My husband Beau started dying the day he was born. That isn’t so unlike the rest of us, but his dying was carried within his connective tissue by a degenerative disorder called Marfan’s Syndrome. As he aged, he fell apart like a badly constructed marionette, knee joints crumbling, his spine hunchbacked, his shoulder joints slipping loose, and his deformed chest aching until his aorta dissected with a relieved gush of blood. He would have been 24 in a week, and it was November 26th. I was 22, and we had two daughters, ages three and nearly one. It is important to call out the numbers; it solidifies the past, making its distant and pale ghostliness vibrant again.
It was 1976, the year of the bicentennial. While most of Columbus, Ohio and the rest of the country was tricked out in red, white, and blue bunting, we were sprout-growing, poetry-reading, and Mother Earth News subscribing hippies. Beau was 6′ 2” with his long bumpy spine curved over like a sapling in a storm, black curly hair falling below his shoulders, ragged bell-bottoms, and a pocket of cheap dope. I was a milky breasted, quiet mother….one baby on my teat and the other following at my heels. Both of us had been familial outcasts for much of our teen and adult lives, so we were excited that my mother and younger brother would be eating with us for the first time this Thanksgiving. My mother was in her last year at Indiana University in Bloomington studying for her graduate degree in library science, and my brother was in his final year of high school. They drove to our apartment together in my mother’s forest green bug, bringing wine and dessert. I’d laid out the traditional Thanksgiving food; mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, green beans, sweet potatoes, sour cream raisin pie, parker house rolls, and cheese straws, and was finishing up cooking in our narrow kitchen. Beau was perched on a tall stool next to the stove playing his guitar, while my mom and brother chatted on the sofa beneath the macrame wall hanging. The kids were wobbling and screaming throughout the house, excited by the company and prospects of a feast. Beau and I were quietly quarreling about housework, until I huffed out of the kitchen with a pyrex bowl of stuffing. I heard a groan, and then Beau staggered out of the kitchen, pale, sweating, and hunched over in pain. We didn’t know it then, but that was when his aorta blew out. Like a tire bursting and sending a car of unsuspecting passengers careening towards some dark night – we went.
Beau had been having pains for the past year, but his doctors refused to perform the necessary tests to monitor his heart. He was a sometimes ex-junkie, half Apache hippie with more intelligence than most of his doctors, but there was no reason for them to keep him alive, and plenty of reasons to let him die. To his doctors and the straight world he was just another deformed street-wise addict cluttering up the world and the system.
We knew death was coming; he’d dreamed about his death and had been meditating daily. He’d asked for a long white muslin robe which I’d sewn for him, and he’d withdrawn into himself telling me that he fervently hoped that this was his final life. What else can you do, but invent reality over and over? That is all we ever do. Life is a performance, full of dreams and agony. You don your robe and stare at a penciled spot on the wall, willing death to relieve you from life.
Mom and Will rushed him to the emergency room, with him crammed into the VW back seat, barely fitting. The ER doctors turned him away. There was no space for Beau at Grant Hospital in downtown Columbus, Ohio. Even my mother, a Virginian woman of considerable determination and charm, could not change their minds. As Mom and Will stood arguing with the nurses, a doctor who used to smoke pot with Beau walked by, took one look at Beau’s pale, sweaty face, and quickly hauled him into an examination room. That is when they discovered that he was dying, and not so fucking slowly at all. He was admitted, and then transferred to Mt. Carmel because it had better equipment. I wish I could tell you more about the flickering lights or the wafting pierce of hallway odors, but there was little poetry in the shift from one house of death to the other.
Mom and Will came home to tell me that Beau was now at the ICU. I stood by the table covered with platters of Thanksgiving food, my heart still and stunned. Titania and Katie circled my bare feet sobbing, and I asked my mother what I should do. She said, “Drink the wine.” and left the kids and myself there.
