Al Sullivan’s journal
March 20, 1995
We had Hank's favorite meal in Hank's favorite eating place, only we forgot the 7 up. It should have sat on the table next to a hamburger and fries. We didn't exactly leave a seat vacant where Hank should have sat. But there was room at the table, and our talk largely centered on him. You might say he was with us in spirit.
This, of course, came after the scene at the funeral home, after meeting the family again, after the politics of death and dying, and crying, and prayer. I got there an hour too early, thinking I could write while waiting, fooling myself into believing that this was simply a formality out of which I would come unscathed. Then, bored with sitting in the car, I stood outside the home, leaning against the telephone pole the way I had many times as a kid, looking like something out Early Beatles photographs, with my sunglasses and my denim jacket. The night before I had abused my thumb with multiple stab wounds in order to sew on my Sergeant Peppers patch -- a private tribute to Hank and the old days when we used to sing on the street together, two gallant and careless hippies with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Indeed, on the way to the home, I'd passed by the graveyard on McBride Avenue, and recalled that day in 1968 when Hank had applied to the Little Falls Laundry for a job. We had walked to and from Little Falls, passed this very spot, singing. I remembered a few words to a silly song I'd written, and vaguely recalled Hank's harmonies, dancing along my melody.
But standing against the pole, I thought of no particular tune. I thought of Hank, laid inside, and of the people who had not yet arrived. I wondered just who was coming and what would transpire. These things always had a way of twisting out of control, becoming things we didn't want or plan them to be. I needed to take a piss, but was too embarrassed just to walk in and find a bathroom, and was too nervous about missing someone to drive to a restaurant. In the end, I strolled down to the bridge, climbed down the embankment and pissed against the wall as the river rolled on behind me, in a slow, terrible brown gushing liquid that would terminate with the Great Falls two miles downstream.
By the time I got back, cars filled the parking lot, though I recognized none of them. Hank was no alone in the funeral home. Management had posted signs, directly other family members and other mourners. These gathered on the front doorstep in suits and ties, looking more like a gathering of Young Republicans than the bereaved, obviously seeing this as a solemn occasion. They eyed me with some distaste, my sneakers, jeans and denim jacket apparently inappropriate -- not to mention the brightly colored St. Pepper's patch on my shoulder or my sun glasses.
Hank's sister was the first to arrive, pulling up in a huge blue early 80s Chevrolet, the kind with an engine so large the hood took up most of the slotted parking space, her husband trying to bridge two worlds with his ill-fitting and wrinkled pin-striped suit and his pony's tale. He barged out from he driver's side and around the car to yank open the door for his wife, who was largely hidden by windows filled with NRA and PBA stickers. Somehow, they a wrangled themselves into a set of handicapped plates, and parked in that slot, though neither had a crutch or cane. Hank's sister -- whose name I've long ago gladly forgotten -- did, however, wear her eye patch. She could have installed her glass eye, but was always one for effect. At Hank's last theater performance, she'd made her entrance as a star. Now, she came with all the props necessary to elicit sympathy, her one good eye bearing a well manufacture expression of great loss. I could not help but recall the animosity between her and Hank, or her former husband, Jerry, who lived under her domination, growing more and more ill as her abuse began, only to come out of the hospital one day to find her attorney handing him divorce papers, and asking for alimony. I remembered Jerry because he looked more like Hank's brother than Hank's sister looked like a sister, the same frail frame, the same roundish facial features. Poor Jerry finally escaped her wrath by moving the California, where he too died early of a heart attack. But at least his last few years were peaceful.
Hank hated his sister so much that in the mid-1960s, when she went into the hospital to have her bad eye removed, he went into her room before the operation and asked for the eye as a key ornament. This was part of the escalating attack between them that had gone for years. It ended now, though I was so appalled by the control the woman later had over Hank's mother at the wake, I wanted to ask for her other eye for my key chain. Her new husband -- now nearly twenty years new -- was a thug. The suit could not disguise his ape-like mannerisms, and it was no accident that they'd moved up to Sussex to be with other mountain hillbillies.
