Friday, May 03, 2013

A Suicide in Ballston Spa, New York


(Special thanks to Frances Seibert, my senior high English teacher at Ballston Spa High School. If she says this is good, it is. Note: Ballston is no longer the hole it had come to. It's really cute now. From my book.)

From "Dead, Full of Shit and Dreaming"

My best pal Paul committed suicide in his nineteenth year on the planet. Owing to my dreams of him, I took an abiding interest in the nature of what secrets may produce them.

Paul and I spent our teen years in Ballston Spa, in upstate New York. My father had moved us there to work as a plant manager for General Electric. Paul's father moved his family from Utica, New York, to work at a military test installation.

We had come from industrious, high-hopes Ohio. I had been an A student since elementary school and was teaching myself to play guitar. I secretly held high hopes for that.

Here’s a conversation my brother Dud repeated to me after he first took a walk down to the Sugar Shack, a teen hangout in the center of the village.

"Hi! I just moved here from Ohio!"

“Ohio, huh?"

"Yeah!"

"Well why don't you just move right the fuck back to Ohio?"

The unfriendly teenager who rebuffed my brother’s greeting on that street corner was eventually elected mayor.

Ballston had been a village of around 5,000 people for generations into the previous century. A Reverend Eliphalet Ball, who had led his congregation here in 1771, traded a gallon of rum to the white settlers, two brothers named MacDonald, to use his name for the settlement instead of theirs. This aboriginal war-trail in what white men called “the American jungle” became Ball-town, then Ballston and Ballston Spa. My family's arrival tipped the population to 5,004.

Ballston was a heartbreaking deep green in spring and summer. In fall and winter it called out heartbreakingly lonely sounds from between the spaces of the winds and rains and snows and stillness.

Most of Ballston proper was situated in a wide ancient sinkhole alongside America's longest earthquake fault line. It rumbled imperceptibly from New York City to Montreal, each metropolis 150 miles in opposite directions. Our Victorian White Elephant sat alongside the fault line, above the sinkhole, overlooking the flowing Gordon creek and the village below. Six or seven hundred yards north, the Gordon intersected with the Kayaderosseras creek. The merged pair flowed on to Saratoga Lake, half a dozen miles away by canoe. Sometimes in winter small earthquakes would crinkle the lake’s ice.

The top sediment of the ancient sinkhole was littered with early artifacts of the American Dream. Ballston was the setting for a scene in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS, America's first hit novel – America’s first popular hit in any media. James Fennimore Cooper wrote those scenes while he stayed there.

I became a constant walker. A thousand steps or so from our Victorian White Elephant took me to the birthplace of Arnold Doubleday, the army General who popularized baseball, reorganizing its rules. Doubleday is said also to have fired the first shot for the North in the War Between the States.

Another thousand steps west from Doubleday’s, alongside the Gordon creek was a colonnaded house where once dined and slept America’s first President, General George Washington. A few hundred steps back down the Gordon creek, a spring burbled up from a hole in the ground which eventually made the young settlement internationally famous – and a playground for another half dozen U.S. Presidents as well.

Ambling back to Doubleday’s house, across the street, stood America's first soda pop bottling plant. It had used the naturally carbonated water from that spring. Cherry was the first flavor. Besides the cherry phosphate, they said the vanilla phosphate was also invented at Porter's restaurant on the next street up. I drank them there as a teen, hobnobbing with schoolmates, proctored by a flat-footed chain-smoking old waitress, a weary housemother indeed.

Two thousand or so steps north from Doubleday’s birthplace, up the main street, Milton Avenue, past some boarded-up storefronts, a few still surviving stores, a barbershop, a bar or two and a church or two, slept a magnificent 19th Century Mansard-style factory building. Locals still called the place "the chocolate factory." It had once been home to the world-famous Bischoff's Chocolates. After Bischoff’s vacated came a far more important birth: the building was converted to a paper manufacturer which invented and distributed the now long ubiquitous square-bottomed paper grocery bag.

