“in the cupboard sits my bottle
like a dwarf waiting to scratch out my prayers.
I drink and cough like some idiot at a symphony,
sunlight and maddened birds are everywhere,
the phone rings gamboling its sound
against the odds of the crooked sea;
I drink deeply and evenly now,
I drink to paradise
and the lie of love.”
—Charles Bukowski, “Soirée”
No more cliffhangers. No more chapters to be delivered. This is the final chapter. It’s the end of fifteen parts, both sad and fierce, and the end of a eulogy that began with the very first chapter, although I didn’t know it then.
The Manny died on Tuesday, July 7, 2015. We don’t know the hour. His relentless talking, both the internal dialogue and the external monologues, had already presumably gone quiet. He had left Mexico to renew his visa, which he did periodically. After crossing the border from Guatemala into Mexico by bus, he suffered a seizure, collapsed, and fell into a coma. A good Samaritan pulled his passport out and called the American embassy in Mexico City.
My husband had spoken to Manny on the previous Friday afternoon and he was right as rain. Sober as a judge. They were catching up after not having spoken for a month, and they talked for an hour and a half. The conversation was so innocuous that my husband can’t clearly remember any specific details. There was no “Lupita the beautiful Mexican girl, who stole my Chipmunk puppet but whose skin was so soft, so very soft.” There was no talk of missing pants or missing chunks of tongue or angry landlords or roaming oxen or stopping up the toilets or avocados falling like manna from the trees. (When he was sober he might have, I dare say, been a bit more ordinary. But one might say that he was reasonably happy. A decent trade-off.)
On Sunday, my husband received a call from the embassy. Some years back, he had helped Manny obtain a passport, and his name was (eerily!) still on record with the state department as a result. They told him that Manny was in a coma and that the doctor had stated that, “the prognosis is not good.”
Two days later my husband placed a call to the embassy and received word that Manny was gone, his ever-present nattering and wild speculations silenced and darkened forever. He was dead of “unknown causes.” Unknown except for the dubious devil of drink, which may have finally killed him in the end. Perhaps he had tried to stop again. Perhaps he had tried to begin again. We don’t know, except that he had quite suddenly ceased to exist. It was what we had expected, all along. I knew I’d never see him again, and I won’t.
He had often said things like: “But what if I die, Miss Jennifer? What if I were to die?” He was truly afraid of dying. He knew in his heart it was a constant possibility. Some people are hyperbolic, prone to doom-filled mental wanderings, and hypochondria (myself included). He was all that and more. He knew he was going to die. It was just a matter of time.
You think you’ll have a chance to prepare, to say your goodbyes. You’re hoping for movie lighting. But then you step off a bus and fall down in a parking lot, or a dusty field, and no one notices but for a kind stranger. You’re there and then you’re not. You’re nowhere. You’re torso-deep into a bush with your pants missing and still have the grace to guffaw about it.
Manny, in the year that you lived with us, you crafted us near 100 meals, probably more. But you’ll cook no more. Where is your sunburnt smile under that ridiculous hat, and where are your 14 chickens that you bought for a song? I think you named three of them the Big One, the Middle One, and the Little One, after our boys.
His name was Mark. I’ll stop calling him Manny, but I’ll leave his last name off the records. His last name—the name we knew him under for many years—was real. He often went by another name, Frank, by which many of his friends knew him. But it wasn’t real. Many other things he told us weren’t real.
He was 54 years old, and not 63 as he often told us when he was drunk. (This had caused confusion, as my husband knew his true age by his passport. However, he [that is, Manny] had told us that Mark was also an assumed name. His real name, he said, along with the person had been when he was born, was long buried and forgotten. He had intentionally aged himself by 9 years.) He never served in Vietnam. He never killed anyone in combat. He was not adopted. His parents were not shot by Stalin’s goons as he cowered under the bed. He had a daughter, adopted, from a short-lived marriage. He adopted her in 1999. She’s sixteen now.
He had four siblings, all of whom (but for one) had washed their hands of him years ago. “We haven’t seen him in 26 years. Let him be buried in Mexico’s version of Potter’s Field,” said his sisters. One brother still cared, and we found that brother through the embassy. He hadn’t glimpsed Mark since 1990, when Mark had come by his shop to borrow $5,000. The brother wonders if that lousy $5,000 that he didn’t even care about kept Mark away for so long. Mark could have repaid the loan, too—he had the money many times over in the next two decades, when he was doing well financially. His brother would have gladly forgiven the loan just to spend more time with him.
Almost everything he told us, especially when he was drunk, was a lie. And his lies went even further. He had told friends that we owed him because he had paid for my husband’s law school education, and that, despite that, we were constantly “shaking him down for money.” No, simply not true, my husband’s mother paid for it. And we never shook him down for money. In fact, he owed us money. But we didn’t care.
