He had melanoma. Bad. After the surgery to remove a tumor, it had spread all over his body, as if the knife had released the dammed-up cancer and granted it a VIP visa to spread forth and multiply in every region. By the time we came to visit him, Stan was skeletal, holocaust-al, like an extreme ascetic with eyes that burnt with fire. Trish called him Stan, Stan, the Holy Man.
The second thing I noticed when Sadie and I walked into the living room of their single wide was the whale bone, a vertebra polished in places where people had sat upon it, rubbed it and left the oil of their hands. I remembered that Stan and Trish had found it on a beach near Big Sur, probably the remains of a gray whale, and they had dragged it up through the ice plant dunes and loaded it into the back of their 1968 VW bus, something to take home to Kansas to remind them of the Pacific, of blue infinity and the mysterious deep.
The living room was crowded. Trish had moved their bed into the living room so Stan wouldn’t feel quite so isolated, and so she could keep a better eye on him. She apologized for being on the phone most of the time, to family, friends and art clients calling to hear the latest. Was he eating? Was he lucid? How many morphine patches was he up to or was he still on the drip? What will happen to all the paintings? What about the unfinished commissions? What will she do after he’s gone? Will she stay on his parents’ farm or move away?
I didn’t envy her, helping everyone deal with Stan’s approaching death. Dark circles shadowed her eyes, but when she excused herself to answer the phone, her voice sounded even, patient, kind. No, they were done with doctors, chemo, surgery. Yes, his depression was a little better, especially after that bad night when he’d asked for the shotgun. No, thanks for the suggestion, but they were done with alternative treatments and strict macrobiotic diets. It seemed that umeboshi plums and brown rice just didn’t measure up to pizza and beer, not from Stan’s point of view anyway.
Sadie straddled the whalebone while I sat in a straight-backed chair at the end of the bed where Stan dozed. Their bed. The bed they had made love in, cuddled or slept estranged in, spoke softly and told each other their dreams. The bed that was in the living room because… because death was now central to their lives and should by all accounts happen in the living room, center stage. I rubbed my hands together and took hold of Stan’s feet, massaging them as gently as possible so as not to wake him from his nap or cause even a glimmer of discomfort, but just give pleasure and help ground him in this impossible journey from vibrant, defiant life to skeletal, ravaging death.
I remembered first meeting Stan, a fellow student of Morgan, our painting teacher. At the time, Stan ate a little piece of windowpane acid almost every day. He said he did it to keep his head clear and the paint flowing, and to stay brave. I had lived right next door to his studio and late at night I often heard him arguing with his gods and demons, howling with his dingo, only from what I could tell, Stan’s howls were filled with much more anguish and confusion.
His drawings and paintings were otherworldly, impeccably detailed and dimensional, as if you could crawl into the canvas and hide behind a boulder or bush, merge into a shadow, and later find yourself bright and shiny and renewed, as if you had stepped out of a stale and used cocoon to become a creature with new wings, new colors, new songs. At least that’s how I see them now. But back then I found his work disturbing; they only served to convince me to stick with realistic portraits and landscapes. At the time I couldn’t have allowed myself to imagine what he imagined. I feared it would have shattered me.
Now here he was: Stan but not Stan. Burning with the same hallucinogenic brightness but unable to lift his body off the bed. Slipping in and out of conversations, connection, consciousness. I only hoped my poor attempt to massage his feet would in some small way ease his travails. But mostly I suspected that I was massaging his feet because if I didn’t, my hands would betray my utter discomfort. I’d begin picking at myself, my cuticles, my nails—some small, insignificant self-mutilation in a poor attempt to stay apace with Stan’s suffering.
Suddenly the front door of the single wide burst open and a tall, big-bosomed woman strode in with a paper bag full of groceries. You can tell so much from how people enter a room. Does their entrance scarcely cause a ripple, like Sadie, my soft-stepping wife? Do they shuffle and scuff their shoes, tentative and uncertain? Or do they intrude, their heavy shod feet scaring away all silence like kittens skittering into the shadows, their presence slicing a bow wave like a battleship?
Trish, holding her hand over the phone, noted her presence with a nod and whispered to us, “My sister Yvonne,” and then, pointing at the phone, retreated into the next room.
Yvonne turned her imperiousness towards us. “That whalebone’s not meant to be sat upon like that, you know. It’s really more of a sculpture,” she skewered into Sadie without so much as a hello. Sadie quietly shifted to the broke-back couch. “Massage therapy isn’t going to help at this point,” she knifed at me. Chastened, I finished the move I was on and let my restless hands slide into my lap. Apparently Yvonne wasn’t even interested in finding out who we were, or how we were connected to Stan and Trish. I was too shocked and intimidated to say anything.
Then Yvonne pointed her sharp bow to Stan. “My goodness, you’re so thin! What’s the matter with Trish? Isn’t she feeding you anymore?” She made a big show of unpacking all the groceries from the brown paper bag and opening and closing cabinets and the refrigerator to put everything away. “Doesn’t Trish realize that if you don’t eat anything you won’t get better?” Stan rolled his eyes and squirmed as well as he could. Sadie and I exchanged glances, but there was no way we were going to speak up. This was not our house, and we figured that family trumps friends.
It was Stan who handled the situation. Quite deliberately, he pushed the covers down until he exposed his underwear. He groped around for a while until it seemed to me that he had our full attention, especially Yvonne’s, and then he slid his hand into the opening in his boxers and pulled his penis into full view. “I need to pee,” he said.
Yvonne’s face froze with horror, as if she’d just been propositioned by a flasher in a mental ward, but Sadie burst into action, finding the bedpan and placing it within Stan’s reach. I handed him the toilet paper, and together we watched, rather reverently as I recall, as Stan peed a meager orange dribble into the bedpan. Yvonne had stood as if mummified up until then, but as soon as Stan was actually peeing, she grabbed up her purse and mumbled something about saying her goodbyes to Trish, and, nodding in the general direction of Stan, stumbled out the door a little too fast to keep her balance.
Stan smiled a small, curious smile, and said, “Well, that got rid of her, didn’t it?”
Sadie and I both chuckled. I went back to massaging Stan’s feet, and she went back to sitting on the whalebone, and Trish continued talking patiently on the phone, and Stan pressed the button on the morphine drip, and the feeling in the room seemed to settle into some kind of normalcy, which seemed a revelation to me, to think that attending someone’s death was indeed normal. Then I put Stan’s feet on my belly, which Sadie calls a furry Buddha belly, and by rocking my own body forward and back, I could gently rock Stan’s body through the whole length of him. I did that for a long while, watching Stan’s eyes close and the knots in his face relax and the stiffness in his joints melt while the wind outside danced the winter-bare branches. Sadie dozed, cradled in the whalebone chair, and Trish’s voice droned on the phone, and when I felt like I’d rocked Stan enough, I slowly brought it to an end until there was no rocking at all, just the connection of his feet on my belly, and when I let go of even that and sat back in my chair, the air in the living room of the single wide seemed to have a tiny bit more oxygen in it. Stan’s eyes opened and he looked at me, level and calm and not burning too bright. “Thanks man,” he said. “That was the best sex I’ve had in a long time.”
I didn’t know quite what to make of that. I must have looked a little shocked and confused because he smiled that smile again, but this time I saw it was a wicked smile. The kind of smile that could incinerate a lie. A smile of defiance and delicious triumph.