Breskin's computerized journal of Virgil's last great party.
Jan 18 1992. This is an interesting situation. Most of us spend almost all the waking hours of our adult lives trading time for money. This is the first time in my life that I have had the opportunity to trade money for time. Left to my own devices, I would have wasted a week trying to make up my mind about whether to come down here or not. Carter made the decision for me; she bought the ticket and put me on the plane. I could not have made it for myself. What an incredible bargain.
Virgil is very weak. No-one knows how much longer he is going to live, except that it probably will not be long. He is breathing Oxygen and spends most of his time lying down in the bedroom. Sometimes he is very clear, and knows who he is and who you are, but other times he is far away. He has always loved to sit right in the middle, to watch the "party" that he has convened boil around him, following the motion of the ideas or the tunes, even when he couldn't hear all the threads of the conversation. There are enough of us here to create the old "party" atmosphere in the house, at least part of the time, and you can see that it gives him pleasure: he loves to watch it, but keeping up with it tires him out pretty fast. 10 minutes of full blast and he's ready for sleep.
I tried to explain for Mahian, the home healthcare practitioner who has been assigned to us this afternoon, who Virgil is, and why we are all here. She is from Iran, and has only been in the U.S. for a couple years, but she knows how America really works more than most people: she has seen how we deal with people at this stage in their lives. She is used to seeing abandoned people, alone and exhausted in their empty houses, and Virgil's last great party is a great contrast. In a society that masks its poverty with the veneer of material things, Virgil's incredible "richness in friends" must be quite dumbfounding.
There are usually 2 or 3 people near him, and several others performing various functions in the house; cutting up fruit or brewing coffee or making soup, or washing the dishes. There is also the rotating contingent of home health care professionals, and an RN came by at noon to take his blood-pressure and draw a blood sample. Dr. Shelby came by about 3:00 and sent me off to pick up a bedside commode from the equipment rental place. Very expedient. Much easier on Virgil than dragging him into the bathroom across the hall, which tired him out horribly, was when he sat there, was quite cold, compared to the bedroom.
There was some uncertainty about medications expressed this morning, especially about the blood thinner (zanex?) that keeps clots from giving him strokes, but could cause him to lose a great deal of blood if he got injured in a fall, and sleeping pills, because they are addictive. If he were to miraculously recover, the addiction would be a problem, but most people would grant that it takes a smaller miracle to kick drug habit than it does to fix a broken heart.
Virgil had rheumatic fever when he was a kid, and has known he had a heart problem for a long time, although I had never heard about it. His Doctor told him it was time to get his heart fixed over a year ago, when his hip was broken. For a variety of reasons, many of which will not become clear to me until I am faced with a similar decision, he decided to put off making the decision until it was too late to operate, and that decision brought us directly to this point. I am not, and never will be sure that the decision he made, by whatever route he made it, was not the right one.
He is not the least bit happy about how he feels. He walked into the Hospital with a couple years left to live, for a routine procedure and they almost lost him before they got him anywhere near the operating table. They eventually brought him back, but not all the way to where he started, and he got carried out, carried home to die. His kidneys are shot. He just told Tom that his shaking hand on the drinking glass looked like the hands of a drunk with the DT's. But every once in a while, he grins that fierce, defiant grin.
I got here about 9:30 Friday and set up in Lore's room, which has the only 3-prong ac outlet in the house. Virgil didn't recognize me at all when I first walked in, and I got an awful rush of fear that I'd gotten here too late to say goodbye, but a few hours later, he woke up and knew everybody. It is overcast and cold, very cold for Fresno. It's colder than it has been in Seattle, but it's still California, so there are still oranges and grapefruits on the trees. All but the highest persimmons are picked, and the birds are feasting on the last of them.
Jeremy Blustein (Jemmy) showed my some shelf mushrooms growing on the big broken willow near the swampy area in the garden. I told Virgil about them and he described the old broken tree as inhabiting the shadow world between life and death, and asked me if we had walked along the seashore lately, reminding me of the cave at northbeach, with the head of the sun-god carved into the clay of the bank, and I told him the crashing waves of the winter storms had washed it away, and then the entire slope above had collapsed in a great avalanche of peat and trees and clay.
Minor emergency in the late afternoon. He has been drinking a lot of milk. Aside from Cello's chicken soup, which Mahain ran thru the blender, Virgil has mostly consumed water and milk. Milk gives him an acid stomach, so I ran off to the 7-11 for some Maalox, and got caught by the traffic on the way back. Crossing Cedar is an interesting gamble: the diagonal shortcut is not always the fastest way across.