The old brick giant snoozed alongside the Kayaderosseras Creek, which had once provided water power for various local industries. Maybe another thousand steps east alongside that creek sat the knitting mill, still rolling since before Doubleday legendarily fired that first shot. It manufactured cozy, comfy, world-famous Ballston Spa Knit Socks.

We could row a canoe a few miles down the bramble-lined Kayaderosseras to Saratoga Lake. We could dock by a restaurant where a disgruntled chef once responded with culinary sarcasm to a party of finicky customers. They’d complained that the fried potatoes had been sliced too thick. What came out of the kitchen that night was the potato chip, the greatest junk food the world has yet known.

Potato chips, soda pop, the paper grocery bag, baseball, chocolates, world-famous socks and George Washington. One can't get much more American than that. The “Match Capital of the World,” where I’d come from, had been put to shame, even if Winston Churchill refused to light his cigars with any but an Ohio Blue Tip match. And there was more.

This little bicycle-built-for-two era village had once been the very model of mythical Yankee Ingenuity. Owing to the popularity created by prominent vacationers, industries flourished there. Over 200 key patents to industrial processes were birthed in Ballston, from revolutionary knitting machinery to hard-edge tools to improvements on the telegraph machine to leather tanning; not to mention that seventy percent of the world’s manila paper was once manufactured there. The paper collar and cuffs, which one will see on the necks and sleeves of every gentleman in almost any nineteenth century photograph, were invented and manufactured in Ballston Spa.

How It All Got There

The ancient sink-hole into which all this Americana had fallen and died was formed by volcanic eruptions eons back; lava still simmers deep below the placid surface. Naturally carbonated spring water sputtered up through ancient seismic fissures. Some of it was channeled out an iron pipe, which jutted out the side of a bright green and white gazebo bearing a sign indicating this was Old Iron Spring.

Weary citizens suffering proudly from "Americanitis," a popular bragging-disease come of working so hard to get rich, came to Old Iron Spring and a few others, since dried up, for the “water cure.” They stayed at the Sans Souci Hotel, the largest in the world. So too did opulent travelers from around the world come for the water cure and a stay at this newest and most prestigious of vacation wonders of the world. The village effervesced with the sparkling chatter of European royalty and high society; all imbibed the liquid which local Indian legend said would drive people crazy.

Then, about a five-mile walk away, Saratoga Springs began to spring up. It had more springs, more race tracks, bigger buildings, richer patrons and fancier everything. Ballston Spa began to suffer proudly.

And Nowadays…

Time and tide had taken their tolls. One night riding in a car with my new friend Paul and his dad, I out-loud noticed the high number of cemeteries and septic tank services around this little village. "Yeah, everything's either dead or fulla shit!" Paul’s dad laughed in quick staccato, like a cartoon woodpecker.

It was an historical shambles of crumbling storefronts and half-buried ghosts. Sometimes the ghosts were visible. The village newspaper, the Ballston Journal, reported stories now and then. Here was a drawing of the seven foot black-caped preacher who’d appear at the foot of one couple’s bed; there was the man who could be seen patrolling an old property line, carrying the shotgun with which he’d murdered his family and himself decades ago. There was my English teacher, who told me that the ghosts in their old house had left things for her husband to trip over and break his ankle; they didn’t bother her, she said, because she didn’t believe in ghosts. There was my pal Pud’s invisible visitor, rattling the door violently, trying to get into the apartment. I saw the knob twist over and over again, the door rattling; Pud grabbed a kitchen knife to menace the shivering door; I threw it open and no one was there. The stairs were empty. He guessed it must have been his late Aunt.

Old Iron Spring was now a candy stand that did a little business in summertime; the froggy-tasting carbonated mineral water still spurted in fits and starts out the mossy old iron pipe poking out sheepishly from the side of the gazebo like a colostomy tube. "Old people drink it 'cuz it keeps 'em regular," Pud snorted. Few others drank it any more.

