This is something I wrote for a undergraduate class at Cal in Spring 1988. The class was taught by Satti Khanna, who is now at Duke ... evidently, he was a little too dynamic for the department we both called home. I read this to a classroom full of freshmen, all of them at least ten, and many fifteen, years younger than me. When I finished, noone said a word for the longest time.
Odd that Sam D'Allesandro died while I was thinking about this. I'd been expecting him to die since my new friend Bob Giard told me of his experience in photographing Sam. His limpid beauty gone, he stared out from under his face -- gaunt, starving, aged before even he should think of age -- knowing as the poet knows that beauty is something, and that he had lost it. Sam died proud, I expect. Rick didn't. Sam wrote these words:
Zippering shut the open mouths
of gaping sentences, demanding
an ending for everything somewhere,
I wonder if the lines have said
at all what was intended. Sometimes
it's as if they existed in dreams
where definitions change: a cat
now winged, or a stranger
suddenly becomes your mother,
and one thing often means another.
[From "Word Whores", published in Slippery Sins. San Francisco: Ice Press, 1983.]
No, Rick didn't die proud; he died unconscious, but only after screaming at his fate. At his funeral, attended by his father who had beaten him bloody -- don't be agitated, reader, I'll return to this in a moment -- and his mother who chose only to heap scorn on the loves he found in the absence of what she could not give, and the brother who giggling and unsure and more concerned with his stage than the final stage his hapless brother had met, yes, at his funeral I said with my eyes closed and Roy looming, pacing, just bursting to get out of the place behind me, waiting, he later said he had not even known it was me speaking, at his funeral when I said, "I met Rick in a dark place ..."
It was always dark with Rick. He and Roy lived in a little cottage in the Mission. Roy's dead too you know, but it was Roy I knew first, and it was to Roy that I owed some debt of honor, some apprentice's eternal and ineluctable must that he must be my mentor even if as now and then and often I did other than as he did (and even too, you know, if in the end, I the apprentice had to care for him when he no longer could care for himself.) So one time I was in the cottage, and know that I knew Rick beforehand, but he read me his poetry. A spare place that kitchen, with Roy's bedroom right off it reeking of uncleaned sheets and leather and oil, we just sat on two chairs with the bare bulb over us and Rick read. I don't have that poem, and his self-appointed executor, a man whom Rick rejected not once but a thousand times, since once would have been rejection, and a thousand times is not rejecting at all, either doesn't have it or cannot find it or cannot quite sufficiently swallow the idea of what the poem was so that in stumbling on it he might just not know what it is he had found. His father, that is Rick's father, on the ranch outside Modesto, would cut the telephone wires, take the spark plugs out of the car, and then find some cord or some shovel or generally because he was a brute something unspeakable like a thick stick or barbed wire and slug the bejeezus out of Rick, while the brother who learned young his own stage would cower and wait, but never receive, because it was Rick that received.
(Don't get me wrong, pain can be delicious, agony can be controlled and put to work. Rick knew that, he knew the pain he enthralled to, but always those primal days that screaming him carried back till only blood feeling was pain enough and that was too much.)
Who am I to have sat there and stared at him, express my joy at a poem, o treasure, he nervously hoping I would like it. Of course I liked it -- like -- to feel in any measure how hellish father loosed from his cocoon.
Rick never was out of that cocoon, always seeking to weave his way back in. Roy was Papa. When Rick was dying in the hospital, o again with those bastard relatives standing around peering down their noses at the one man Rick never rejected because even the one rejection might have taken and then truly alone, yes when Rick lay dying Roy grabbed him (and Roy was a big man, blacksmith, I swear it, for Amish in Pennsylvania -- not for Amish really, but for their horses -- and any hug from Roy who never hugged because love was something he sneered at and delivered hard denying all the while) and hugged him, he told me this, and kissed him full hard on the lips and said don't worry boy Papa loves you don't worry boy Papa loves you don't worry boy Papa loves you.
I worked nights, Rick wrote nights. He would call me late and talk. I was over my head. One time he committed suicide on the phone. Swallowing and calling, and I calling and he swallowing and I had to dammit take a cab all the way over there, and I told him if he wasn't there I'd call the cops, and then he was downstairs in the basement hitting himself on the head, lightly let me tell you, staged for me, with a chain, a big chain, a heavy chain. And I grab him and yelling because I was mad damned man and drag him to the cab. They pumped his stomach. I sat there. He grogged around to say blurt out sorry at say 3 a.m. Then they say do you need a shrink and the fucker said yes and me mad mad. I sat another three hourse while he twisted some dumm shrink around for a while just to make me wait. I got a cold sore. Roy thanked me.
Rick is what we have lost in this plague. He was the first one I lost when I still checked myself for little spots weirding at a bruise wondering at a cough and all that. Noone can know till the terror of pronouncing yourself dead when mommy told me, told Rick, we got till 65 anyway and if you don't drink 75. It was April and there was a party and I went and the place was closed and I went to the bar but a friend as friends are in bars, formal by way of treating you the same each time and formal by way of buying the first round every time, and this time made me have a shot, and had to make me because heavy, and sit down, where's Roy (you see Rick had moved out by then but came over every day and called Roy twice more, and as for me I had passed on because it was too much and all I could do was love him and tell him it's over now boy just remember and shout) where's Roy. Sit down because Rick's in the hospital and it's the plague and he's gonna die. And he did die. And I never saw him because the first week I was scared, and the second week he was unconscious and the third week he was dead. Dead.
He died on a Tuesday ... and this is about him even dead because the three of us, Roy and me and Uncle Bob, went to Modesto to find him a grave. Bob and I knew and Rick knew that the family, the cursed family, would do the funeral bit just as if they ever cared about Rick the man not Rick the why don't I have a son who's somthing else whatever else anything else but a faggot. So in Bob's car we plow up to Modesto to find this grave for Rick. There were three specifications Rick had left: big tree, hill, radio station. And no grave. We went to every cemetary for a hundred miles and no way man even though you said you walked there as a boy and wrote in the graveyard, and as youth on the way to dj, the best dj, and they, the family now, even had the station manager at the little round robin in the hotel where we each said who he was to us and I said I met him in a dark place which I did. But that day was hot in Modesto and round and round we went until Roy I'm sorry it ain't here. So he took us to supper in some dive in the middle of Modeto which is like ground zero nothing there they've all moved to the shopping malls even since Rick who died at 24 was a boy. It was a chicken thing chicken hot chicken sandwich thing with gravy and how do these people survive with all that awful salt and we just plowed it down silent with the blacksmith sternly staring and weeping as blacksmiths even are wont to do.
I went to the funeral too, the three of us, in the heat. I wept twice, once over his coffin I kissed it those damned relatives wishing I would just vanish as at last Rick had, and here was their last duty and what the hell is that punk doin' to my son's coffin, and then once when I said Rick baby I met you in a dark place.
This is something Rick wrote (and even as I sit here it scares me to know that in five seconds I will open the file drawer and extract the file that sits there I and I feel it from time to time but I don't look in):
Hold me in that rocking chair way
Let the bruise diffuse like winter night
Old hearts felt are new to hear
A soft encroachment deadens the pain,
Drains a world of stormy sight.
Whose soul have I rendered here? Rick also wrote on the same page as the poem above:
He just asked me why I combed my hair before I started typing -- I told him that you never know when a good poem is coming and you have to look your best.
--Stephen Arod Shirreffs, Fall, 1988
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