Sunday, January 9, 2011

Last Visit

Manic man Earl lived on the stop floor of a four-story walk-up. I entered the dimly lit building, narrow halls, a bleak set of stairs. My footsteps resonated up and down the shaft as I climbed the stairs to visit Earl. I hadn’t seen him in six months.

     Like a fool, I went to his place out of pity. Didn’t I know it would backfire? It always backfires. Every time I get sucked in, out of pity, into someone’s needy condition, it backfires.

     The person pretends to be helpless, puts out a grasping web of phone calls and emails. “Please, I need you. Come and visit.”

     I go and then Earl goes crazy. He starts yapping and growling, dark eyes bulging as he vents pent up rage and frustration to compensate for low self-esteem and a sense of failure and alienation.

     Earl was unemployable. He would get too excited, or else too quiet, either boiling over in your face, or heavy, a wet blanket. Underneath the mania and depression, he was a likable guy. I felt bad that he was unable to control himself. It ensured he would live a lonely, tired life.

     Here’s how we became buddies. We met in the far north and agreed to split the costs, with another guy, of a plane trip to visit an Inuit hunting and fishing camp, during the month of April. About half way into the plane ride, Earl spotted a cabin on the ground and insisted that the pilot land so he could take photos and have a closer look. We weren't in any hurry, so Dan and I agreed with Earl's request. The pilot brought the plane down on the ice. We hiked over ice and hard snow to a cabin at the edge of the lake. The cabin was empty. No signs of anyone having been there in a while. It seemed like a dumb idea to land there, but Earl insisted. After about fifteen minutes, we got back in the plane.

     The plane took off again, in a light fog and failed to clear an escarpment. The plane bounced off the rock and rolled down the snow and ice covered rock hill. The metal cage of the plane didn’t collapse.

     As the plane rolled, a dark haze rushed before my eyes and a loud ringing in the ears. I could see stars and expected to be severely injured or killed. As the plane rolled, I prayed to lose consciousness, before the hurt happened. I didn’t want to feel any pain.

     Boom! No time to think. Spun around like a monkey in a barrel, grit and snow crystals stung my face as the plane rolled. Dead silence, I hadn’t lost consciousness. I did a mental scan of my body and smiled. No injury, just a bruise on the forehead.

     Earl started to cry. He was in shock, but no injury. I unbuckled the seat belt and crawled out through a space between metal beams, where a body panel had flown off on impact. I stood trembling, on the hard, white surface of frozen wilderness.

     The pilot had a broken arm. Earl, Dan and I grabbed newspaper and seat cushions to build a fire and stay warm. Some Inuit fishermen arrived on snowmobile about fifteen minutes later. One of them radioed for help on a satellite phone. The pilot was lay on a blanket, in a daze, as an Inuk gathered snow in a kettle and put it on a Coleman stove. Soon we had tea and bannock to drive the chill out of our bones. The two Inuit men stayed with us until a helicopter arrived about an hour later.

     That’s how Earl entered my life. We both fell on hard times. I lost my job. Earl spent all his inheritance. We ended up back in the city. At the age of fifty-four, after two years of being unemployed, I accepted the fact that I would never be employed again. Earl, forty-two years old, was too crazy for the workplace. He lived a thirty-minute walk from my place. I was his only friend. He was so intense, nobody could stand to be around him for very long.

     He often told me, “Lohbado, you’re a blessed man. You’re so lucky. Your life is so rich. Me, I have nothing.”

     He’d repeat this for about five minutes, how his life was wretched and my life fantastic. At first, it was embarrassing. It quickly got irritating, the mumbo jumbo self-pity routine.

     The history of our friendship flashed through my mind as I visited his place for the first time in a little over a year. The visits were exhausting. He appeared oblivious to beauty and indifferent to his surroundings. He could live in a smelly, concrete cell, as long as there was a bed, TV, toilet, fridge and stove, plus the liberty to cross the street and buy jugs of strong beer. He only went out for beer and to buy cheap food, which he rendered inedible in the kitchen.

     I learned to be up front about his cooking.

     “Earl, I’m sorry, but I can’t eat this,” I said, the third time I accepted his insistent invitation to eat. The rice, he cooked uncovered in a frying pan, iron nail rice and shoe-leather meat. The room-temperature food turned my stomach. Fortunately, he was a miser. I sensed he was somehow glad I didn’t eat. It would cost him less.

     His desire to share food was part of the psychology of eating. According to an old ritual, one takes food from the abdominal cavity, a ritual sharing, a mixing of solids and fluids. We bonded to become gastric juice brothers.

     He stood there stunned in his tee shirt and pajama bottoms as I pushed the plate aside.

     “Sorry Earl.”

     “The dinner is a failure,” he said, in a reproachful tone of voice, as if it was my fault that his food was inedible.

His voice implied that a true friend would make an effort. I should try to like his stomach-turning food and eat it like a good sport.

     I politely stood my ground. He got the point and never insisted I eat his food again.

     “You don’t like my cooking,” he repeated.

     “No, I don’t,” I said, calmly.

     One time he served sour mashed potatoes and huge pork sausages. When I poked a fork through the thick skin, pork juice squirted me in the eye. The skin had the texture of a rubber band.

     At least it was clear, as I visited him for the last time. He would not offer food. I climbed the stairs, paused to catch my breath. The door flew open. Earl, in pajamas, invited me in and then returned to his large bed, offering a view of the toilet and facing a large TV. I asked him to please turn down the TV.

     “Ok, Ok. TV too loud. Ok, Ok,” he reached for the remote control and turned off the volume.

     Earl liked noise. He talked loud and liked the TV loud. He made jerky movements with his hands and sometimes sprayed saliva as he explained something that needed no explanation. As he belabored the obvious, he would keep asking me if I understood.

     I’d say over and over again, during pauses in his monologues, “I understand.”

     He didn’t believe I understood. His voice got louder, until my ears hurt. I repeated back his words, in a futile attempt to convince him I understood his simple ideas. He wouldn’t stop until the fury expended itself. After shouting the same thing over and over again, he became drowsy.

     Nothing stayed in his mind very long. He was easily distracted and except for his manic outbursts, usually drowsy. His favorite posture was in bed, leaning against pillows propped up against the wall, a cordless phone in one hand, a beer or remote control in the other. Empty bottles filled his bedside table.

     I stayed half an hour and then left. He was satisfied. His mania lasted about twenty minutes. During the final ten minutes of our visit, he got tired and bored. Good thing he got easily bored. He never insisted I stay longer. He wanted me to go, so he could roll over and take a nap. The visits were exhausting for both of us. I vowed to never go back. We could communicate by telephone.


  1. Hello John,
    feel my stomach...
    I think, sometimes people share a long way with us, sometimes a short one. Yes, and sometimes only by telephone.

  2. Breaking bread is supposed to be a ritual bringing us together. But often I cannot stand other people's food. Is there a connection between the two previous sentences, or is it mindless gibberish? Chris