Just up the dead train trestle from the spring was the equally dead leather tannery, closed for decades. The acrid odor of long-gone rendered horses had lingered since its busiest days in World War Two. My friend Dennis' dad was one of the last employees there, in the fifties; he wore out his back hanging and drying horsehides. The floors were too thick with pigeon poop even for mischievous boys and girls to want to meet for shenanigans.

The beautiful Victorian chocolate factory and home of the square-bottomed paper bag was now also a big repository for pigeon poop. Abner Doubleday's house was run down and occupied by welfare people whose head of household was usually dirty, shirtless, babbling and drunk. What remained of the Sans Souci Hotel was a derelict wooden fragment called the Medberry Hotel. Bumbling fistfights between drunks in its rear parking lot were routine. I watched a few.

Ballston nowadays had one of the largest per-capita alcohol consumption rates on the planet, outpacing even Russia, so my mom had read. A sociologist friend had told her that the reason for this was a longtime feeling of hopelessness among the rank and file residents, who for generations had been surrounded by rich tourists and get-rich-quick horseracing and other gambling schemes.

Whatever the case, heavy drinking had been the custom throughout northern New York since before the Revolutionary War. Settlers believed liquor made them stronger. Men would get into fights at parties to show off how strong they were, drunk on as much as a half-gallon of home brewed corn liquor.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union movement, which eventually led to the Constitutional amendment outlawing alcoholic beverages in 1919, first applied for a permit in Ballston Spa. The village fathers turned it down, calling it “too visionary.”

The custom had grown worse. It was more than macho contests and street vomit and parties in the woods for teens to whom getting drunk was new. Shabbily colorful alcoholics, their bitternesses, antics and abuses were ground into the pigment of Ballston Spa. In an earlier draft of this story I had a friend of mine list from casual memory about a dozen local drunks and their hapless children and embarrassing antics, but we do need to move along. Our mayor, who was also the school janitor, was also a drunk, found more than once sleeping it off in some doorway. On Friday nights we’d visit the town's late-night Spa Diner to watch Eddie the garbage man’s head lurch lower and lower like a toy bobbing bird into his plate of spaghetti. That was about as close to cute as it would get.

The King

One fall Sunday afternoon, just turned fourteen, mortality shocks still reverberating my “mortal coil,” I sat outside the Sugar Shack half-flirting with some future high-school-dropout girls on the corner where Dud had received his unwelcoming greeting. The Sugar Shack was a default teen hangout for the poorer kids. Those who couldn’t afford sodas would sit outside on the brick planters and watch the traffic go by.

A teen who showed up said something that sounded as though it may have been witty, unlike everyone else I’d heard. Needing a friend, I decided he’d do. I immediately nicknamed him “the King.” He didn’t like the new nickname, but he liked me, so it stuck.

Paul was born in Goose Bay, Labrador, Canada. At age fourteen he was nearly six feet tall. He’d been that tall since age eleven, he once told me. He had his French-and-Indian mother’s thick black hair, black eyes and high cheekbones and near fang-like incisors. He had his French Canadian father's big jaw and a varying dusky complexion that blushed frequently about things he alone imagined. He smiled and laughed just as easily and more often. His fourteen-year-old’s voice was already deep and resonant. He often used it hilariously, making cartoonish affectations and imitating the grizzled old men of his neighborhood.

We’d sneak out of our houses on school nights through our bedroom windows and down the drainpipes; we’d rove the empty village, smoking cigarettes and talking about everything in the world, sometimes until three in the morning. With that, vistas from the slate roof of the Victorian, hanging out the windows of our parents’ houses, sitting on some bridges and under others, we’d found temporary exit ways out of the known, drab little universe that had been laid out for us by some hollow local ghost.

My school grades suffered, but our discussions went beyond what gray-shaded promises for the future they offered. What had we been reading? How do they say the mind works? What were the characters of the people around us?

Remembrance of Laffs Passed

Paul's dad had bought a tape recorder lugged off from war-battered Germany from a drunk at a bar in Goose Bay, Labrador, for five dollars. It had sat in their attic for years. Paul thought my new rock’n’roll band needed recording, so one day he brought it over.