Tonight we hit critical mass, and after a full day of stumbling along, the party finally turned magical. The nurse came in and took Virgil's blood. According to the test results, Virgil is dehydrated. Perhaps it's from the medication, perhaps it's because the coffee we have given him is a diuretic; anyway, he is off meds for a few days, because his decreased blood volume makes the effects much stronger and their effects harder to predict.
Jeff Shelby, Virgil's doc, was here this afternoon and said that it felt much too somber in here and according to Jemmy, prescribed force-feed vino. Not to Virgil, but to us. So we broke out the wine, and it worked wonders for the spirit. The house filled up with musicians, and one and all, the musicians let go in a way worthy of the event. Lee and E-Z ran thru an amazing mexican repertoire, and then Frank Hicks, surrounded by his band of Fallen Angels, sang old swing-bad songs he reputedly hasn't sung since his nights in front of a swing band playing NCO clubs during WWII. It was a hot time: to much applause, Virgil demanded a beer. Frank has a blood disease that almost killed him late last year. He was down 6 pints of blood when they got him into the hospital. Now he gets transfusions every week. Modern science has turned him into a real vampire. I was getting a little worried about all the gospel tunes and spiritual hymns that were running around the room for a while, but when Frank sang the old YMCA camp gospel "Power in the blood" he inspired it with an awesome, and knowingly ironic conviction. E-Z did a powerful country-western song about being born an asshole, a song that could easily be the next "God will but I won't God does but I don't..."
Jan 19 1992
Virgil's room wasn't big enough for the party, so people over-flowed into the other room and folded the Fresno Folk-music Society newsletter on the dining table. The room rang bright with an endless parade of songs, from Mexico to tin pan alley, Nashville to Greece and Bulgaria, and the train didn't get back 'til way after midnight. I slept most of the night.
The 6am journey to the bathroom was very long and arduous. It was not worth the effort. Ernie and Freddie and Isabelle arrived about 7:30 this morning, after driving all night. Diane, the Hospice person who was here yesterday morning, and fit into this group like she was already part of the family, showed up about 8am to spell Sam, the official person. They are actually fighting over being her, it's so much more fun than what they normally do. Now we are just letting the music run in Virgil's room. It's noon already and now that I know what time it is, I think he actually seems quite a bit weaker and groggier than he did this time yesterday.
1:14 pm Some shockingly powerful reefer has entered the mix. Ego's expand as we gain elevation. The party is exploring itself for a while... I explain how to use the computer.
2:59 Virgil just got carried out into the living room, into the sun. He looked very weak right after the move. In the bright sunlight of the living room, his jaundice was inescapable. It seemed like he was just falling right out the bottom, spilling slowly through the couch, getting away through the floor, faster and faster.... Frank and I both felt the first rush of losing him. It was very deep, like ice-water on my heart. Actually, it was terrifying; Frank left the room immediately. We were nowhere near ready to let him go.
The Oxygen tank is running low, and we had no trouble deciding to call for more. Now there is a mandolin/fiddle band running beautiful waltzes for him, as he lies basking in the sun. Its a great tinkley sound and I'm getting some of it on tape, long pauses and all.
It turned out to be a very hard move. Virgil really got tired. Drifting in and out of a dream, he suddenly announced, as though we should all take it very seriously, that he had flunked 6 questions on his master's exam. Was this a statement of fact, some muck rising from the depths of his young-man's past? Was it a present tense report from the pearly gates? I do not know. None of us knew him back then.
Pretty soon after that he demanded to be taken to the back bedroom, with his hearing aids pulled out, cuz he wanted to rest. The back bedroom is still pretty cold, even though the door to the hall has been open all afternoon. and so, against his wishes, we put him back in the big room and cranked up the fire.
He fought pretty hard trying desperately to sleep, with generally mixed results, for several hours, until the new oxygen tank and the next wave of people arrived at 6pm. He demanded his "carbine", stating that he wanted to go shooting, and making rifle-shooting gestures toward the wall separating the dining room from his bedroom, a thin membrane through which the party pulsed like the head of a drum. I would not help him look for the rifle, but Lee obliged, opening closets and searching diligently. I was afraid he might find it, because I do not believe anyone of us could accept having him point a gun at them. Virgil complained that I was uncooperative, but so what? I am afraid of that edge, and he was right: I was being uncooperative.