When they had gone in, I felt the first inkling of regret. Pauly had foreshadowed some problems on the phone the night before, talking about records, tapes and comic books, all of which had seemed petty at the time. Now, it occurred to me that a fight was brewing, both over the man's paltry possessions and his place in influence on Anne. Hank's sister, Hank's nephew, and perhaps a few other relatives I didn't know of, were not positioning themselves to be Anne's heir, with house, comics, tapes and savings all a future prize when she made her way this long, sad road.
By then, Anne arrived, Hank's nephew, Daron, at her elbow, as lean and oddly handsome as Hank had been at that age. As the son of Hank's sister and Jerry, he had many of Hank's features, and I was startled to see him looking so much like my fondest memories of Hank. I had heard rumors about him, how wild he had been, how he had gotten himself in and out of trouble, winning nothing from Pauly, Garrick or Hank, but suspicion. I didn't feel anything towards him. Except for his features, he was a stranger to me, though he greeted me as if we were old friends, seeming to remember me better from those one-time repeated visits to Hank many years earlier.
This was Anne's new guardian, dressed in a saffron suit and brown shoes, hair groomed. He reminded me of the sea side gigolos I used to see roving in and out of the bars when Hank lived down the shore, men constantly on the rove for some new thrill, taking up the chameleon skin of responsibility now with his uncle's death.
``I've got to take care of Anne now,'' he told me later.
I hugged Anne, told her I was waiting for the rest of the gang and let her pass in to meet her son for one last encounter, meet the man who had meant so much to me in my life that I could not and would not forget him, ever. I didn't cry then, or at least, not so much that would show from beneath my sunglasses. I just leaned against the pole and felt the warm springtime sunlight kissing my face, squinting from time to time at the cars for sight of some familiar face: Garrick, Pauly, or Richard. Their company -- as always in the past -- was the salve that healed all wounds. Their company had healed me and protected me during my crazy and confused days as a run away in Little Falls, or a criminal in New York. They never judged me or judged me only with jokes, the way they had judged Hank, calling him stupid or foolish with affection and love.
Finally, as the time went on, I wondered if perhaps I had missed my friends -- they sneaking in while I was down pissing into the river. Bracing myself, I climbed the stairs and pushed on the door -- onto to have one of the Home's attendants pull it in ahead of me, leaving me no choice about whether to step inside or not. I slid passed the suited guests, asking the attendant where I might find the Quackenbush family. He said nothing, but pointed towards a door on the right, though this I could see Anne, Hank's sister, and Daron in his saffron suit, and beyond them, beyond recognition as someone still living, Hank's body laid out in open coffin.
I'm not a brave man when it comes to death. But this part of the ritual always struck me hardest, when the former person was repackaged into something as artificial as a plastic flower. Hank had always told us he wanted to be stuffed. He meant taxidermy, not this. He wanted his body to travel from one home to the next in an endless circle of his friends, a haunting reminder of the man who had once been such a big part of his life. Apparently, last January -- when Pauly and he had talked over the details of what to do with his possessions -- Hank had brought this up again, and was again flatly denied by Pauly, who said it was not only immoral, but also quite likely illegal, too. Yet I could have put up with a stuffed Hank better than I would the form which lay before the crowd now. He looked here as if made of wax, not quite the face or form I remembered, or cared to have as a lasting memory -- and upon seeing it I vowed to return home to the family picture album to recall more apt images, the stern-faced bearded fellow whose close up pictures I'd taken in Passaic made him look like a college professor, or my more favorite images of him and Rona at a road side rest stop, holding up their hamburgers and fries.
As many forty people filled half the metal folding chairs, none of them my friends, all of them caught in that peculiar middle ground between socializing and mourning that wakes produced, people overjoyed at seeing others they'd not seen in years, yet tempered with the reason for the gathering. The whole scene hat a grotesque edge that made it difficult for me to breathe. I didn't even bother to say hello to Anne, but hurried back outside, seeking fresh air and sunlight, and the friends who were -- as unusual -- late in arriving.