Local would-be musicians and I played "Road Runner" and other easy teenage hit songs into the little grey metal microphone attached to it, onto an old recording tape that left rust stains on my fingers. We inadvertently erased recordings of Paul’s own chattering as a toddler.

I eventually started using it to record our conversations. I listened to them so often I’ve still got many memorized.

TD (me), intoning: "Today's discussion will be about MAN. Is MAN basically good, or is MAN basically evil? MAN is... MAN is... well..."

King: I think I got a little cupcake in your soda."

TD: "AAAAUGH! CUPCAKE!"

King: "It's nothing to worry about. Just a little cupcake floating around, is all..."

TD: "Aaaaak!"

King: "It's a typical day in a typical American town! Here's a couple of typical American teenagers here to talk about typical things! We’ll pick a topic to analyze!"

TD: "And criticize!"

King: "And harmonize!"

TD: “And Simonize!"

King: “So, I think I'll strike up a conversation with... Tom Darks, here! He’s a typical teenager! So, Tom! What's a typical thing we can talk about today?"

TD: "I..."

King: "Well I don’t agree with that at all. I'd like to bring up the statement, the phrase, the saying if you will, that 'some people eat to live, and some people live to eat! I do both!"

TD: "Me too."

King (swig of bottle): "Next subject!"

Throughout our high school years we talked playfully about heady things, like Freud or Darwin or Nietzsche or Jung or Plato, which either of us would be reading at a given time. The King had introduced me to Arthur Koestler's works. We'd both read DARKNESS AT NOON and THE ACT OF CREATION. What follows here is a bit of conversation referring to those two books and ourselves in the spring of our eleventh school year.

"Lately I'm thinking I'm on the Trivial Plane," I said. "I've been thinking about what it takes to get onto the Tragic Plane."

"Oh yeah? D'you think you could... pour gasoline on yourself and set fire to yourself like it was nothing? [Paul was referring to the recent news that a Buddhist Monk had done this in protest of the war] It takes a disciplined mind to go from the Trivial Plane to the Tragic Plane, man," King replied in his deep grownup's timbre.

"It takes an UNDISCIPLINED mind to get into that kind of trouble in the first place," I squeaked in my whiny new adolescent’s voice.

"Maybe," he replied. I was arguing that Koestler's "Tragic Plane" was a necessary experience, where "the Trivial Plane" with its comforting routines brought on ennui, when a smooth and pleasant life didn't feel like enough.

“I'm on a trivial plane right now," I said, "some days I walk around and feel like I'm just... great, y'know?" I was thinking of the previous Sunday, where I turned a corner on a walk and met the morning sunshine in a way that stays with me all these years later. Something about it had made me feel like the sun itself.

"You're a Gletkin," King replied, inflecting tongue in cheek in his bass voice.

"That's true," I guffawed, "but don't sound so... smart and so smug!"

The tape recorder played back the sound of Chocolate flavored Yoo-Hoo rebounding in the bottle after he swigged it, sitting in his chosen window in my big Victorian bedroom that sunny spring day. I’d sit on a tubular chrome stool that had belonged to my grandmother, drinking Sport Cola, smoking an Old Gold cigarette. Sometimes Paul sat on that stool.

"So who remained alive?"

"Who remained alive with what?" redoubled my best pal, breathing out the smoke of a minty green True menthol cigarette.

Mixed thoughts made me pause. In the novel DARKNESS AT NOON, Gletkin had thrived in Stalinism by joining the harsh new political correctness movement; Rubashov, an "old guard" revolutionary, was his victim. Gletkin was the new, raw species of political primate; Rubashov was an elegant old species of ape who had evolved as far as he could in the communist cosmogony. He was ready for discontinuation. After a long series of interrogations and unsympathetic philosophical discussions with Gletkin, Rubashov was ushered down the hallway toward his prison cell at noontime and then shot dead in the back of the head by a guard.

