My friend died laughing on the telephone. He laughed so hard his heart stopped.
It doesn’t sound real. It sounds like something a person puts in a short story and it bothers the reader because it’s so unbelievable. But this was real life. My friend died laughing on the telephone.
It was late in the evening. He was clicking around the internet. A lot of his friends lived in his computer. He was always saying hello.
A direct message came in to his Facebook from a person saying they were the dean of Harvard. Harvard needed money. Help Harvard. Go over to the Western Union right away and wire money to help save Harvard.
And every other word was misspelled. And the person pretending to be the dean of Harvard had no grasp of grammar. So my friend started playing around with the scammer and the messages from the scammer got threatening, and god, could anything be funnier?
He picked up the phone and called his girlfriend, and as he relayed in real time what was happening with the scam he laughed and laughed and laughed, it was all too much to take. While he was on the phone with her, he died. She thought the call was disconnected, she said, “Hello?” She said, “Hello?”
And he didn’t say hello back anymore.
I was up early for work. This part of the world was just thawing out. Out by the coffee pot there was a note written in purple marker. I couldn’t read the note without my glasses on. Rae had set up the coffee pot. I plugged it in and went back into the bedroom. Rae was smiling in her sleep. She always did that. I put my work clothes on, went into the bathroom, stuck my contact lenses in. I looked old in the mirror. But I hoped I’d look older and older in the mirror, on and on, older and older, until the mirror eventually wore out and I had to get a new mirror for my 100th birthday.
I kissed Rae goodbye. She was trying to tell me something but I couldn’t understand her. A lot of the time she sang nonsense in her sleep from behind the wall of some dream. Right before I left the apartment, I looked down at the note written in purple marker and it said that she didn’t know how to tell me this but she was just going to tell me, Chuck Howe had died.
It’s hard to say why certain people are more important in your life. You like them more. You’re comfortable around them. They make you be closer to the self you are when nobody else is around. They tell you about things you didn’t know about, or knew about and didn’t bother to look closer at yet because sometimes in your life it’s better to know it’s there waiting, unexplored, until some scout calls it out and you look where the scout pointed and you say, of course, how did I live without this?
I’ve tried to be people’s scouts and I’ve tried to let them be my scouts. I can’t figure this all out alone. I don’t want other people to have to do it all alone either. I don’t find this world particularly beautiful. I don’t find this world particularly ugly either. I find it as all things, all at once. It hurts when someone gets born, it hurts when someone gets dragged away wherever they go when their blood stops being their blood.
As an adult it starts to get funny when you even think about someone being your best friend. Meanwhile, you leave the door open for them all.
I met my wife through MySpace. I met a bunch of friends on MySpace. I met Chuck, I met Erin, and Joe, and Marcie, and Heather, and Jessica, and Megan, and Aaron. I mean, people I still see all the time. This was 2003 and everyone had a blog. It was trendy to have a blog. You were supposed to have a blog even if you weren’t a writer, which made sense to me because I always thought everybody should be a writer. I wasn’t a writer, I had a shovel, I dug holes with it. I was a reader and by reading things, especially on the internet, I thought I could learn how to do it. School was too much money. Those ghosts that filled the public library can’t return your letters of praise, with the questions and requests for advice buried in the last paragraph. But you can send a message to someone who’s written a story on the internet and they’ll eagerly write back, tonight.
So I made my school out of blog posts, and later Tumblrs, and later lit mags that someone told me about in a chat room, and later, books Aaron told me to read. That’s where I found out about Ben Loory, and through Ben Loory I found out about this website you are reading right now.
I started putting my short stories up online. Every time I put one of them up, Chuck Howe would comment something thoughtful. It was that thoughtfulness that kept me going, kept me wanting to try harder and to gain access to write deeper. I thought if I could open up the blinds and let more light into the room, then I could see more, not only about how I was living but I could see out the window too, beyond my little town on the edge of the Pine Barrens, and I could figure out how the rest of the world lived.