When he wakes up out of a dream he can be as strong as an ox. He can find a place in there, like an alternative neurological pathway to his muscles, from which he can almost stand up on his own. During the carbine episode, he got us to sit him up on the end of his bed, and then he had me open the bedroom door, so he could hear the party in the next room. This allowed him to reach out and grab the doorknobs on either side of the door, and he used these as handles to pull himself upright, which is pretty amazing considering that he can't even roll over on his side without our assistance.
After several hours of trying to keep the party "at bay" with my will power, to keep the room "shhhh... " quiet, I gave it up and went off to find some food to eat. To do this I had to accept that:
1. it was impossible, and
2. that it was not my call, anyway.
Virgil couldn't get out of this party if he wanted to. The door to his bedroom squeaks, the kids run around laughing and shrieking... the sounds of life are everywhere. The laughter and the music is why we are all here, and now that it has begun, I can't make what is happening to us go away. Anyway, I don't know how it could possibly benefit anyone to make it quiet as a crypt in the house.
Lee came to the same conclusion, by a somewhat different route, and about 6:30 the party once again surrounded him, swaddled him, carried him off on its own path, like a magic carpet, until about 11, when the first round of people went home. Later on, the party reconvened for one last round, before it split into a group of talkers in the dining room and a group watching David's Bridge-8 video in the bedroom.
He is much weaker, or at least much farther away, but he has lots and lots of people around him, and they all need to see him, probably more than he needs to sleep.
1:45am He is very weak. The effort of sitting up to pee really knocked him down this time. Swelling in his ankles is working its way up his legs... he wants to go pee off the front porch, rather than pee in the bottle.
Last night, everything got written in the log book. This afternoon Tom and I picked up Warn at the airport at two rather than at 10 as advertized. He'd gotten stranded on the runway in Seattle by fog.
Hey!! Any one/every one is invited to type into this journal. Simply identify yourself, and begin typing. say whatever you thing you would like said. When you are through this message will appear at the bottom of the screen
Penny 's turn to tinkle the ivoriod..
virgil saw to it that he had a very active afternoon. around noon he demanded to be hauled off to the breezeway but settled for the orange room with light from the ever brightening sky glowing in thru the big windows. he is tired of laying around and got lots of folks to turn, pull, lift and roll him into new positions a dozen times or more. he knows what he needs and people are making sure he gets it. what we can best learn from virgil is what he did to deserve all this care and attention and make our best shot at earning that kind of love in our lives. he has always been a kind of role model and is certainly one now for me.
hi....its pretty late in the morning of monday-tuesday and the last few hours have found most of us in the room with virgil, singing together gospel songs, and just talking of anything. one thing among many wonders is the environment we're sharing here. the passage of time is so strange and simple; there is a rhythm constantly being created, recreated. virgil the gatherer bringing us all together. music, open hearts, and the building of a community keeping us together. it's pretty fuckin' special. we raided virgil's mini liquor stash and now several are sipping gin, all the other sweet sticky drinks having been rejected. well, guess what--i wrote a few more lines after these ones you just read, but they got lost in the nethers of the computer and now my train o thought is no more. i think i was thinking about the humor that's among us, virgil's full sense of humor, all our laughter,teasing and cracking up. this is home, lots of touching, crying, brainstorming and frying, and i am so happy to be here. and now i'm happy just to go to bed.
Something is holding Virgil back. His body is still very strong, and he is not ready to die. Linda Holdt almost got him to let go. I just sat and watched in wonder, it was so innocent and fearless, but I was really scared for her at first. I was afraid he would actually take the bait and die on her, and I did not believe she was ready for that. She had found a set of signs from the mill that Jon Adams had painted. Signs for Downtown, the Hot tub and a great one leading to the registration desk, with a big red arrow, poined straight up to the sky. While Virgil was in the living room, we installed them on the back wall of the bedrooom, right behind where he lies down, and when we brought him back to bed, there they were: props for a trip into dreamland. And she boldly lead him off into her dream, toward the great reservation desk in the sky, singing a little song that ran: We are the ship we are the sea, I sail in you, you sail in me. She has a wonderful voice and was teasing and bubbling, "here you go, yes, I'm coming too. I'll follow you, but you have to lead, you get to go first..." dancing away from him like a nymph. After that, I wrote up an explanation about "releasing", about helping him let go, rather than trying to drag him back, and I tried to run people through it before they
have just been sitting next to virgil for a while now. it's tuesday, probably around one in the afternoon. he asked me, "did i do any good?". to hear that from him brings a swell of emotion--i mean, can you imagine, did virgil do any good??? i said, "you did all good, a world of good. and you still are."then after a little bit he said he wanted to "slip off, get rid of everything." he asked me how to do that. i felt stumped but i said something, don't remember quite what. something about breathing, letting go, and i told him that all things were fine, taken care of, that we all are with him and we'll let him go and that we'll carry on. a little piece later i asked him what he was thinking and he said he was trying to imagine what would come next, what the next place would be like. good question...to which i responded with some words about him going there and finding out, then letting us know, that we would join him (sooner or later,huh?). he also has been wanting addresses of "the ladies that can help me"-- hard to understand exactly but he kinda got the message across to me that there are some people, whom he doesn't yet know, who can help him slip off. we aren't them, we're helping him in other ways but he's finding it "hard to find them, the ones who can help me." some frustration and teariness passed through him when he was saying this. then he fell slightly asleep for a few seconds. meanwhile, diane, one of the home health folks, made a big enchilada casserole and the house smells delicious and is cozy, despite the chilled air. Feeling profoundly grateful to this phenomenal man.