He lasted one week in the intensive care unit, his long thin feet dangling over the hospital bed. He was down to 140 lbs, and his feet looked like a waxy white collection of bird bones. The almost certain prognosis of an aortic dissection is death. There were few treatments in 1976, and certainly fewer available treatments for a poor folks on Medicaid. We waited for death. Mid-week, a worried Pakistani intern sat with me and meticulously drew Beaus bloody blossoming heart and aorta on a paper cafeteria napkin, using a leaky ballpoint pen. I watched his beautiful tapered brown fingers draw the delicately curved aorta and fist of a heart; he kindly wanted me to understand the explosion inside of Beaus chest. I took the drawing, folded it into a tiny origami bird, and shoved it into my jeans pocket. Beau had a DeBakey III dissection, with the blowout in the descending aorta. His skeletal body was so fragile that he was not allowed to drink carbonated beverages, for fear that the bubbles would stress his disintegrating body. And so we waited.
Mom had gone back to Indiana, so I was alone with our babies. Beaus estranged redneck father came to visit Beau the second night and drove me home in his junkyard Dodge sedan, ranting that hippie chicks, Jews, and niggers had killed his son, and then he gave me a cheap bible. After that, I hitchhiked to and from the hospital by myself. On the sixth day, the doctors grimly told me that he would bleed to death without heart surgery, and that his chances of surviving the surgery were also miniscule. I remembered Beaus nightmare; in the dream the surgeons asked me to sign papers allowing them to perform emergency heart surgery. I’d signed the paperwork, but he died during surgery. He awoke sobbing, and begged me to promise never to sign paperwork authorizing surgery. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to die, because he did, but that he wanted to die at home.
When it came down to it, I signed the paperwork, brought the kids to say goodbye to their father, and we took the bus home. A social worker called me that night and asked me to come down. I got the next door neighbors to babysit, and hitchhiked fourteen miles down Broad Street to the hospital. He had made it through surgery as they repaired his aorta, but bled to death afterwards. I wasn’t prepared. Can anyone be prepared? At 22, living on welfare, emotionally and physically isolated after care-taking for my dying husband for a year, still nursing my youngest child, and disowned by my father, I slipped into numbness. It was the only thing left.
There was no funeral. No families hugging us, and bringing us casseroles made with tinned soup and noodles. No ceremony. No mother or father to hold me. Surrendering to grief was a luxury, and I did without. The neighbors felt badly, and donated a Christmas tree and a bag of stuffed toys for Titania and Katie. Social Security gave us a small burial allowance, and Cook & Son Funeral Home donated the remainder for his cremation. The funeral home owner graciously brought Beaus ashes to me in a tin, saddened by the Dickens-esqe tragedy that we presented. Beaus body was now in what looked like a Prince Albert pipe tobacco tin, but without a gentleman in a frock coat on the red label. I was a widow, and the children fatherless.
I’d never had a tin of bones and ashes before, and didn’t have the time and energy to do anything but store it out of the way, so I put my dead husband’s body under the kitchen sink. I tucked him towards the back, so no one would accidentally open him. And there he sat, only to come out when I needed to stand on something to reach the top shelf of the kitchen cupboards.
Two years later it was 1978, and I was going to art college full-time. I had evolved from shy hippie chick to shy art punk. The children and I had not qualified for survivors benefits from Social Security because Beau had not put in enough work quarters, and he had not contributed enough work quarters because he’d died so young. Round and round we go. We were living on Pell grants, ADC, and a talent for making do. I baked bread, painted, soaked and cooked dried beans, volunteered at the food co-op, listened to the Velvet Underground, thrifted for everything but our underwear, and sewed our clothing.
Every six months I took the bus downtown to get redetermined for ADC and food stamps. I’d bring a thick book, everyones birth certificates and Beau’s death certificate, my benefits denial letter from Social Security, proof that I was attending college full-time, and wait for two to three hours to meet with a welfare worker, and then fill out a thick stack of 23 pages of paperwork. The death certificate was never enough proof for my caseworker that my husband wasn’t lurking about, and in an effort to shame me and collect child support from the delinquent father of my children, she’d make me fill out the section labeled “Section: For Father Who is Absent from the Home”. This included a space for last known residence, which I filled in willy-nilly; under the kitchen sink, Hades, heaven, and the afterlife were favorites. I felt so alone and unprepared doing this; clearly they resented me and thought I was lying and unworthy, but nothing short of quitting college and getting a job in a doughnut shop slinging muddy coffee was going to please them. After I bowed to their will by filling out “Section: For Father Who is Absent from the Home”, they’d finally grudgingly accept Beaus death certificate as proof that he was not available to assist his children and wife, and resentfully approve us for another six months of government assistance. It was cruelty on their parts. All they could see was an entitled, coming-from-privilege, cross-dressing white girl in art school. The mourning widow, the disowned daughter, and the silent wanderer were invisible to them.