It went on like that for years. Post a story, get comments from Chuck. I’d read a story by Chuck and I’d post comments back to him on his story. I’d write a message and ask him what novels he was reading and he would reply and write back and ask what records I was listening to. On and on.
On and on and on. There were so many stories. We didn’t submit any of them. There was no revision, either. There was no right or wrong. There wasn’t any academic ideal. It was fun and there was never any NO that came in from higher up in a gatekeeper’s cloud, because we never thought to ask for a YES. You just typed into the box, clicked a button, and the imaginary friends that lived in your computer read your story and, if they liked it, they somehow became your real friend.
I lived in my mother’s basement. Was something of a feral animal still. That rude, unhappy way you get when you’re stuck between adolescent and adulthood. When you aren’t sure yet how you’ll settle into yourself. The few friends I had online were not people to me quite yet. They were screen names and they were profile pictures, and sometimes the screen names changed. And sometimes the profile pictures changed and you forgot who was who and they disappeared forever, drifting to another digital solar system.
Back then you didn’t use your real name anyway. Your screen name was an alias. Chuck’s screen name was the Czuch Republic. His profile picture was him standing in a bathrobe on the edge of some wilderness, a cigar in his mouth, a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a shotgun in the other. His location, as noted in the profile, was New York State. Recently, I’d taken a drive to Montreal with my friend Pat Noon…eight hours into the drive he was pulled over just shy of the Canadian border. 90 mph. The ticket called for a mandatory court appearance, so a month later he had to drive nearly eight hours to court, and then the eight hours home. He did that loop alone. I was at work with my shovel. Anyway, now when I thought of upstate New York, I thought of somewhere five, six, seven, eight hours away by car.
I had no money. And my friends lived in either the same small town I lived in, or the next small town over. We got together to drink, and get high, at the nearest, cheapest spot. I was twenty-one, then twenty-two, and then twenty-three. I hadn’t learned yet that the best friends you’ll ever make in your life can be from anywhere on the earth. The chances of them being from your hometown, wow, that’d just be too easy.
The best friends you’ll ever make will probably come from the internet. They all probably live inside your computer right now. So leave that door open.
The people from MySpace moved to Facebook, started using real names. I moved to New York City, got a job welding, I don’t know why. And one day I saw a post on Facebook saying Chuck was coming down to the city to see a concert. I thought, ah look at this, this guy really gets around. He’s willing to do all this traveling just to see a rock ‘n’ roll band. A few weeks later, I sent him a message in case he felt like going crazy and coming all the way down here and partying with me and Rae and some of our friends. Chuck wrote back that he couldn’t come, he was going through some hard times. He’d gotten into trouble with the law, had to be on his best behavior for a while. He said it would be cleared up soon, though, and then we should meet up, finally hang out after all these years. After all, he wasn’t that far away and it was sad to him how few times he’d been to the city, recently, considering how close he was.
How close was he? He lived in Mt. Kisco, a place I never bothered to google because it had Mount in the name. There were no mountains anywhere near us. I lived on 173rd Street in Manhattan, right on the on-ramp to the George Washington Bridge, or if you went the other way, the on-ramp to the West Side Highway/Saw Mill Parkway. He messaged back that he lived 35 minutes up the Saw Mill Parkway from my apartment. I couldn’t believe it.
But we didn’t hang out. A year went by. I tried to write a novel but it didn’t work. I added it to the stack of failed novels I’d tried to write.
But there was good news. A magazine was publishing one of my stories. And in happenstance, one of Chuck’s stories was in it too. A party for its release was set up in Vermont, on Halloween weekend, and would I like to go? Hell yeah, I’d like to go.
On the way up, I drove to Mt. Kisco with Erin, the designer and art director of the magazine. She came to 173rd Street and we made the drive to Mt. Kisco together. She lived in Brooklyn and in real life worked for an advertisement agency. I wanted to live in Brooklyn and work for an advertising agency. Instead, I lived in Washington Heights, and made my money working at a plant that created energy by burning trash. I thought back then that it would be romantic to live in a part of town where there were fancy bars and restaurants, where bands rehearsed, where artists lived in lofts. I thought back then it would be romantic to wear a suit to work and to be able to ride the subway to work. I was driving my car into New Jersey everyday before dawn. It was romantic in its own way. I’ve since decided that almost everything is terrible and euphorically wonderful at the same time. I’ve since decided it’s all romantic, even burning trash to make a neon sign glow.