virgil .... our beloved elder! thank you for your vision...by seeing great things you allowed all of us to see too!!
I mean....having a party for your funeral is not that uncommon, but having a party for your death.... Wowwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww!
as usual, Virgil is the catalyst. Where will we ever find another?
7:24pm Wednesday, Joe again. yes EZ, the role of the catalyst is unique in the world of chemistry: reactions occur in the presence of the catalyst, but it is not consumed in the reaction. on its surface, things happen that would never have occurred in its absence. By its own attraction, it brings together elements that would not otherwise find one another. He showed us each other and pulled us and pushed us until we grew past our natural repulsiveness to attract one another.
don brown here
so good to get a chance to say goodby i don't know that i've ever had a better friend or if i've known a more honest man he's taught me a lot of what i know about being a good human being so much more to learn he and michael two bright stars think you virgil for all your kind hospitality love
1:59am Thursday. Party is over for tonight. John-Paul and Linda are going home and Don Brown is going to bed. We turned Virgil onto his left side and Linda rubbed Vitamin-E oil into the crushed places on his side. His skin is collapsed under his hips, and pretty well smashed down on his shoulder, too. Sam went to the store around midnight, and he has been gone for way too long. David vocalizes our hope that he is isn't in trouble. He seemed like a pretty responsible character, he intends to end up an RN or eventually an MD, not like he would have done something completely flaky irresponsible, like wandering off the night. I stayed up all night talking with him, and as we talked about our worlds, it became clear that he felt that his having missed Virgil and Sweets Mill was probably the great tragedy of his youth.
Virgil hasn't peed in over 12 hours, and there is some worry. There was even a short discussion about having him catheterized. Jane, who is a nurse, palpated his bladder and commented that although it had fluid in it, it wasn't full or bursting. He hasn't taken in any water in about 8 hours, and his kidneys are failing, so it doesn't seem likely that he's generating a lot of urine anymore.
3:18am Thursday David is going to sleep in the armchair in Virgil's room, I'm gonna stay on the bed next to him. He has really slowed way down. I cut back the 02 to cut down on the noise the hissing bubbling stuff makes, and the change in flow had no noticeable effect on either the depth or the rate of his respiration. I monitored it for 5 minutes, counting each breath... and it didn't change at all. When you count his breathing, you find yourself breathing with him, and when you breath with him, you slow waaaay down.
Virgil is really gone away. He is still breathing, slow and shallow, but he's gone.
Virgil stopped breathing for a few breaths
\Virgil stopped breathing at exactly 7:30:30 by my watch. He took his last breath and let it out slowly and he didn't make a sound. I could not see death enter the room.
I woke Don Brown and he came in to see.. Virgil let out the last breath he'd taken a few minutes previously in Don's ear...
Virgil`s last breath isn`t any kind of end ... a transition for sure ... and death didn`t enter because too many folks are still here.
virgil spirit will live forever. it just didn't live long enough for me. people like him we do not encounter often enough in life. some people aren't lucky enough to ever rub up against a spirit so wonderful as his. virgil definitely knew how to BE.
Virgil thank you for sharing your last days with us. I felt so touched when you made it known that you wanted to die in the presence of your friends. To be with you on Monday for a couple of hours was precious -with you giving directions-water, handkerchief,move me to the front room-in the same directness you''" used to set up camp at Sweets Mill.Thank you for showing us how and where to celebrate life. I was proud to be a part of your extended family.