After a couple of years of this routine, I cracked. It was late spring in 1978, one of those hot humid Ohio days that remind you how sweaty you’re going to be in a couple of months. I’d been reading Crime and Punishment, and was wearing a Somerset Maugham meets David Bowie getup of oversized white and grey pleated seersucker pants fastened through the belt loops with a rope, bowling shoes, tortoise shell spectacles, and a thin v-neck tee-shirt. I had a short little boy haircut, was tall and thin, and often harassed on the streets for being a fag. They never could get it right, or maybe they were just 35 years ahead of what I was to become. Generally speaking, more folks in Columbus, Ohio found me baffling and difficult, than enchanting. Welfare hated me.
On this day, and once at the welfare office, I waited the prerequisite 2 2/2 hours and then was called into my workers maze-like beige cubicle and the stack of forms was laid in front of me. I filled it out, and my worker flipped to “Section: For Father Who is Absent from the Home”, and tapped it with her long painted, pointed fingernail, “Fill this out.” I handed her the death certificate, but she wasn’t deterred. Tap – tap on the paper. I said, “Wait here, I’ll be back in less than in an hour.”, bused it home, grabbed the Prince Albert tin and a can opener, and bussed back to the welfare office with my dead husbands body in my bag. Once back at the welfare department, I made my way to my caseworkers cubicle, thumped the tin onto her formica desk with satisfying vigor, brandished my can-opener, and dramatically pried open the tin for the first time ever. “Try collecting child support from this!”, I said as the caseworkers took one look of my tin packed full of soft grey ash and thin bone splinters, and ran shrieking up and down the carpeted hallways. I was fiendishly delighted.
Nancy was my room-mate back then; a wonderful woman with a brilliant mind, a dry wit and a resemblance to the author Colette. Nancy had known Beau, and we decided that it was time to scatter his ashes. He’d loved hanging out on the busy campus streets at OSU; the energy at night, buying incense at Tradewinds, dealing dime bags of pot, passing time at the burger joint with friends from the Open Door Clinic, selling handmade beaded jewelery on the sidewalk, and strolling up and down High Street, shooting the shit.
It was fall of 1978, and just starting to become chilly. Leaves were turning scarlet and russet, and drifting down in the early evening wind. We decided to scatter his ashes starting at dusk on a Thursday night. We bundled the kids into their red quilted jackets, and threw on our vintage moth-eaten cloth coats, Nancy in her maroon tweed car-coat and I in a formerly dapper grey houndstooth gentlemans coat. Divvying up Beau’s ashes into brown paper lunch bags, we each took some; the children had smaller pockets, so they took less. It was October, and people had started to decorate for Halloween, with giddily macabre carved pumpkins on porch steps, and wreaths of Indian corn and dried grasses on doors. We walked slowly and somberly from our row house on Summit Street to High Street, waiting until we were there to start our scattering of Beaus body. Once there we begin, it was like sowing seeds, we swung our arms back and forth releasing ashes and bone fragments onto the dirty sidewalk in front of us. Past Beau’s favorite bookstore for shoplifting books on philosophy and religion, past the health food store, past the posh vegetarian restaurant where Beau and I ate quiche and drank sangria on special occasions, past the Drug Crisis Center and the head shop, side by side….you couldn’t have one without the other, and past the diner where Beau and I ate our first bagels ever on a silent wintery morning when I was eight months pregnant. Every so often, a handful of Beau would emit an energy as it drifted to the pavement, but most were just powdery bits, and a dry remainder of what his body had been. Once we were done, all we had left was a small fistful, which I put it into a cut crystal Victorian vanity jar with a silver lid, and set it upon the living room fireplace mantle.
