Well, I’m not sure exactly what time it is right now. It’s some time in the middle of the night but I don’t know really because we are in the middle of an electrical storm and all the lights have gone out. I was sound asleep in bed when the lightning flashed so bright that I could see it all the way through my closed eyes and everything, and then the thunder went off like a cannon like right away, which had me sitting straight up in bed and wondering what the hell was going on. It took me a minute to get my bearings because the lights had gone out and I couldn’t even see my hand in front of my face. Then the lightning went off again and I could see my apartment in the light for an instant, and then it began to dawn on me what was going on.
So, here I am, sitting here in the dark, but not the complete dark, thanks to the Olde Brooklyn Lantern which I bought a couple of months ago when I was kind of having a moment and spent the whole weekend getting drunk, ordering Chinese take-out and watching infomercials. So at least I have a little pool of light around me as I wander around my ultra convenient, ultra modern, all-electric apartment and my all-electric life and realize that my only real options at this point are reading or writing, because I’m sure not going to be getting back to sleep any time soon.
So, I decided to write- well, to write to you, actually, because I’ve been really missing you lately and thinking of you a lot and since I don’t have a graveside or anything where I can go and talk to you, I guess this is as good a way as any to, well, sort of let you know what’s been going on. It’s been 15 years, Jackie, so this could be a long letter.
Where do I begin? The last time I saw you? Well, the last time I saw you, you didn’t look so good. I mean, we’d been living with this stupid virus for so long and you were just fine, but then you got sick and like a week later, there we were. You were lying in that bed with all those f**king tubes and wires and things coming out of everywhere. You couldn’t talk because they had that breathing tube stuck down your throat, so you just looked at me and your eyes looked so sad and I couldn’t help you. And then that nurse sort of pushed me out of your room and told me to go home. So I did. And then when I went back to the hospital the next morning, they told me your mom and dad had already been there and were on their way back to Utah with your “remains”. So that was that. I just went home and tried to continue on my with life from there.
You know what I miss most about you, Jackie? I miss the way that you and I both looked at the world a little differently than everyone else. Do you know what I mean? Like, if you were to walk in here right now and saw me writing a letter to someone who’s been dead for fifteen years, I would fully expect you to drop whatever you were doing and break into your finest Baby Jane singing “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy”. And we would both get the joke and I’d probably laugh and then realize how ridiculous I’m being. But nowadays, I don’t think there’s anyone in my life who would even get the reference.
And how every time I called you Jackie, how you would give me that look and say “My name is John.”, and I would say, “Well, I’m Irish!” and you would always answer, “Well, I’m not.” and try to look indignant but I could always see the ghost of a smile around your mouth. Even though what we were saying was “I’m Irish” and “I’m not”, what we really meant was stuff like, “I get you,” and “I’m here for you today just like I was yesterday.”
I really miss that kind of thing.
So, anyway, after you died, I stayed in Ohio for a few months. The first few weeks were kind of a blur. Lots of people were coming over all the time to “check on me” and cook food and stuff like that, and Jerry from the restaurant organized a memorial for you which was pretty nice. Everyone brought pictures of you, and they played sad music and cried and told stories about their memories of you. To hear them tell it, you must have been a pretty nice guy. Even that guy Dougie that you threw the Tequila Sunrise on that night at the Iron Horse got up and told a nice story about you. He told a story about once when he had been at a dinner party, and someone had knocked this beautiful centerpiece off of the table before the meal had even begun. He told how you had gathered together all the broken flowers and bits and pieces off of the floor and disappeared into the kitchen, emerging a little while later with a whole new, beautiful arrangement. He told us that you just said something humble like, “Flower arranging is kind of a hobby of mine.” What I really wanted them to know was that your actual talent wasn’t arranging flowers, but finding the beauty that’s left in something that’s been broken, and then bringing it out for everyone to see, like you did with me.
Anyway, after a month or two, all the visits and the phone calls started to stop and people just sort of moved on with their lives; and I guess they expected me to do the same thing, but it just wasn’t that easy for me.
After a few months, I began to feel like I couldn’t stay there much longer, in that apartment, in that city, in that state, even. Everywhere I went there was some kind of memory of you; and after a while I got sick of people looking at me funny and treating me like I was a fragile little china doll or something. When the lease expired on the apartment in October, I rented a truck and moved. I decided to move to York County, Pennsylvania, the “Snack Food Capital of the World”. I found an apartment in a little town named Paradise, which sounded like a pretty nice place to live. I’ve been there ever since, and in 15 years it doesn’t really feel like I’ve gotten very far since then.