I’m picturing rattling the poor man’s pockets as I “shake him down” and finding only some Dove dark chocolates and shards of broken pretzels and maybe a linty quarter.
Oh Mark, I’d like to swat you in the face with a sheeny-eyed red snapper now, but I can’t. Nor can I ask you what you meant to achieve with your wild fictions and your weeping over the dead you left behind in Vietnam. I now know that you had Muscular Dystrophy as a child, and they had to cut the muscles on the backs of your legs to help the condition (why I do not know; looking it up instantly hosed my computer, as if Mark is gleefully fiddling with the controls from the beyond to prevent fact-checking of his falsehoods).
We learned that your mother doted on you and you were always the favorite. “My sweet Mark. My poor Mark,” she used to say. You outgrew the condition, apparently. You got an apartment and your mother would deliver groceries to you once a week, out of love. But when your mother died in 2013, you didn’t attend her funeral, nor did you attend your father’s funeral in 1996.
And the “wetwork” you supposedly did. Did you ever actually hurt a single living thing? You had so much anger burning you up inside. You had so much pain. And so much love, too.
Why did you adopt a daughter and never speak of her? Despite that, why did you love our boys so much? I have videos of you pushing our children on a tree swing, and laughing. You had a great, big belly laugh. A real laugh that made fake cocktail-party titters seem shameful. You had a deep chuckle.
They amused him greatly, our boys. He let them climb over him and batter him like he was made of granite, despite his aches and pains. He was never dark then, during the pushing of the swing, although the darkness was in him.
I didn’t fully realize the fact of Mark’s death until I saw, a few nights ago, a photograph of the urn that carried his ashes. It had been delivered from Mexico to his brother in Detroit. It seemed awfully small to house such a big man. How can someone so massive be just…gone. It was a wooden box, rectangular in shape. It made me feel scared for him, until I remembered: He’s not in there. That’s just all the ashes that are left from the pains and sorrows and hungers and loves of that big, ungainly body that never quite fit him.
Mark, you were a real physical presence. You used to startle on my stairs. You toasted tortillas on our stove and chopped endless “guavacados” on the cutting board. In our closet we have your old coat on a hangar, a “Dickies” brand coat. Your old winter hat is wadded-up in the pocket. You used to point at the logo and snigger, “Look, it says Dickies. Hee hee hee. Dickies!” That was your trademark sense of humor. A little juvenile, a little dirty, but we laughed all the same.
He was a mountain of a man—all crags and thorns and gullies and crevasses, a big bumbling sorrow of a man who loved his dog, Gus, so much that he carried the bulldog’s urn of ashes across the country. He cried his heart out over that dead dog, to us over the phone over many weeks. He wept like a baby.
Where is his wok, and his perfect citrus press? I covet that citrus press. All his meager possessions, left behind in Mexico with the landlord who grew to love him, too, even over a short period of time. Rodolfo wept on the phone while discussing the details of Mark’s final months.
Can I think that Mark inspired one of my sons (the “Middle One”) with a passion for cooking that has never wavered over the months? I’d like to think so, yes.
His art collection in the storage unit had already been sold for pennies on the dollar by the time we learned of his death. We have a couple of broken, antique lamps in the garage, and a collection of photographs he never bothered to return to the art galleries that had loaned them out to him. We have a handful of photos that contain him, the man, the Manny. We don’t have much.
I thought to write, “I wish I could have told him that I never hated him.” No, I loved him. But I think I did manage to tell him that. He read this blog once in an indignant fury (after my husband informed him of its existence) and told us to “fix it!” He wanted it all deleted. He wanted every piece of information about him that existed to be expunged from public record. My husband wrote back, “Suck it up!” We would never delete it, especially now. It’s a record of who he was, both sad and joyous. He didn’t leave much else.
You played a joke on the world, Mark, and maybe you’re still sniggering about it, and we’ll never know why. Lies and deceit and family estrangement and pain and heartbreak and drinking and more lies and even more drinking, but you did something right, because we sit here in the cricket song and the dark night thinking of you, and we are filled with sorrow. You fed us, you pushed our boys as high as the moon, you sent us stupid photographs day after day via text message with inane and obvious captions: Bunny. Groundhog. Fish in River. Goose. Sailboat. Bunny eating weeds.
You and your big fat smile, Mark. That stupid mustache. Those awful baggy t-shirts and your rangy arms. The way you flinched when someone dug their hand into the grated cheese instead of properly using a spoon. The day you wandered up behind me, silent, because I was playing Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” on the piano, and you said, “I always liked that song. I sang that song once.” The day you fixed the broken switch on an old lamp I had, and smiled proudly like a little child who has learned to tie his shoes, and I was grateful.
All of it.