twenty years later, that you never did practice what you preached. You lived in the past just as much, if not more, than the rest of us.
It disappoints me that we lost touch, that I had not seen you since ‘96. I keep thinking that I
should have made more of an effort to communicate with you these past years. But I am aware that I did try, several times, and that you simply chose not to respond. Please know that your lack of action exasperates me just a bit — though you’d probably
like to pretend not to give a damn if you were here.
I won’t hold it against you though — too much, for very long. I knew you and you knew me.
Likewise, I knew you were out there, somewhere, and I figured you knew I was too. I did believe, however, that at some point our paths would cross again… that we’d greet each other with a couple of shit-eating-grins and a hand-shake... that we’d pop open
a couple of beers and sit on overturned, 5-gallon buckets just outside the garage… pick up where we last left off, understanding some of each other and wondering about the rest — guess I got that part wrong.
In my mind, I keep seeing you and me and Jenny and Don sitting in one of those dim, dank bar
booths in Auntie Mae’s Parlor…stale cigarette smoke and the mixture of body odors and soured drinks insulating us from the strangers mingling in the aisle. Late, the rest of the party having vanished, we always stayed in the company of each other just a
while longer, having one more beer or gin-&-tonic, taking what we could, what was left. Damn, we drank a lot, but I don’t recall every being drunk.
I see now that we were four misfits…you, the Viet Nam vet, missing his war, some long ago battle
in limbo behind and in front of you…and Jenny, the southern girl missing her southern roots, wanting to touch, regain some part of her lost innocence…and Don, the Shakespearean professor, missing his place in life beyond Hamlet and Falstaff and Macbeth,
living within the confines of some secret, and me... the displaced farmer, missing his country, stretching from one life into another. Basically, we were all a mess, our saving grace a shared action of propping each other up. I’m surprised that our wives
put up with us. I guess in the end yours and mine didn’t.
Please know that when I told Don the sobering news over the telephone he was nearly lost for
words. “No kidding,” he simply said. “Jim’s gone. Wow.”
We talked for a few minutes about old times, and then promised to meet at the cemetery for your
service. Don always appeared to be the steadiest of mind. Or maybe he was just the best at masquerading. I don’t know, but a part of him seemed to have melted before we hung up.
It took courage to call Jenny. I had not spoken to her in nearly 20 years. I had to climb over a
battery of memories and emotions to get the job done. Just as you, I knew that she was out there, somewhere. First, she heard my voice, and then she heard the news about you. Either action was a weight of proportions in itself. She was stunned,
tearfully caught unawares, blind-sided by us both—a resurrection and a death.
I tried repeatedly for hours to contact Steve. Finally, I did what I didn’t want to do and left a
message revealing your expiration on his machine. When we spoke later, it was obvious that he was impassionedly saddened — hurt.
“Jim was the first,“ he commented. “The first best student of true writing potential I ever had
in my college classes.”
Later, I received an e-mail from him. It read: It is
3:21 A.M., I’ve been remembering Jim.
The next time we spoke on the phone you were haunting him, still.
For me, the problem with death is that a worm-hole to the past opens up right where the personal
void occurs. And then, because it is in front of me, I am obliged to take a long, deep look. And that’s what I’ve been doing. That’s what we’ve all been doing — good or bad for whatever results. For me, it’s been mostly okay. I suppose I needed a
reason, a guide to help me revisit that period in my life, that I might gather a better understanding of who I was then and why my mind was nearly lost.
Good and bad. That defines your life perfectly. I spoke to Don, Jenny and Steve about that:
“Jim’s life was black and white,” I reminded them. “It was either very, very good or very, very ugly. There were no gray areas.”
Whatever demon you carried with you, it was bad one… those Nam fire-fight anniversaries in
November and February maddening you into drunkenness of magnified proportions. When your wife called me that one late night, quietly telling me you had had a gun to her head, but was now asleep and would I come now… I left my house, .357 in hand, fully
expecting to kill you to save her. I’d have done it, and you know it. Instead, by the time I got there, you were passed out, the police and paramedics arriving to transport you to the VA hospital in Topeka. That was a long night for everyone.
I think I saw you most happy while working summers with us on my family’s farm. There was peace
for you there in all that wide open space. I observed you experiencing genuine freedom… working at laying the irrigation pipes, driving the trucks along the dirt roads, the tractor and combine in the fields, enjoying my parents' home, fishing in the
river, drinking a couple of beers late in the evening after the day had settled — experiences of harmony and comfortable repetition. I’ve learned now, having heard some folks talking at your service, that you carried those moments in the country closer to
your soul than I imagined.
You know, you could have at least e-mailed me back, a couple of words, even a sentence would have
been sufficient — something not to be considered a personal response as per your definition, letting me know you received my dispatches, inquiries and holiday greetings. But you didn’t. Yes, I knew you didn’t like writing letters, which was damn odd for
a writer in case you never gave that point a thought. And you didn't like talking to people on the telephone, either. I remember that quirk. Get the information, or most of it, and then hang up — that's what you’d do. You always claimed that talking to
people on the phone, even close friends, made you uncomfortable because you couldn't see them or look them in the eye.
"I don't know what to say to people when I can't look them in the face," you’d say, repeating your
memorized explanation to me. “It’s like I can't think if I can't see you. Anyway, I figure if it's important enough you, or who ever it is, will find me and tell me.”
Well, if that’s truly the way it has to be, then let me say this to the wind: “That’s some real
bullshit. And if you want to inform me differently, you’ll have to find me to tell me, what’s past is past, friend. You know where I am and that’s my last rite.