Not long after I moved to Pennsylvania, I got a job at a factory where we make nacho cheese flavored tortilla chips. Everyone who works there just calls it “the plant”. It’s this humongous factory, full of big, loud, scary machines that look like they have about as much to do with the production of food as a goddam Zamboni, and we all have to wear these white jumpsuits and hairnets and ear protection so sometimes the plant looks more like a nuclear plant than a potato chip factory. I guess it’s an OK job, but after 15 years it gets pretty boring sometimes, even though they move us around from station to station every three weeks. So for a while I’ll be working in packaging and then they’ll move me to Batch Processing, but after a while it’s just one bag of Doritos after another, day after day after day. But at least it’s a Union job and I get two weeks of vacation every year and pretty good insurance. My biggest complaint about the job, I think, is that everything I own has been permanently permeated by the smell of Nacho Cheese flavor. Luckily, here in Paradise, nobody notices that sort of thing. Everyone in town smells like some sort of corn chip or cheese doodle.
You know what really gets me, though, Jackie, about this job? The biggest holiday of the year at a tortilla chip plant is not Christmas, or Thanksgiving, or even Halloween. It’s Super Bowl Sunday. Even though it’s not until January or February, we start getting ready for Super Bowl Sunday months in advance.
Just after Halloween, they’ll start putting up posters around the plant with slogans like “Let’s Get Ready for Game Day!” and “Our Customers are World Champions!”. Replace the words “Wholesome Fun, Wholesome Snacks!” with the words “For the Glorious Fatherland!” and you might as well be in an airplane factory in Stalinist Russia.
And then I think of you, and your standard rant about Super Bowl Sunday. For the six years we were together, every year we would go out for Chinese at the Lucky Panda and then walk from there to the Iron Horse for a couple of drinks. We would always be the only people out on the street, and we could see the faint blue flickering glow of television sets coming from every single house, with the occasional cheer or jeer as that year’s team scored a touchdown or a fumble or whatever it is they do in football. It felt like we had the whole town to ourselves, and sooner or later you would say something like “Ahh, Super Bowl Sunday, America’s High Holiday to Junk Food!” Then once we got to the bar, we’d order a drink and you’d raise your glass and say, “Happy Super Bowl Sunday, “ and I’d answer, “Go Team.”
Now, here I am, working in a place where Super Bowl Sunday means nothing more than three months of increased production quotas and smelling even more like a Frito.
I guess that’s what they call irony.
Anyway, so that’s how things have been going. Like I said before, it doesn’t really feel like I’ve gotten very far. I mean, it’s weird: sometimes time seems to be crawling by at a snail’s pace, like on Monday morning it seems like Friday afternoon is forever away. But then before you know it, five years have flown by, and then ten, or fifteen, and it feels like you spent the whole time just trying to pay the bills and keep the living room vacuumed. Every day, I remember that I had something precious right in my hand, and even though I’ve accepted the fact that it’s gone forever, there are a hundred moments of every single day when I remember what we shared, or what we could be sharing right then. It’s been kind of hard to move on.
So, when my vacation came up last month, I decided to really go somewhere and not just spend two weeks at home smoking weed and sleeping most of the day, which is what I‘ve done for the past couple of years. I remembered how you and I always said we would like to go to San Francisco. We would joke that you would go to see the architecture and I would go to see the Anvil. So, I decided to go, even though it freaks me out a little to travel alone.
Here are some interesting facts about the Golden Gate Bridge:
The total length of the Golden Gate Bridge is 8,981 feet.
The deck of the Golden Gate Bridge is 245 feet above the water.
The Golden Gate Bridge is the second most common suicide site in the world. After a fall of about four seconds, jumpers hit the water at about 75mph.
Anyway, I arrived in San Francisco and it’s a really nice city. I did tons of walking, which isn’t really that easy because the hills in that town are unbelievable. I walked around Haight-Ashbury and tried to imagine if you and I had been around back in the 60s. I can see you now, with a collection of John Lennon sunglasses in every color to match every outfit. But it’s hard to imagine Flower Power when it’s 2013 and everyone in Haight-Ashbury is driving a Dodge Grand Caravan and talking on an I-Phone.
I found my way to Alamo Square to look at those Victorian houses, the “Painted Ladies” that you always wanted to see. They are really beautiful, Jack, you would have loved seeing them. They reminded me of those beautiful houses in Oak Bluffs and that weekend we spent on Martha’s Vineyard just after our first anniversary. It rained the entire weekend we were there, but, I don’t know, sometimes you just don’t mind the rain.
I rode a trolley car. That was fun. I thought about how you remembered every word to every jingle ever written, and I could practically hear you singing the Rice-A-Roni song in my ear the whole time. I found my way to Fisherman’s Wharf and walked around there for a while. You can see Alcatraz from there which is really cool. And then I noticed they had a bus over to the Golden Gate Bridge.
So, I decided to get on the bus and head over to the bridge. I’m not sure how long the ride was. Like I said before, sometimes time seems to go by fast and sometimes it goes by really slow. In a way the bus ride seemed to go by really slow, because for some reason I was really noticing everything, like the smell of the Chinese restaurant that we passed and the bright red color of a potted geranium hanging in an apartment window. But it also seemed like before I knew it, I was walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, feeling kind of numb and conflicted and looking out at the 245 foot drop between me and the waters of San Francisco Bay. I stopped about halfway across.