When I took the exit ramp, and drove onto the main drag of Mt. Kisco, just minutes away from Chuck’s door, an icy tree branch broke off and slammed into the windshield. Erin yelled, “Ahhhhh!” and so did I, and it felt like a miracle the windshield hadn’t broken. Chuck came out of the house in a vintage suit. He was skinny and clean shaven. He resembled Jeff Tweedy. I shook his hand and said he looked different than I thought he would. I mentioned the shotgun and whiskey profile photo and he said that he’d been real fat back then, he said that that was a dark time. He also said I looked exactly like I did on the internet, which I liked, because I wasn’t trying to be some way online that I wasn’t in real life. I don’t believe in the word authentic, but I knew one thing for sure, I didn’t want to be someone who was inauthentic. Chuck was not inauthentic either.
Erin and Chuck and I had some laughs going up to Brattleboro. And then we had some laughs stuck in traffic. And then we had some laughs realizing we were going to be late for the party for the magazine. And that was sad too, because it was Chuck’s first publication. And it was the first publication for Megan, who was waiting for us at the end of the line. When we finally got to town, there was nothing to do but laugh some more together, all of us, and move the party to Megan’s apartment, where everyone drank and smoked and talked and tried to figure out what was important in life, and with no answers easily forthcoming, more beers were popped and we settled on the easier task of getting to the bottom of what wasn’t important in life.
The next night we were still in town. Some of us ate magic mushrooms and went to a barn where a band was playing. I’d brought a case of beer to the barn, and was standing there cold and shivering with Chuck and just talking about his job as a radio DJ in Connecticut; and talking to him about his brother, who he loved—he loved his brother the way people in JD Salinger stories love their brother. And he told me a story about a trip he took to Germany when he was younger, where he’d kind of lost his mind on a train platform and the German police had screamed at him and aimed their uzis at him and made him drop his pants. I was finding out that he had a lot of stories like that, not bullshit stories, even though they sounded outlandish, but stories about things that had happened as a direct result of living outlandishly.
We looked back at Erin and she was talking very seriously with a biker. A bearded man, dressed head to toe in leather. I asked Chuck if he thought Erin was all right. He said his first impression of her was that she could more than take care of herself. Erin was standing over by the case of beer, though, and we needed another beer, so we walked over. Erin pointed us out to the biker and introduced us as artists, as writers, something I’d never had happen to me before in my life. Chuck obviously hadn’t either. But he looked happy, and proud. I didn’t know what to say. At parties in the city, when asked what I did for a living, I usually said I worked with toxic waste, which was more than true. But Rae got mad at me, said I was selling myself short. She said I should tell people I was a novelist, because I’d recently had my first one published. But it wasn’t making any money and I didn’t want to pose. I still don’t want to pose. I still tell people at parties that I’m a garbage man, or something. I work with toxic waste.
The biker shook our hands and I asked him if he wanted a beer. He looked disgusted at the beer I had. I figured it was because it was ‘rich kid beer’ and he wanted PBR, but he surprised me and said he only drank Mike’s Hard Lemonade. And then he left us there. Erin told Chuck and I that she was feeling good, which was no news to me, I was feeling good and I could tell Chuck was too. We were all grins. She started telling us what the biker had said, what the serious conversation had been about. He’d told her a story about stabbing a man to death, and she had asked him how that made him feel. This shocked him, sent him reeling. He stammered, “How did I feel…how did I feel…No one has ever asked me that before…”
The band took the stage. The laser light show began. The lasers flickered down in our fog, a red wave of bursting light. We danced around. We warmed up. And then Nathan drove us down the mountain through the falling snow. We were all just talking talking talking, stars in our eyes. Back at the apartment, every story someone told was carved from stone and perfect.