By the fall of 1979, Nancy had moved out, I’d quit art college in a huff. I was looking for excitement, but I wasn’t sure what that would mean. I was painting and had a gig walking a sandwich sign on Ohio State University campus. One side of the sign advertised a hippie health food store, and the other side a science fiction bookstore. I took voyeuristic pleasure in walking the sign up and down High Street, examining everyone I passed without running the risk of them seeing me at all. It was like walking about wearing a paper-mache elephants head; all people saw was the sign and I was almost invisible. I would saunter up and down the street for an hour cruising students, collect my pay, have a bagel with cream cheese at Bernies Bagels, and then go home. I was on my way back to my apartment one day, when a short Irish woman named Roxie stopped me. I’d seen Roxie before at a gallery opening and liked her ratty intellectual style. This afternoon she was wearing a coffee brown tweed blazer and had long white silk scarf with knotted fringe wrapped thrice around her neck. She flung her scarf around dramatically as she broodingly spat Patti Smith poetry at me:
“she is no angel baby. no candidate for a
glass slipper. she is the kind of girl
youd find in an eyebrow pencil ad.
no jelly bitch.”
I had stars in my eyes. I was enamored. I asked Roxie out, asked her over to my place for dinner, and she said yes.
I had an on-again off-again girlfriend named Arleen, and we were on the outs this month, so I was feeling lonely and horny. Arleen was a just-turned-18-year-old blustering, blue-collar butch punk. She was sneeringly tough and had been kicked out of every girls school in Columbus, Ohio, some of them twice. She liked the girls and had a reputation for seduction. She’d cut a swath through both her fellow delinquents and her teachers at the last girls reform school she’d been bounced from before finally fcoming of age earlier that year. We were the antithesis of one another; I was a well-bred, polite, quiet, artistic dandy, and Arleen was a loud, alcoholic, violent tough. Roxie combined traits of both Arleen and myself into a delightful, sexy, dirty-mouthed package. She enticed me with her smart-ass bookish attitude, long thick hair, and freckled Irish complexion. She was as different from Arleen as possible, and that was excellent.
I was nervous the night of our dinner date, and spent hours dressing and redressing until my attic bedroom floor was covered with neckties and shirts. I never felt adequate at flirtatiousness, and was aware that my awkwardness could easily be misconstrued as stand-offishness and disinterest. I would blurt out inappropriate conversations, and could never straddle the fine divide between artfully shy and painfully aggressive. I finally decided upon a grey tailored jacket, white shirt, vintage foulard necktie, pegged black jeans, and golfing shoes. I’d made marinara sauce with meatballs, had garlic bread warming in the oven, and had bought a bottle of imported cheap red wine. I figured that I could coast by on debonaire attire, wine, and good food at the start of the evening, and then eventually I’d unwind and booze-induced charm would kick in.
Roxie was on time, and was fortunately was forward enough for us both. It wasn’t long before we were seated side-by-side on my black leather sofa, wine glasses in hand, with Bryan Ferry crooning “Love Is the Drug” as we leaned into one another talking about art and music, knowing that this was just filler until we finally fucked. The evening was promising; our thighs touched as we scooted towards one another, and I poured us some more wine. The spicy smells of spaghetti sauce filled the house, Roxie and I snuggled closer, and the wine untangled all my awkwardness.
Suddenly there was a crash as the front door screen door was flung open and crashed against the wall, bouncing several times. Arleen stood in the doorway wearing grease-crusted ripped jeans, a Patti Smith tee-shirt, black engineer boots, a bottle of Rolling Rock in her fist, and a snarl. I was worried that Arleens well-deserved reputation for scuffling was due for a demonstration. I wasn’t a fighter, and I was certain that Roxie had never gotten her knuckles bloody. I recoiled into the sofa, but Roxie just sat up straighter.
