Yesterday, Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman, 42, died after suffering a brain hemorrhage on Wednesday, May 26. On Thursday, he slipped into unconsciousness and was put on life support. Yesterday, Friday, his family took him off life support and stood by his side while he died.
As soon as I read about his death, I posted a link to the story on my Facebook page with a simple note that said, “Crap. I feel sad about this.”
Immediately, people started making jokes. My friend David suggested that all flags should be flown at 4’2″ for at least a week. My friend TJ asked, “With this tragic loss, how can you not feel a bit shorted?”
“Someone lost his mind in there,” I tell my dog Tonya as we walk up the sidewalk to the abandoned Pizza Hut. I want to see inside.
Tonya yips at me as we approach the building then cocks her head low the way she does when she’s nervous about something.
“It’s ok,” I tell her, but I can feel it, too. The air turns heavy as we walk past a shrine for the people who died that September night. I realize that today is September and a chill skitters over me. Tonya gets one, too, for when I look down at her, the hair on the scruff of her neck bristles like a mane.
Since Tonya can’t read, I wonder how she knows. Then, I remember her nose.
Tonya’s nose can smell anything, even anthills, which she always skirts. Not like my mom’s mutts or my sister’s Great Pyrenees, who all trample through the mounds then howl like Tarzan when they get bit by the fiery beasts.
Tonya’s nose can smell coyotes, and when one is around, she hops from foot to foot, a move danced at no other time and for no other beast. When bobcats are around, she growls into her front paws.
When snakes are around, she stops dead in her tracks and tucks in her chin, as if she’s protecting her jugular.
And when alpacas are nearby, she smiles. She loves alpacas, and when we find them, she’ll gaze into their curious faces for several minutes. Then she’ll look back at me and smile. Then she’ll stare at them some more. Then swipe a smile. She will repeat this for many hours if I let her.
Sometimes, I do.
When humans are close, her eyes narrow like a gunslinger’s. She’s cautious with humans. Doesn’t trust them.
Walking past the cardstock faces of the victims, Tonya starts growling. It’s not so much a growl as it is a low-pitched hum floating in air bubbles. I’ve never heard this sound before, and I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t her reaction to carnage. Though the massacre was two years ago, is it possible that she can still smell the blood?
The Pizza Hut has been abandoned since the night a man walked into it and opened fire, but I get a sense I’m not alone. “Is someone watching us, girl?” I ask Tonya as I check over both shoulders.
A truck pulling a horse trailer drives by blasting Merle Haggard’s Rainbow Stew, an odd but appropriate nod from the universe.
Eatin’ rainbow stew with a silver spoon underneath a sky of blue…
So the song goes, and in that moment I hope that there is a heaven for these people, though I know in my heart that there isn’t.
I peer inside the dirty window. It’s just as it should be. Booths along the walls. Ovens in the back. A counter. A clock. A jukebox.
I wonder what was playing that night. What song the universe picked for their dying. I hope it was something good. Like Dylan or Willie or Bach. Probably not Bach in this small town, but I note how wonderful that would be. To die while a perfect Bach invention plays in the background. Simple. Pure. A clean death.
No. There was nothing clean about these deaths. No Bach for the slain here. Theirs was messy and brutal and wild.
Beatles, Helter Skelter.
I notice the skeleton of an umbrella in the corner. “It must have been raining that night,” I say to Tonya. She blinks at me with her caramel coated eyes, then scoots closer to me.
I scan the room for blood, but there isn’t any. No signs of a struggle. Nothing to indicate the brutality of that night.
Tonya barks, and I turn around.
“Can I hh-help you?” he asks with his dentures so loose they jiggle his words.
“No thanks,” I say. “Just walking my girl.”
“Mm-hmm,” he replies.
I turn to leave, but in the corner of my eye I catch another glimpse of that night. Inside, behind the counter, a single ticket hangs from the heat lamps. The last order of that night.
“Bet it was pepperoni,” I say louder than I mean to, forgetting we’re not alone.
The man with the floppy teeth lights a candle at the shrine. I pray he doesn’t hear me, then turn to head home.
“Sausage,” I hear from behind me.
The old man’s face is soft, not full of misery and despair like I expect. It’s a face that has seen much heartache yet has chosen not to be heartbroken.
“It was sausage and onions,” he says without a smile.
“Oh,” I reply, embarrassed he heard me. “Sorry for your loss,” I add. What else is there to say?
He nods, then returns to his praying, so I head off with Tonya. We cross the busy highway that cuts the town in half. On the other side, Tonya gets tangled in her leash, so I stop to adjust it. When I reach down, she barks in my face.
“What’s up, girl?” I ask then glance across the street. Tonya barks again. I scan the highway but I don’t see the old man.
A chill rushes over me, making me sneeze. He was there wasn’t he?
Tonya nuzzles her nose into the palm of my hand the way she does when I’m crying
“It’s ok, girl. I’m not crying.” I reassure her with a pat on the head.
Then I see him. The old man. He’s leaning against the ivy covered brick wall on the west side of the Pizza Hut. For a minute I wonder if he’s having a heart attack, for he has hand clenched to his heart. Then, I realize he’s crying.
Tonya nuzzles my hand again, so I stroke her head. “I know, girl.”
For a minute I watch the old man, suspended in indecision. I want to comfort him. I want to run over and tell him that things will be ok. That time heals everything. All those bullshit clichés we cling to during hard times.
Instead, I turn away.
I don’t feel like lying today.
July 17, 2009
It’s December, 1988, a few days before Christmas. The Lower East Side is undecided between becoming an ocean of slush or a frozen plain of icy glass. It settles on cold and damp and stays that way into the new year. The invention of Prozac is still years away but if we had any we would be tossing them back like M & Ms.
I’m en route from NYC to Ohio to visit my ailing father. My mother had died the year before, followed by a sixty day stint I did in rehab to mend a massive predilection for alcohol. I was back in NYC now, not drinking, healthy and properly feeling the delayed grief my boozing had bottled up.