A friend wrote me recently, “Global warming and conference realignment? Can we please call these what they really are; climate collapse and the destruction of something great enough to actually take my mind off it?” I went out and bought myself a footbath. I’ve used it once. It wasn’t on sale. I didn’t even have a coupon. Just kidding I can’t bother with coupons. The guy, the friend of mine, talks funny. It sounds like a German accent, with a hint of southern drawl, and a mouthful of banana. If newsmen had even the tiniest bit of wit they would caption an interview with him. I’m not speaking in hypotheticals. He once mailed me a cassette recording of the radio news. There was a fire in the basement of his apartment. His interview was voiced over. He said that made his year. “I’m telling that to my grandkids,” he said.
I haven’t seen him in 40 years. I never knew him very well. I think I knew someone who worked with him. I knew him well enough to be at his farewell party. When I shook his hand and wished him the best, he said, “Leave me your address. I’ll write you some time.” I was surprised by the offer. He’s always been exceptionally cordial, and brief, but not too brief, black ballpoint. Usually there’s the faint scent of orange. I picture him sitting down in his study to write me, a half-peeled, half-eaten orange leaning against a mug full of pens. In his last letter he said, “I’m going to the city, and when I get back I have a fantastic story to share.” He’s not one for self-promotion or dishonesty. I’ve been checking my mailbox every afternoon. Some days it seems like it takes forever for morning to end.
This guy I barely knew 40 years ago once wrote me about Avril Lavigne. He said, “Sk8er Boi. Based on real experiences of the singer, or fiction?” In that same letter he hypothesized it was possible one of the great composers, and he named a few examples, could have secretly written some teen-tween punk rock romance lyrics for their symphonies. Maybe they had trouble with words. Their ineffectiveness with words had given them a natural inclination to instruments. It seems one of them, somewhere along the line, must have tried and failed, he said. At the very least, it would make a good book, he said. Or, even better, a movie. The story, skin and bones, had quite a range to it, an expansiveness. Adam Sandler could play the composer, or Leonardo DiCaprio, or Ryan Gosling.
It’s been about three weeks since I last heard from him. If more than a few weeks go by it’s unusual. It’s only happened twice, though I'm now nearing thrice. I get concerned. That’s why today I’m sitting by the mail slot all afternoon, waiting. Whoever I knew that worked with him I have long since forgotten, along with everyone at the farewell party. Sometimes I’m not even sure it was a farewell party. I may have just run into him at a bar the night before he left. Either way, I have no connection to him besides the letters. If they stop, I will probably never know why. Someday it will happen, I suppose. Or maybe I’ll die first.
The first time he lost his job. He apologized for the delay. He had been very depressed – he used the term “dark days.” He was doing better. I appreciated his frankness. That was 10 years ago. The other time was last year. He was not depressed. He had, “Bought an RV with his bride and seen America.” I recall him referring to “his bride” once, decades ago, so I can’t be sure if this is a term he uses or if he has a recent second, or third, wife. I assumed, too, this meant he found another job. Perhaps he had already retired from it. They had gone RV drag racing in the Mojave and made the finals. Someone at Sturgis told them about it. He also learned a hilarious game; put the word anal before the name of any RV. If you did it with his RV it became “Anal Licker.” He learned about the game before he named his RV.
I usually write back quick, but if I don’t he still sends me another. They never have anything to do with the last one. The letters are scattered, like if you went to the edge of a canyon, tossed a brain in the air, and bashed it with a bat, and all the thoughts sprayed out, and floated down, and were blown for miles by the wind, got stuck in the tree limbs, and wedged between river rocks, and covered by pine needles, and buried by chipmunks, and then you walked down there, and collected what you could find, and stacked them in your cooler in no particular order. The cooler is in my garage. It leaked. I figured I could use it for storage rather than toss it.