“What the fuck are you doing with my girl?!” Arleen growled at Roxie. Roxie looked her up and down cooly, picked up the half full bottle of wine, and handed it to Arleen. Roxie calmly told Arleen that were talking about art, and suggested that she leave us alone and find other entertainment. Arleen left. I’d never seen anyone handle Arleen so efficiently and was impressed. Roxie got another bottle of wine from the corner 7-11 to maintain proper levels of lubrication, and we resumed our promising seduction.
Soon, Roxie and I moved a few feet away into the dining room. I’d gussied up my dining room table with an ironed and starched tablecloth and the rheostat for the overhead light was set on low. I stood at the stove stirring the sauce as we continued chattering. Dinner was close to being done, and I took the toasted bread from the oven, wrapped it in a piece of vintage toweling and put it in a basket on the table. Roxie and I tore off slices to devour while waiting for the pasta to finish cooking.
Dinner was almost done when we were interrupted by more loud pounding at the front door. It was my ex-roommate, Kenny. He was high, and had two accomplices lurking behind him, glaring belligerently at us over Kennys shoulder. The three of them posed fetchingly in the doorway, waiting for us to either demand that they leave or to invite them in. Even Roxie started to looked ruffled.
Kenny was my boss from my first post-art school job. Immediately after quitting college I’d had a brief stint as a clerk in a sleazy downtown gay men’s porn store. I renamed the store Porn Paradise, and painted the name flanked by palm trees on the front window, until the Akron mafia which ran the joint told me to scrape the signage off. I sat by the cash register, on a tall stool behind a counter full of butt plugs and scat magazines, sealing dirty magazines, sipping White Russians out of styrofoam cups, reading Crime and Punishment, and handing out quarters for the booths. When workers came into the store to install the glory holes, Kenny refused to tell me what they were doing; he wanted to protect my less than delicate sensibilities. It was the first time I’d ever seen sex toys or porn, but I was clearly in my element. Lunch time was busiest. I felt like an air traffic controller, directing men to booths where they’d find tricks they’d fancy. I was one part match-maker and one part pimp, with a dollop of laissez-faire speed-dating. Kenny and I had gotten along like a building on fire, so when he broke up with his boyfriend in a loud drunken fisticuffs one night, I asked him to move in with me. He’d had been raised in a broken down trailer in Kentucky, and was flamboyantly trashy. I was attracted to people with obnoxious verve, and secretly hoped that some of their rudeness would rub off on me. I was too often meek by half.
Kenny and I did well as roomies; living together was a swell party with lots of porn and cattiness, until he went on a Mad Dog 20/20 bender one week. It culminated with him cornering Arleen in the garage, Kenny on all fours growling like a rabid dog and nipping at her ankles, while she cowered terrified. He’d also mysteriously unscrewed all the light bulbs in all three floors of the house. After piecing together the details of the evening, I discovered that when Nancy had come by to take me out to the ballet, Kenny’d told her that I was last seen standing off a bridge railing ready to throw myself in the waters of the Scioto River. It was obvious that this was not working, so I’d asked him to move out.
He’d left some trashy art glass lamps and vases in the basement, and had decided that this was the night he needed to retrieve them. And here he was. Kenny stood swaying slightly in the living room, his hip half-cocked, in a pair of skin-tight Daisy Duke cut-offs, a wife-beater, and tattered rubber flip-flops. His compatriots looked and were dressed identically to Kenny, from brunette droopy mustaches to jeans shorts. Kenny fixed me with an evil look and hissed, “I’m here to pick up my stuff.”, and the boys echoed, “He’s here to pick up his stuff.” Roxie whispered in awe, “It’s a Greek chorus!” as Kenny and his entourage tramped through the living room, the dining room, the kitchen and into the basement. We were both wide-eyed in horrified fascination.