Erin lay on the couch and Chuck said he thought the biker might not have really been a biker, just somebody dressed in a biker Halloween costume. That made Erin laugh so hard she fell off the couch and crashed on the ground. She had the most infectious laugh and everyone else was laughing with her and dawn creeped into view just outside the window. Some of them went to sleep, I stayed up talking to Chuck.
And as the sun came up he told me what it was like to live on a commune in Oregon. And what it was like to go to Rio De Janeiro. And what it was like to find out in college that a girl you were dating had HIV (his story in the magazine was about that). And what it was like to have one of your best friends die (his friend and bandmate had just passed away). I told him that a few years before, one of my best friends and bandmates had passed away.
He asked me how I got over my friend’s death, and I said that I hadn’t really gotten over it at all, that’s why I wasn’t playing music anymore, but one of the things that had helped me was Rae, who had mellowed me out, taught me not to be so pissed off all the time. He said he wished he had somebody like that in his life. Then he told me he was going to try and let his bad feelings go, too, that they didn’t seem to be serving any purpose anymore.
After that trip, I saw Chuck pretty frequently. He came down to the city regularly. He brought his guitar or banjo and played open mics down in Brooklyn. Rae and Erin and I went and saw one. Chuck sang at Pete’s Candy Shop. Rae didn’t know him yet. This was their introduction. Before they even got to speak, Chuck got up on stage and sang a song about how I’d given him this amazing blowjob. Erin and I were dying laughing as he sang it, and Chuck was busting out laughing too, but Rae looked bewildered in the seat next to me. Well anyway, that was the last inside joke she wasn’t in on. After that we were all close friends.
The following weekend the four of us went to a rave. Haha. Yeah. We went to a rave. There were topless dancers hanging upside down from ropes, and fire breathers, and four tents with bands or DJs performing and you could get MDMA or acid or coke in whatever room you walked into, but the four of us just got drunk which, considering the conditions, was basically staying sober. The new friendship between the four of us was like being high as a kite already. Soon after that, Erin and Chuck were dating and the two became inseparable, they had love for each like something you see in the movies.
He wrote more stories. I wrote more stories. He sent his stories out to magazines. I did the same thing. We’d meet up at Erin’s apartment and she’d be painting a 20 foot canvas. Modern art. Like Jackson Pollock. It already had a buyer. She just had to paint it. Her work was in demand and it was inspiring to sit there and watch her make it.
There was a Polish couple who had a storefront full of kegs. We’d buy the beer from the Polish couple and come back to the apartment and Erin would be painting or we’d just tell stories. Rae and I would sleep in Erin’s bed, and Chuck and Erin would sleep in Erin’s daughter’s bed, who was away for the weekend with her father. I don’t know. It felt great to be drunk and going to sleep in Brooklyn. You’re not supposed to be thrilled by shit like that. But I guess I thrilled easy. I always wanted to be around creative people and now I was puking in their toilet which cost $2700 a month. It was magic.
And then somehow I became a publisher. I started publishing books because I thought if I published other people, I would be forced to learn how to edit other people and, if I learned how to to do that, I would have an understanding of what it really meant to edit myself. And so one thing led to another and Chuck let me publish his book of short stories.
The stories were all really beautiful and full of wonder. But sad in a tricky way, too. The way he was. Some people write a different way than how they are. Not that they are being inauthentic, but Chuck was closer to authentic than a lot of people. He’d found some kind of peace at the age of 40, and that peace was something to behold. Gone from his writing were the outraged reactions to politics I used to see in his Myspace posts, back when he had a thing called The Fuck You Awards. Gone from his writing was a lashing out at the forces beyond his control. What was here now, was sweetness. Was wisdom. Was hope. Was love.
Erin painted the cover of the collection. A colorful windmill, that reflected his affection for the Grateful Dead. The title of the collection was If I Had Wings These Windmills Would Be Dead. A nod to Don Quixote, who was surely a brother in spirit, a person on a ridiculous mission through a world of joy and pain and misunderstanding and tears and endless fun.