My friend misses sleepovers. In third grade, he and two of his friends were in the basement wrapped in their sleeping bags at four AM. One of them said his dick was so big it could be used as a fire hose. The other one said his dick was so big he had to wrap it around his thigh so he didn’t step on it. In elementary school he and his friends talked a lot about how big their dicks were. But this time my friend blurted out, “We all have small dicks! Let’s just admit it!” Everyone got quiet, but then someone farted and they all laughed. Another time he was really high and dying of thirst, but the only tap was in the kitchen and he could hear a parent in there. He waited and waited, but this parent kept puttering around and wouldn’t leave. Finally he got so angry and frustrated at this indecisive, meandering fuck that he lost all paranoia and self-consciousness and stormed upstairs. It turned out it was a little kid crawling on the floor rolling his bottle. He said in life he rarely found anger to be a useful emotion, but this was one of those instances. The best parties always involve sleepovers, he says. And none of this adult guest room, everyone gets a bed. If 60-year-olds are curled up on the carpet, the porch, the countertops, the pool table, then you know it was a good party. He told me on this trip to the city he was taking there was going to be sleepovers. He was taking the RV. He said he wrote down that fantastic story to tell me before the trip in case the city made him forget it. I don’t know why he didn’t mail it if it’s already written.
I’m almost positive he moved somewhere outside Toronto. Not suburbs, but woods, maybe hundreds of miles. I know he owns a wood splitter, and an old tree has crushed a shed “on the outskirts” of his property, and once I won a bet with him and he paid me in Canadian currency. He used to be a big Vince Carter fan, then Chris Bosh, but now the sports figure he loves is Manny Pacquiao. When Marquez knocked him out the newsman in his bowtie asked if he wanted to fight him again. Pacquiao said, “Yes, of course, my job is to fight.” My friend loved that. He said if he had a company he would want Manny Pacquiao to promote his products. I never ask if he is, in fact, somewhere outside Toronto. He could have sent the Canadian money as a gag. I prefer not knowing, to wonder and hypothesize. Asking might change things, like doing someone. Sometimes I wonder if he speculates about me as much as I do about him. But he’s not someone who lets other people’s affairs preoccupy him for an inordinate amount of time. In some ways, he’s like the cool kid in high school. Things come easy, and he doesn’t worry what people think. But then again, you learn after high school the cool kids got depressed, and insecure, and hated themselves too, so that’s not a good metaphor. Though sometimes I feel like I’m the buff jock who’s not very agile, or the cheerleader with the awkward, smelly car, or the older guy that pretends he’s not trying to kick it, just attempting to not say anything that would make him not bother to write on the birthday banner on my locker.
Sometimes I wonder if it’s just me. Or he might sit down every day and write a letter to someone different, which would mean there are about 20 people he corresponds with. It wouldn’t be hard to keep up if you were diligent about it, 20 or 30 minutes a day, seven days a week. Or maybe, like me, every few weeks he sits down to read my letter and other than that he doesn’t have use for mail.
We’ve made several bets. I won once. I lost $1000 on one bet, which is no small sum for me. In 2000, he put the over/under on Nader at 2.9%. I took over. Usually the bets are 20 bucks, 50 bucks. My winner was 50. I don’t remember what that came to Canadian. I think I still have that money sitting somewhere, maybe the cooler. I’ve meant to take it with me to the airport and exchange it because I don’t know where else you can get something like that done and I don’t want to spend the time figuring it out. But when I’m getting ready for a trip there’s usually a lot on my mind and I don’t think to grab it. I guess if I traveled more I would get used to it and it wouldn’t seem as overwhelming. My friend probably would have remembered the first trip he took. Or maybe he would have known an easier way to exchange money than the airport.
I don’t remember much about his looks. He was tall. His skin was mixed, and his hair was black, but his eyebrows were a lighter black, which was strange, though I suppose it’s all grey now. He had on a heavy black pea coat and maroon leather gloves, one of which he removed when he shook my hand farewell. It was cold outside. My hands were cold from my can of beer. His were warm and soft. I remember thinking he must have kept his gloves on the entire time he was inside. His cuffs had some long, blonde dog hairs clinging to them. Or they could have been hairs from a woman. There was one standing next to him. And then he said we should keep in touch, and I thought, “Who is this man who wears his gloves inside and talks with mouthfuls of food?” And then I realized he wasn’t eating.