Garrick came first; he must have been parked for a few minutes, waiting for the others to come, and then, when I leaned against the pole again, he came out of his from his car. We didn't hug -- the way we had most other times. We shook hands. He asked me if the others were here yet. I said no, only Anne and the family. He nodded. I followed him back up the steps, through the door, and into the haze again, refusing to brighten my vision by removing my sunglasses, refusing to walk directly into the arms of Anne and her ghastly company of Ghouls. Then, the priest arrived, Garrick and I went to the last row of seats, sat, and as the priest details the religious side of Hank's last week on earth, saying how the last rites had been given him in the hospital, how Hank had received communion every day under his release, and how well prepared Hank had been for the journey to God. Later, Pauly would mumble something about poor dead John Lennon who was now the one with Hank knocking at his door -- this said with a glint of something wet in the corner of his eye which we all knew could not be tears; Pauly never cried. But I did, imagining the horror of the last week, how Hank must have sensed the creeping doom, how he had gone to the hospital because he could not stop his hands from shaking, and had been released a week later, only to climb up the steps to his room, to sit on his bed, to later call his mother, and then to die.
I was crying from under my sunglasses when a dark haired woman came in, sitting down in the last row between me and Garrick. She looked familiar, though I later learned she was not part of our crowd. She had come over from New York and the bar where Hank spent many weekends over the last half decade. From her I learned of those mysterious trips to Hank's version of the TV show ``Cheers,'' and of the disappointment Hank had felt after falling for a woman there, only to have her reject him for someone else.
``Hank needed a woman'' this woman, Isis said when we have moved outside to talk.
Hank always had. His life was a series of attractions and rejections, each leaving him a little more scarred. For most of it, I bore painful witness. In 1968, I watched him fall in love with a woman named Angel, then give her up for a pregnant hippie chick named Laurie -- with whom he lived for nearly four years, faking the village hippie life until moving to New Jersey again. I watched him fall in and out of love with a series of meaningless women, to finally fall in love with an 18 year old girl named Cynthia. I followed him through the ups and downs of that romance, until it shattered him, she saying he was just too old for her. Then, I watched him with Rona, and watched that eventually fade, too. But during the middle 1980s and early 1990s, I knew nothing of his loves or losses, and to hear Isis tell me about the same pattern with his last love, I felt crushed. I wanted to send him off with true love, or the illusion of it, but apparently, all the illusions had vanished before his death.
Pauly arrived angry, and motioned Garrick away from Anne, and after a few whispered but harsh words, he turned, marched into the wake, and cornered the Saffron-dapper Daron.
``I was civil,'' Pauly said later. ``I told him no one was going to touch Hank's stuff. That if anyone had a say as to what happened to it, it would be Anne.''
I'd never seen Pauly so vehement or upset, his pale face drawn tight around his mouth like a man with a distasteful service to perform. He said he had talked to Hank in January about disposing of some very valuable things, comics, records, video tapes. What concerned me were the tapes we had done as a group, silly tapes of us singing or our conversations, rock and roll tapes copied over for Hank -- in whose care they had remained and survived when all other copies had vanished. I wanted to copy over those memories. I wanted to hear his voice again, and have him live in my head through a set of headphones. I imagined myself hearing something in those tapes that I hadn't heard before, or some message designed in them by Hank that would comfort me now.
Then, finally, with that settled, we left, each agreeing to meet at Calico Kitchen where we had gathered during our youth, Hank's favorite eating place. Seven us came. Seven of us sat. But we were eight in reality, Hank's name bandied about with the same lack of respect that made us respect him. A memory. A legend. A friend. We loved to hate him, hated to love him, and loved him anyway. Then, two hours, many cups of coffee, and a hamburger each later, we parted, determined to gather again at a more cheerful occasion. Outside, each walked to her or her car and drove away. Except for Garrick, who sat staring out the window at the highway, and I, sliding into the seat beside him, stared, too.
``I'm going to miss that son of a bitch,'' Garrick said.