King wasn’t an “old guard” anything. He wished he was at age 16. I couldn't say what bothered me about his statement. Something. He was depicting himself as obsolete.

He continued. "Man, that's just like you. You're a Gletkin and I'm a Rubashov. Man, I want something to change my life, give me purpose..." There was the sound of Yoo-Hoo rebounding in bottle; then the tape and my memory fade away.

Sigmund Freud

I brought Freud's Basic Works into our conversations after having spent a summer reading those essays between long hours as a dishwasher at a twenty-four- hour bus stop diner and rock’n’roll band practice.

The idea of "free association" was intriguing. One day I made a riposte to Paul, explaining my newly discovered Freudian ideas. "You might talk about jumping spiders," I'd quipped, referring to a dream I'd had, "but it's just another way of saying you want to kill your father." The King got the joke.

"That's just another way of saying you hate your mother," he intoned, adult-like.

"THAT'S just another way of saying YOU hate your mother," I joked back. "That's right. I hate my mother."

"Ah, so you DO hate your mother," I charged with a German accent. Und vy doz you hates your mother?"

"Next subject," he chortled. Yoo-Hoo bottle glugging. As our conversations and visits to his house wore on, I noticed he’d always show an irritable temper to and about his mild and obsequious mother. I couldn't see why, but he hated her. She didn’t seem aware of that.

Not long after that recorded conversation, playing Freud again, I used "free association" with Paul and stumbled across an event in his life he refused to tell me about, and never did. Something happened between him and his father and his family when he was eleven years old. He'd taken the blame for a serious thing he hadn't done. Full of strained emotion, he wouldn't reveal what happened. Now as a teenager, his face still reddened. His eyes welled up.

A Long Journey's Dream

One night, alone in the house, the rest of my family on a camping vacation, I dreamed a spectacularly long dream. It began in a museum in Columbus, Ohio, which was more or less my ancestral American home. There were display cases containing family items, symbols of fears and hopes and what. It seemed my interest in Freud’s work arranged things this way. The items in the display cases seemed old and stuffy.

Leaving the museum, I traveled down unfamiliar country roads on foot: all of the friends I met along the way, whom I knew in that present reality, fell away after a little while.

After a long journey on foot, I came across a deserted, dilapidated old house standing alone in the green farm countryside. Curious, I entered. In the living room, bare of furniture, only walls and ceiling and wooden floor, I encountered a mild looking priestly man in blue wizard's robes. He must have been in his thirties. Only years later did I realize he looked like me.

He smiled at me silently. I began to apologize for disturbing his solitude, but he spoke just a name: "Paul Richard." He bent down to the floor on his hands and knees and turned into a fat old Cocker Spaniel. The dog began biting vigorously into a pile of sawdust on the floor. I left the house and walked onward.

I came to a fork in the road. There Paul appeared and greeted me; after a cheerful goodbye, he took one fork, I the other. He went down a road fraught with high-tension wires; I wound up standing over a bridge in Ballston Spa, watching the Kayaderosseras creek water flow past, wondering about my grandmother, my father’s mother. The dream ended.

Just a Fat Old Dog

That dream occurred around Easter that year. That summer, Paul, seemingly out of nowhere, began repeating a new notion he thought was funny. To all and no one, he'd refrain: "Well, I think I'll just roll over and die. Yep. Think I'll just roooollll over and die."

"When I die I'm gonna reincarnate as a fat old dog,” he announced one night. “Just an oooold, fat dog." He said his next life would be as a lazy old Cocker Spaniel.

Paul's running joke went on through the year. "I think it's hilarious," he'd say, always noticing that nobody seemed to get it. I didn't.

Freud had not been helpful in interpreting my dreams. Among the items in the glass cases of that dream-museum, I saw Freud’s ideas as well as the family items. I didn’t know what that meant (“Freud’s ideas belong in a museum”). Neither did it occur to me to make any connection between Paul's new-found identity as a future fat old Cocker Spaniel and the little drama a wizard had staged for me of him turning into a fat old Cocker Spaniel, biting the dust.