One time my friend was walking around Paris at night during an Earth Hour, when they turn off the lights of city monuments. The sky still had a dull glow from the street lamps and buildings. He could see the black outline of the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Though it looked small enough to be sitting on someone’s desk, it appeared strange and ominous when it wasn’t lit. It looked like it was controlling the minds of Parisians. It looked like he was the only one who could see it, my friend said. Everyone else walked right under it, floated right past it, and had no idea it was there, secretly giving them dark thoughts. Then a black speck appeared next to it, as if someone had taken a tiny chisel and chipped off a piece. It fell to the ground. A few minutes later the tower lit up with frantic flashing red and blue lights, like when you earn a replay in pinball, like the tower was celebrating.
I’ve often thought about the irony of how he adores storytelling yet speaks in such a bizarre, nearly incomprehensible manner. It reminds me of a book my mother used to read me, The Cloud that Loved the Ground. It could be why he writes me so many letters, because there’s not enough people that will patiently sit down and listen. But I don’t think he’s someone who would surround himself with people who wouldn’t take time to listen. I’ve thought, too, his affinity for speaking might be compensation. Perhaps it used to be much worse, extreme to the point that he could barley communicate, and now that it’s better he can’t talk enough, like Bill Walton. Then again, I don’t have any proof he talks a lot. Just letters. But how would someone who doesn’t talk much convince a Greyhound driver to pull over so he could buy the whole bus Big Macs? Or get old people at a retirement home to pool some money together and build a greenhouse on an unused strip of land next door and start a rose bush company, and call it Oldie’s Rosies? Or get invited to Disneyland by Jeff Garlin? He went, of course. Jeff Garlin’s daughter cried on The Matterhorn.
It’s crossed my mind he’s making a lot, or all, of it up, but that thought never sticks. There’s sincerity in the way he diligently corresponds. And I like the smell of oranges. Some would say his diligence proves nothing. They would say a stranger, possibly a sociopath, has had me hook, line, and sinker for forty years, and when he’s not getting off on convincing me of wild lies, he’s taking my money. They would tell me to check if that Canadian money is fake. They would say, “Wait until you win $1000. I bet you never hear from him again.” A lot of people probably would have stopped sending letters a long time ago. There’s people like that everywhere, people who would be so caught off guard by someone earnest they would think that person careful, or plotting. They would spend a lot of time trying to figure out what they were after. Then there’s people who would say he’s not earnest or open at all, that if he were I would know if his parents were still alive, what college his kids were going to, what career they might choose, why he quit his job, why he hasn’t quit his job, why he moved forty years ago, and why he hasn’t moved since. I know that stuff about enough people.
He wrote me once and said he didn’t have a lot to say. He was looking out the window. It was dusk, but you could barely tell because it had been so grey all day, and windy. Everything was worse with wind. Wind made rain wetter and harder, cold colder, turned a nice, even layer of snow into big drifts, and spoiled a warm, sunny day. It ruined a round of golf, a game of badminton, a good leaf pile, and it made flags whip around with an absurd amount of pride. The only thing he could think wind good for was sailing. But he had never been sailing. Maybe there was something else. He couldn’t come up with it.
The mail just dropped through the slot. One catalog and one letter. I see his handwriting. I figured if I started writing it would finally arrive, like when you’re starving at a restaurant and the food isn’t there so you go to the bathroom. I’m reading it. You can too if you want.
Lucky, my time in the city didn’t cause me to forget that story, because my original copy was destroyed in a freak accident. I sat down at my desk to mail it, and set it in a puddle of Orange Clean. My bride got over zealous and didn’t mop up. Although maybe I spoke too soon. I haven’t re-written it yet. I’ll try to keep it brief…
I was eating a taco at a picnic table in some park in Los Angeles. Being in the park made me think how I haven’t played chess lately, when an exceptionally tall man walked by. He caught my eye because he was so tall. And he was walking a wiener dog. Then I noticed he was wearing a checkered button-up, black and white. Chess pieces were drawn on the back, ready to play. It was an awesome shirt, maybe the best shirt I’ve ever seen. I yelled, “I was just thinking about chess!” Or something. He turned and laughed, and waved, and he was going to keep walking but his wiener dog started to take a shit. Then I realized it was Bill Walton. “Bill Walton!” He laughed again. Bill Walton… We’ve got that speech-impaired brotherly connection. You probably remember how fucked up I used to sound when I talked.