I never came close, Jackie. I never climbed over the railing or leaned out clinging only by my fingertips. I just stood there, looking out, looking at the water, looking at nothing, really. I thought about jumping over, but I thought about a lot of other things, too. I thought that it would sure hurt if I jumped over, that I know. But I had to think that my life wasn’t really over yet, too. I had to think that even though you were a huge part of my life, maybe the biggest part, maybe even the best part, there must still be something more for me out there, even though I don’t know what it is.
Then, just as I was thinking how really cold that water looked, and how I really hate being cold, this little old lady walked up and stood right next to me. She was a tiny thing, no more than four and a half feet tall. She was wrapped in so many layers it was impossible to tell where she stopped and her clothes began. All I could really see was an old knit hat on top of a pile of sweaters and granny squares. She could barely see over the handrails, but she stood there, saying nothing, looking out over the water for a while as I had been.
After a few minutes, I could tell she was no longer looking at the water. I could feel her gaze on me, so I turned to meet it. I could see her face. It was an old, weather-beaten face but a kind and lively one. She was smiling, and I noticed a gap in the front of her mouth where a tooth was missing. “You know,” she said, “sometimes when you rescue someone, they end up rescuing you back.”
I was taken completely off guard by this and found myself struggling for something to say. I ended up saying nothing and stood there with my mouth opening and closing like a drowning fish.
“That water sure looks cold,” she said, at which point she turned and walked away.
I stood there for a while longer, no longer looking over the edge, but watching as the figure of the little old lady grew smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing in the distance. I decided to make my way back to the city, and back to my hotel.
I don’t know, Jackie, but I felt a little different after my walk across the bridge. I felt somehow that the hilly sidewalks of San Francisco were somehow easier to walk, that the California sun had finally burned through the San Francisco fog. I know it sounds corny.
Then, as I was making my way back to my hotel, just sort of meandering my way through the neighborhood, I passed what must have been at one time an old storefront. But now the sign read “Bay Area Animal Rescue”, and in the window sat the most pathetic, most beautiful little dog I had ever seen. A mutt, an obvious blend of what could be hundreds of breeds, she had coarse, wiry hair the red color of an Irish Setter. She was probably about 30 pounds, with one floppy ear and one ear which stood straight up. Her bottom teeth were sort of misshapen, her bottom canines overgrown and protruded from her bottom lip which made her look like a kind of pouting werewolf. It was both horrible and adorable at the same time. In one corner of the window was a small, handwritten sign which said “Rescue Me.”
I kept walking, initially. Four, maybe five minutes went by; four, maybe five blocks. I just kept hearing the voice of that old lady on the bridge, and seeing that pathetic little face in the storefront. I turned around.
Well, life has been a little different in the past few weeks, since I brought Peggy home with me from San Francisco. She gets me out of the house, she gets me walking, she gets me talking to people. Some days, she gets me out of bed. She loves me, and I guess I love her, too. She makes me anxious to come home from the plant in the evening, and I think she really likes the smell of nacho cheese flavor.
There is a park a couple of blocks away where you’re allowed to let your dogs off their leash. Peggy likes to run around and play with the other dogs but she never goes too far or too fast, because I think her life was pretty rough before I came along and she walks with a funny kind of sideways limp. Anyway, there’s this guy that I’ve seen there a couple of times. He has this great big grey hound dog who never leaves his side, and he looks like the kind of guy who is more comfortable with the dogs than with their owners. I guess he’s around my age. “Between 40 and death,” you would have said.
Well, a couple of days ago, Peggy decided to walk over and start sniffing around his big ol’ hound dog. I was a little concerned at first, but it ended up being no problem. “Your dog is so cute,” he said to me. He was scratching his head like he was trying to figure out exactly what she was, or if she was even a dog at all, I guess. “What’s her name?”
“Well, her name is Margaret,” I answered, “but I call her Peggy.”
“If her name is Margaret, why would you call her Peggy?” he said.
“Well, I’m Irish,” I replied.
“Oh, I’m not,” he said, and I could feel the ghost of a smile around my mouth.
Anyway, I’ve been sitting here writing to you for hours now. The lights came back on hours ago, but I still have no idea what time it is because every clock in the house is flashing 01:15 – 01:15 – 01:15, except for the one on the VCR, which is flashing 88:88 like it always does. I never did figure out how to fix that one. The sun is coming up, and everything smells really crisp and clean after the thunderstorm last night. I can look over and see Peggy asleep on the couch, flat on her back and her belly to the sky, perfectly safe, perfectly trusting.
A new day has started here in Paradise. So far, it seems like a good one.
Miss you, John.