School’s Out Forever

Senior year arrived, graduation came and went; Paul and I saw less of each other. We worked different shifts at the always-open bus stop, the Spa City Diner in Saratoga Springs. He'd rented a cottage alongside Saratoga Lake with a new friend named Kevin. They'd engaged in smoking pot and taking different kinds of hallucinogenic pills and mushrooms. I wasn't interested in trying any of it, but I'd drop over, listen to the latest psychedelic and heavy metal albums and study their stoned and tripping faces for clues. I can't say I saw any.

That September I went off to a community college in nearby Glens Falls to use the scholarship I'd been handed at graduation. At about two one morning, November once again, came a knock at my apartment door. Kevin was standing on my porch with Paul in tow.

He’d driven Paul up to see me. Paul sat down on my bed and showed me a neat rectangle he’d cut perpendicularly across the tendons of his right wrist. He had slit the upper layers of the skin with a razor, but stopped before he hit vein or artery or tendon.

"Why, Paul?" I asked somberly.

"I dunno," he answered. "I just thought that it was time to... I thought that... this was going to be the end of it."

"You're not going to do it again, are you?"

"No."

"You sure?"

"No, I won't."

We talked awhile longer and I believed him. It was now after three. I thought the emergency was over and he'd learned a lesson. I told Kevin to drive Paul to the local hospital emergency room, get his wrist bandaged, and we could talk all of it over later. I went back to bed.

I hadn’t known that suicide was against the law. Paul was bandaged and put in jail, then shuttled off to an observation ward at Albany Medical Center, 60 miles south.

While Paul sat in the loony bin, Kevin and I met with his father at Kevin's apartment just down the street from Saratoga’s historical Congress Park. Joe was jovial, all jokes and staccato woodpecker laugh. We sat up into the night with a bottle of wine, talking about what the trouble was.

Joe speculated that his son had inherited something from him. He'd had a nervous stomach since his days in World War Two. He recounted a tale from his days as a soldier in the landing party at Anzio Beach, Italy. He seemed merely to want to tell stories about himself. After we finished the wine, he left.

Professional Help

Joe bought Paul a high-power motorcycle, perhaps as a kind of consolation. Paul let his friends try out his new BSA 650, quite a powerful engine. I got on and promptly drove the thing into a tree, bending the handlebars. He drove it that way until his death.

I had a long discussion with my philosophy professor about Paul. After listening patiently to my tale of my friend’s attempt at suicide, old Doctor Loper suggested that Paul study Spinoza. Better than that, I convinced him to attend the community college with me.

For weeks I rode on the back of his BSA 650 with the bent handlebars up the four-lane highway to Adirondack Community college. I’d hang on for dear life as the whole machine vibrated like crazy, Paul tearing along at about 85 miles an hour. We wore cheap sunglasses and no helmets. The wind pulled tears out of our eyes and the slightest bugs and motes in the air stung our faces. Paul was eager to get something out of this higher education, or maybe kill the both of us on that damnable thing.

But nothing suited him. Despite our deep high school discussions on Nietzsche and Koestler and Socrates and Tillich and Freud and Jung, and despite my prof’s personal advice about Spinoza as an antidote for Nietzsche, he found even Philosophy 101 troubling and boring. He quit the college and I lost touch with him again. While we were out of touch, one night Paul took his razor to Yaddo.

Yaddo was a legendary mansion on the outskirts of Saratoga, a beautifully landscaped estate with sober gray stone buildings and expansive gardens. The name "Yaddo" came from a child who had drowned in a pool there while the wealthy Trask family still occupied it. It was baby talk for "shadow." The legend said the toddler jumped into the pool trying to catch his yaddo and drowned. Broken-hearted, the local story went, the family left it.

It was said that the great Edgar Allan Poe had written his most famous poem, “The Raven,” at Yaddo. Indeed the place had a resident flock of ravens. One day as a flock of Ravens fled out from tree branches, I wondered if I too might be inspired to some great poem that way. But Poe had been dead for fifty years by the time the mansion was built.