I got him to sit down. He said he had drawn the chess pieces himself. Once you get Bill Walton talking, he talks. I heard stories. He’s got opinions too. At one point we were standing on the picnic table screaming at each other. It got late and we were hungry so we went to a pizza spot. We tied the dog up outside. Everyone recognized him and we ate and drank free. I said something about him being big man on campus, and he said, “You should see what happens when I’m in Portland.” I said okay. We went to the airport. Bill Walton tucked the wiener dog under his shirt and walked right through security. They just let him.
On the plane we gave the dog champagne and it started barfing in the bags. Then Bill Walton went in the bathroom. It wasn’t locked, and we were landing, so I opened it. He was sleeping standing up. He was so big in that tiny airplane bathroom he didn’t have to sit down to sleep. He just had his knees bent into the wall and his head pressed on the ceiling. I can’t describe it well. I thought, “He’s done.” I thought we were heading back to LA, but then his eyes snapped open. “We’re landed?”
He wasn’t lying about Portland. And that wiener dog must have just been getting warmed up on the plane, because it came everywhere with us. I saw it suck down shots in seconds. It could do this thing with a pint of beer where it drank the top, and then when it got to the bottom where it couldn’t reach it would wedge its head into the glass, tilt the glass over its head, and chug the rest. A lot of it would spill. Then it would bark at you until you took it to the sink and rinsed it off. One bar had a chalkboard for their pickled egg record. The dog ate five and Bill Walton had them chalk the dog’s name in a new category for most pickled eggs eaten by a dog. If you looked sleepy, the dog lifted its leg over your shoes and stared at you like it was going to piss all over your feet. The people in Portland went crazy. They love dogs in Portland. Bill Walton said he hadn’t trained it. He said Luke might have.
The three of us went to a movie. It was afternoon on election day so nobody was there. We started crawling up and down the rows and going into different theaters playing hide and seek. The whole place was our castle. Bill Walton said something about wanting blankets to drape over the rows and make tunnels. We wanted to turn the theater into a fort, but we didn’t have supplies, so we left and got a suite downtown. We stood the mattresses on end and had room service bring extra blankets and pillows. Soon every door, lamp, chair, had something draped over it and there was a whole network of tunnels connecting tiny rooms. We built walls with the couch cushions. Some even had windows. We taped together toilet rolls and cut holes in the blanket ceilings and had periscopes. You could crawl around in there for ten minutes and still miss parts. At some point I fell asleep.
When I woke up it was black out. I didn’t know where I was. I felt anxious because I had to get upstairs to my bedroom before my mom realized I’d slept on the basement floor. Do you ever get those feelings? Do you ever wake up and think you’re home? It’s 1960 and you need to hide the wad of chewing gum you stuck on your nightstand so your parents don’t know you were chewing in bed. Your bedroom window shouldn’t be open because you’re on the first floor, and even if you weren’t, it lets in mosquitoes. It shouldn’t because there’s a screen, but you don’t know why else you’re getting bit at night. You have to pee but the portrait of your grandfather in the dark hallway scares you, or it’s cold and you're wrapped in your comforter like a worm, leaving a small hole to breathe, and you can just make out the sound of air gently whistling through your brother’s nose across the room, and it sounds nice, and you don’t want to disrupt it. Then I remembered where I was, and I put my shoes on to go to the lobby and get some popcorn. My feet got soaking wet.
Anyway, friend, I said I’d keep this brief. That’s about most of it I can remember. I think I added stuff that wasn’t in the first one. One other thing I wanted to share was the picture I got of the two of us, Bill Walton and I. It took me a while to get it developed, sorry for the delay. My bride says I should go digital. What do you think?