Kenny and the boys made a couple of trips, carrying broken-down boxes of lurid art glass, piles of VHS porn, and cheap movie posters. The pasta finished cooking, I drained it, and Roxie and I sat down to eat. By the time they’d left, we’d started to eat. Between Arleen and Kenny and his cohorts, we’d had more company than I’d expected and had drank more wine than I needed. The garlic bread had helped cut the winey edge, but dinner was essential at this point. We were ravenous, and ate the spaghetti and meatballs eagerly. I was relieved that our visitors were on their way out, and was scheming with post-dinner plans. As the boys and Kenny left, Kenny stood in the front door-way, a three foot tall iridescent purple art vase cradled tenderly in his greasy mitts, peeked at me coquettishly over one muscular tattooed shoulder, and said, “I put your husband in the sauce.” Then he left, slamming the screen door shut viciously.
I froze. I knew how devious Kenny could be, and realized instantly what he had done. The way I saw it, I had two choices, and neither were entising. I could ignore his parting quip, we could keep on eating and I could get laid….or I could tell Roxie the truth and watch this seduction quickly unravel. At heart, I was a prim and proper gentlewoman, so I did what was best. I sighed deeply and said in my most authoritative mom voice, “Roxie, put down your fork.”
I got up from the table, and found the cut crystal jar that had contained the body of my dead husband in the kitchen shoved behind a bacon grease container on the stove. I brought it into the dining room and put it gently between us on the table. I desolately ate another hunk of garlic bread, then explained to Roxie about how I’d been married, and how my husband died and was cremated, and that all that was left of the body of my dead husband was a round cut crystal full of ash and bone slivers that I kept on the living room mantlepiece. Then I explained about how Kenny was crazy vindictive, and how he’d emptied the jar into our marinara sauce, so now we were cannibals. I mentioned that I guessed that most people don’t do this on a first date.
Roxie looked a little unsettled, but not for long. She quickly rebounded with, “This calls for another bottle of wine!” She had wit and stamina, and my admiration for her grew. She went to the corner store again, and this time came back with a huge bottle of Hungarian wine, which we drank at the table while eating the remaining garlic bread. We took our plates of spaghetti into the kitchen. It seemed disrespectful to carry on over the tomato enhanced remains of my dead husband.
The wine worked its soothing magic; the next thing I knew, my tie was loosened, my shirt unbuttoned, and I was flat on my back on the carpet with Roxie straddling me while tweaking my nipples. I held her hips, my hands rolling her unfastened pants down. As I groaned in pleasure, Roxie leaned over to kiss me. Suddenly, the overhead lights unexpectedly flared blindingly as the rheostat was switched to high. We heard a menacing shout and a growl, “What the fuck are you doing with my girlfriend, you god damn fucking cunt!”
Arleen had come back, liqueured up, torn tee-shirt exposing one breast, hair wild, stinking of pot and booze, and pissed as all hell. I was sure the end had come. Certainly the end of this date, and possibly the end for us. If we come out of this with less than bloodied noses, I would have been surprised. I’d not counted on Roxie’s suave ability to think on her feet however, or in this case on her knees. Roxie straightened up, looked beseechingly at Arleen, narrowed her eyes in sexual determination and whispered sexily to her, “Kiss me, you fool.”
It worked. Arleen knelt to the floor and kissed Roxie long and hard, one hand firmly on my breast, and the other ripping Roxies pants all the way down to her ankles. The three of us tumbled to the floor in a tangle of tweed, ripped clothing, denim, wine glasses, and undone buttons. We quickly tore off the remainder of each others clothing, rolling on the carpet in a frenzy of winey fuckery. Three brassieres later, we staggered up two flights of steps to my attic bedroom and spent the night fucking until we crashed in my bed at 5am, arms over thighs, over breasts. Sweaty, cunts wet and worn out, wine glasses tipped over, and sleeping the sleep of the well-fucked.
We awoke at noon covered in rug burns from rolling around like dogs on the rough cheap carpet in the dining room. Fortunately, the evenings cannibalism didn’t affect our digestion, we weren’t hungover, but we sure were hungry. Over an excessive breakfast of scrambled eggs, grits, bacon, toast, and candy-bar coffee, Roxie told me that it had been her first time with a woman. I though this might account for a certain level of perseverance and determination on her part. Arleen was modestly sheepish about the previous nights display of huffy jealousy. And we threw the sauce in the trash.