By the night Paul lay down on one of its lawns to bleed himself to death, Yaddo had for seventy years been used as a hideaway for well-known writers and artists there on endowments. Young Truman Capote had written BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S there. One day I’d seen the popular writer, Phillip Roth, standing in the driveway at the top of the hill where the old gray mansion had squatted for decades. Paul thought it was a classy place to die.

This time he had scrawled out a suicide note declaring he wanted his body donated to science. “I don’t want any fuckin priest at my funeral,” he wrote, ant-size. "I loved you all," he scribbled.

"So, I laid down, happy and jokey, and said 'g'bye Kevin, g'bye Deb, g'bye Tom, and cut my wrists. But then I started bawling and couldn't stop so I got up and went over to Kevin's place."

Back to the loony bin he went. This time, the Queen of the Gypsies lay dying in the hospital; the parking lots were filled with quaint and rusty vehicles and even a few ceremonial wagons. Gypsies wandered the ward halls everywhere, dressed in ceremonial satins and sashes, waiting for the old Queen to die.

The King was now officially diagnosed as a "paranoid schizophrenic," as were the others in the dismal ward behind the locked door.

They let him out of the ward after a few weeks. Thanks to a state-assigned psychiatrist, he came out with a prescription for Thorazine. Thorazine is a heavy tranquilizer; one of its side effects listed in the "Physician's Bible" is suicidal depression.

If he hadn't been a paranoid schizophrenic before, he was now. He’d often repeat "is there something wrong with my eyes? People keep staring at me because of my eyes. I know there's something wrong with my eyes." I told him that if there was anything funny about his eyes, it was that he kept squinting on purpose. He was beginning to lose his connection between mind and body.

The semester wore on. I’d got a girlfriend and spent my time between her, my rock’n’roll band, job and school.

Fat Old Dog Bites Dust

That March, a Saturday a few months later, just after Paul’s birthday, his dad called for me. I was in the middle of band rehearsal. Had I seen him? Not since Thursday night, I said. Well, they hadn't seen him either and were beginning to worry. I said I'd call around.

By 4:30 p.m. our friend Kevin called to tell me that Joe had found Paul and called the police. Medics had hauled his corpse out of the family’s garage.

I went to visit Paul's parents the next day. They let me into his bedroom. I looked at the two blood stains on the light blue sheets of the lower bunk, where he sat as his correctly-sliced wrists bled out his life. The floor was clean.

Joe, fingering this last suicide note, let me read it, thinking Paul's best pal might understand it. It was a terse combination of communications in his ever-tinier scrawl. There were some symbols from movements of a chess game. There was the word "Rosebud," referring to the mysterious symbol of lost childhood innocence from the movie "Citizen Kane," which he so admired.

Finally came this unfinished thought: "Soul, where are you? I have eyes for you but you cannot see. I have arms for you but you do not move. Maybe if I"...

End Part One




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32 Comments:

Anonymous Jinshomaru said...

Wow, Tom, what an entry! Even though it happened so long ago I'm sorry for your loss.

It seems from your dream that either your friend, at another level of consciousness, made the decision to end his life way before he actually did it or you picked up on the probable reality in which he would end his life but he hadn't made the decision to yet at the time you dreamed it. Do you have any thoughts on which it was? Also, do you remember how much time had passed from the dream to his physical death?

Again, a powerful entry and I think your best. Thank you for sharing some memories of your friend and this event in your life.

PS. Do you think your friend might have had some trauma with his mother at a young age involving abuse and that's why he hated her for seemingly no reason?

10:34 AM  
Blogger Tom Dark said...

It's a long story. Conveniently, I've written that too. May post it after a while. The inner realities tend to make people sleepy.

It was three years nearly exact between that dream, April '69 and Paul's third and successful try at suicide, April '71.

That's why you need to write 'em down. 3 years between dream and physical event is pretty common.

1:54 PM  
Blogger Tom Dark said...

I forgot. You have a copy of the rest of that story.

5:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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6:26 AM  
Blogger Omar said...

Hi Tom,

Three Things:

(a) seems your angel's been teaching you about dreams since your youth.

(b) This is a wonderful re-telling that allowed us to re-live the events in context. Thanx.

(c) I trust no "fucking priest" attended the interment (?).

omar

8:10 PM  
Blogger Tom Dark said...

The idea of angels selecting who gets to know what rankles me, Doc. The idea of the truth of the matter, that people just aren't paying attention to their own minds, can rankle me worse.

I'm hoping these tales will prompt people to at least remember their dreams. So far (25 years of test readers) so good.

They can always go back to "sheeple sleep", but I can do that much.

5:45 AM  
Blogger Omar said...

Hi Tom,

Angels are just 'messengers' according to all scriptures. They don't do any 'deciding' -- whatever else they are. They just facilitate the communication (what Islam calls "Guidance") or, in this case, a kind of inspiration. So I think you can safely discard that rankle.

As for "paying attention" ... well, that's kinda like a choice that's made: Up to them ... all you can do is keep writing and showing 'em.

4:44 PM  
Blogger Tom Dark said...

Yeah I know Doc. But I'm talkin' Catholic angels heah.

By the way, there was no service. Paul's mom and dad shipped his body down to the human meat plant immediately.

You must remember those from med school. I used to spend a little while in one nightly while I was a hospital janitor. Meditation. Then I'd go out and sit under the ghostly-lit statue of Hippocrates and meditate on that.

5:39 PM  
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8:21 AM  
Blogger Tom Dark said...

A brain-dead visitor usually does think it's only him, yeah. Any other non-questions?

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6:37 PM  
Anonymous Stephen Shapiro said...

Well Jeez-Us Tom. That is one fine piece of writing. I remember Paul, very tragically, on Thorazine, lost. Others too who if not successful suiciders just killed themselves a little every day. Kid suicides were not too uncommon in upstate NY during the early '70s.

Dying towns, some well past dead, that to some, were connected by roads that only went in, not out, that all seemed to have the same boarded up storefronts, the same bored kids hanging out, going nowhere, all too often looking for money and love that was spent on other people in "nicer" places like Saratoga.

My memory of those days was that the drugs, alcohol and a despondency left over from the debris of the Great Depression made hoplessness look like the easy choice. Binghamton, Glens Falls, Elmira, Johnstown, and a thousand smaller places like Ballston that seemed, at least to me, like relics of such better days past but were really just left behind, waiting to get cheap enough for someone with a better and newer vision to buy it.

Tom, you and I always knew that the world wasn't bleak, nor colorless and that what we saw, what we chose to look at, was humorous if sad, historic if shabby, and hopeful even if hopeless. The stars above give us that if we look up and think, or in your case dream.


12:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Funny, I was feeling a bit down the last few days but reading and writing about Paul and Ballston Spa made me feel better. Not better in comparison to heartache and loss, just better. Thanks.

Going back, to everything that we think we knew, is never satisfying. We gots to live here, now, today, wherever the fuck we are. Besides it'll all look so small, like the desks in a first grade classroom.

12:56 PM  
Blogger mary finch said...

Hi Tom,,came across your piece after a friend from Ballston posted it . took me back ,as I too grew up in Ballston. I sure can relate to all those places you mentioned.and I was most likely one of those teenagers hanging out on the brick wall at the Shack:) All in all IT was A gereat place for a kid to grow up ,andalthough rich in history,,sadly not much to offer one for a future. I moved west soon as I was old enough to leave home,,went on with my life . Yet my roots remain in that "one horse town'

2:25 PM  
Blogger Tom Dark said...

Hi Mary! Turned out it was a one horse town with quite a history, eh?

I was really really pleased to learn what had become of a few friends who wrote me because of this article. Good heavens, for one thing, Stephen Trombley has been virtually a celebrity for years now. And people everybody thought would be dead before they hit thirty have done really well. So I feel a lot better about the old place than I did. XOXOXOX

6:07 PM  

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