I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t know what to tell you about yourself or your friends. You’ve got to figure that out for yourself. But if you can’t figure that out for yourself, you can ask your closest friend who you are, because even if they are baffled about who they think they are, they have a good shot at being able to explain to you who you are. That’s why you seek out these friends in your life. They help you carry yourself out of your own shadow and they set you in the sunshine where you can warm back up, despite your problems and your traumas. This friend saves your life and then when you are better, you pivot on your heel to face them, to try to repay the favor.
Time ticked on. I worked harder at my day job. And my night job. Rae and I got married. Chuck was one of my groomsmen, so was my brother, so was Tim, so was Jeff, so was Patrick. While they were smoking in the alley outside the movie theatre where the wedding was happening, a person stumbled around the corner and asked these guys the name of their doo wop group. Chuck said they were called the BudTones.
Time ticked on some more. The moon came out.
In the middle of the night, Chuck leaned forward in his chair and spoke into a microphone, through the darkness, to the people of Connecticut. The people who were lonely night watchmen, or driving through that darkness in their cars, or lying in their beds unable to sleep. So there you go, another romantic notion. He said hello and those people in the darkness of Connecticut leaned towards their radio and turned the volume up, and said hello back to their friend.
More time. Years. Eating breakfast with him while a man played ragtime piano in the corner, and the waitress brought us corned beef hash. Chuck finished writing his novel and sent it to me. I read it and told him I wanted to publish it. And so we started editing the book. Meanwhile, the man officiated weddings, went to his job and talked on the radio, continued to play his banjo and his guitar and his bass, continued to take care of his grandmother, and he continued to drive down to see Erin, who’d moved back to almost the same neighborhood where I’d first met her years before on that day when we drove up together to Mt. Kisco and the tree branch almost killed us.
Rae got a mohawk. We moved out of New York. And then a giant orange cat sat on Chuck’s lap, and Chuck excitedly told a story I’d heard him tell before, but didn’t want to interrupt—it was one of my favorite ones he told. Erin got surgery and he came down from Kisco and took care of her, living with her for the first extended period of time. It seemed like any time now they’d get a place together.
But also, Chuck wasn’t feeling so good. He had high blood pressure and heart problems and they had him on this medicine. And vertigo had showed up and he couldn’t read his novel to revise it or look at a computer screen because of the dizziness. The doctors told him if it got any worse they’d have to take away his driver’s license. So again, I don’t know. Maybe he got a little better out of sheer will after that. If he didn’t have his driver’s license how could he get down to see Erin in the city?
So we had a window where he was feeling better and he sent me the edited second draft of his novel and I read it and was working on notes and line edits to send him so he could work towards a third draft. But we never got that far, because one evening someone tried to scam him on the computer and he called Erin on the telephone and she was laughing and he was laughing and that was it for my dear friend.
That was it for him. That was how he left this world. Laughing on the telephone. And when I talk about him to people now and tell them how I miss my friend, they sometimes tell me it’s sad that he died but if they had to die, they hoped they could die the same way. Everyone who hears about him and comments on the way he left this earth, means to say they don’t want to prolong their own doom, they mean to say they are jealous because they suspect one day their doom will befall them in such slow crushing oblivion and they fear to die like clowns. They mean to say it would be best to just go out in laughter, sudden, outlandish laughter, and maybe it would be best the way. They mean to say existence is absurd, and they are jealous of my friend, they want to die as a joke that they themselves are telling.
I’d rather existence just got less absurd and we all lived on and on and on and kept being able to drink beer until the sun came up, watching Erin paint in Brooklyn.
I’d rather I got to be a groomsman in my friend’s wedding.
I’d rather my friend looked in the mirror so much it got worn out and he got a new one as a gift on his 100th birthday.
I’d rather you were reading his novel instead of this essay.
And so here is the purple note on the countertop and here I am crying like a blubbering baby in my fucking car. I’ve got the whole work day in front of me and I text Rae who is still sleeping and smiling from the other side of that dream. I text her I got her note and I’m sorry and I’ll talk to her later but I’ve got to go to work and I know she’ll be going to work and to please call me when she wakes up and let’s cry about this together, and oh fuck.
My second trip to Mt. Kisco, I drove there alone and spent the day with Chuck. This was just a few weeks after the Brattleboro trip. There weren’t any plans to do anything particular. Have lunch. Drink some coffee. But as soon as I got to town, he said, “Come on, I want to show you around.” We climbed in his truck and drove through the woods, and he gave me the grand tour of his hometown, a place he was proud of and happy to call his home. He pointed out a house and said, “That’s where they filmed The Bell Jar. My family lived in that house for a little while.” And then he drove me to another house, one his father had extensively renovated while they lived in it. And then we drove down the main drag of Mt. Kisco and he showed me a monument near the center of town, an Indian carrying an arrow. One of the things kids in town used to like to do was steal the arrow from the monument. And then we drove farther and he showed me the place that used to be the bookstore where he used to work. And after that we drove away from town and he took me to a farm with a stone house and he said that was the place where his family had first settled in the area. And then he took me to a cemetery and he showed me the graves of all his deceased relatives. Some of their graves markers had recently been covered in moss and dirt. And he told me how he was taking care of them, and it was making him feel better, calmer, less angry. And he showed me photographs of what some of the graves used to look like and he showed me in person what the graves looked like now. You could read the names now. You could see the day they were born and you could see the day they died.
And as I write this, I wonder if he is buried in that cemetery too. There with his family. I don’t know. I don’t know where any of my relatives are buried. I don’t know where either set of my grandparents are buried. And I don’t know where my uncles on my mom’s side who’ve passed away are buried. Nor do I know where my other friends who’ve passed away are buried. I just don’t know. It’s easier for me to think those loved ones live somewhere else I don’t know about yet.
The next time I went to Mt. Kisco to see him, it was with Rae and Erin and we all went out to dinner at a Japanese restaurant. The next time, I’m not sure. The next time after that, I’m not sure. The time after that, it was his parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. There was a big party for them. His parents are such lovely people. The time after that I was in Mt. Kisco for Chuck’s wake. I saw his parents again and I told his father I was sorry for his loss and his father told me he was sorry for my loss. And I hugged his father. And I hugged his mother. And my friend was in the casket and he had on sunglasses and he was wearing a very handsome suit and a very handsome hat, maybe the one he’d worn when he was in my wedding. They’d shaved his beard off. I hadn’t seen him like that since we first met in person, what felt like a lifetime ago. He looked different in the casket, and it wasn’t just because he was no longer alive. It was because he had donated his organs to science and when he died, those organs were given away. His eyes, we learned, had been given to a four year old girl, who received an implant, and now she could see the world around her. She could see how beautiful it could be. And she could see how ugly it was, too. Though I doubt she would ever consider it ugly. To her it would always look so beautiful.
And Rae cried. And Erin cried. And I cried. And you’d have cried too. And we all felt better.
The last time I was in Mt. Kisco there was a memorial for Chuck. It was summer. His whole family was there. His friends were all there, too. Bands played. And Kimya Dawson sang some songs for Chuck. Writers and artists flew there in airplanes from all corners of America. Everyone talked about him and told stories about him. And it should have been the saddest thing ever, but none of us knew someone who’d lived such a full life.
As you get older, they warn you about loss, how it will become part of life. You don’t believe them at first. But you’ll begin to accept that you’re going to lose the things you love bit by bit. But then another surprise, you live on and those things you’ve lost stay with you, never really fading.
And one by one these things drive you absolutely insane. And these things drive you towards clarity, too.
And maybe sometime soon you can be one of those people that go to the cemetery and see that the graves are kept clean and it will make you feel less angry.
Or you can paint a picture and put this thing that never fades in the painting and capture it again.
Or you can put this supposedly lost thing in your writing, or in your dance routine, or even in your song.
You can find a way to see beauty in the pain of these ugly things. You can stay up all night. You can kiss the sun until it goes dark. You can laugh so hard you fall off the couch and crash on the floor and just keep laughing, and you’ll feel so much better. You’ll be laughing in the face of death.