Leon 1/24/92 1:31 PM
I arrived here early at 2 am. Jan was just walking outside and asked me for help taking stuff into the house. My mother had called me earlier in the evening at 8:30 pm or so and given me the news that Virgil had passed on. I told her that I would come to Fresno either in the morning or just start driving that night. I made several telephone calls before I left the Norris'. I called here and Sharon Brown answered the phone and we talked for a short while. I also talked to JP. After checking with other people who were here, they both told me that it was not very foggy here in the Valley. One call I made was to Mark Mueller in Black Mountain. Not too many people in Fresno know Mark. I met Mark at New Year's Camp Harmony 1977. He and I became instant friends and when Mark came to Visalia to play at that years's Fa Do Do, I introduced Mark and Virgil to each other. Mark has two children named Virgil and Pearl. They would have become friends anyway but the fact that Mark's son and Virgil had the same name, gave them additional cause for instant Camaraderie. It was 12:15 am in North Carolina and because Mark had three gigs to play over the weekend in Virginia besides working on Friday, Mark and I did not talk very long. He thanked me for letting him know about Virgil's passing on and then he let me talk to Megan(Mark's girlfriend). Megan is about 22 years old and is a former East Coast festival brat. I told her about Virgil and how he had the ability to draw people around and set up really good gatherings of people. I told her what I knew about how he'd started Sweets Mill back along time ago and what a wonderful gathering it had been. I told Megan about Michael Byxbe's death. We talked about some other stuff as well.
I finally left the Norris' about 11 pm. It took 3 hours to drive to Fresno. As I drove along, I sang songs that were for myself as well as for Virgil. I last saw Virgil alive on Monday, Jan. 13 at St Agnes. I had just flown back from Hawaii two days before. When I arrived in Fresno and heard about Virgil being in the Hospital, I knew that I would visit him before leaving for Santa Cruz. I pretty well knew that that would be the last time that I would see Virgil alive. Of course, I hope that Virgil would live a few more weeks and that I would see him again when I returned from Santa Cruz.
I'm happy that I came. I stayed up all night long. JP and I made it to dawn. At dawn I sang the Bob Marley song that goes:
Rise up this morning. Smile at the rising sun.
three little birds sitting by my window
singing sweet songs of melodies pure and true.
this is my message to you
Don't worry about a thing
cause every little thing
is gonna be alright ( x2).
Thanks Virgil for always being there for us. we love you.
Breskin again: Jan 26th 1992 2pm.
I'm sitting at the SF Airport, 2 full hours ahead of my plane. My computer is slightly conspicuous, even in the midst of all this money and hard-tech; it is clearly attractive and as soon as I turned it on people began to interrupt me to ask questions about it. Universally, they find it hard to believe how much machine is inside it, which mostly shows how ineffective the marketing of this technology actually has been, how inbred and incestuous and disconnected from society at large the "personal computer" industry has become. The kid who is most fascinated has a Tandy 1000, but mostly plays games on it.
It's stuperbowl sunday, so traffic was light. I left Borsdorf's, 17 miles into the mountains north-west of Chico a little before 10 am, and got here about 1. This has been a most confusing adventure. Some parts of my life make more sense than ever before, but others make a great deal less. I am no longer apprehensive about death. That does not mean I pretend to understand it or even that I expect the calm I currently feel to last, It's just that one part of life is now comprehensible, for the first time, but I am deeply afraid of what I will find when I get home.
After 8 days at Virgil's, during which he drifted between clarity and confusion, brilliant consciousness and vacant internalized absence, in the middle of a great swarm of people and food, music and laughter, tenderness and anguish, and a new range of emotions that are simply too new and too fragile to describe in my language, I hit the road, and as soon as I left, Nothing made sense.
The contrast between the Virgil's house and the world outside is almost too much to bear. It must have been unbearable for Sam. There is a great gnawing hunger out here, I feel it when I talk to people, but it is so deep I cannot even begin to fill it. People appear to be afraid: closed, wary, on guard, until I accidently say something that punches through and touches them, and then they want to break down and cry. I'm talking about the crying cashier-lady in the Pay-Less variety store where I bought recording tape, and later, in the 7-11 where I ran to get some more batteries for the tape recorder. They could not handle the idea that I was tape-recording Virgil's wake, and that it was a joyous event, not people sitting around sobbing and wailing. They found it especially troubling to imagine a wake that the soon-to-be-dead man was attending, and enjoying. Nobody out here is ready to address the inevitable reality of their own death, and they are living desperate and futile acts of denial, in worlds propped up on toothpicks, ready to collapse without warning.
I am confused because my own life seems cast adrift. Not because Virgil is gone. He was not my anchor, nor was he propping me up. It is more deeper than that. I feel like I have been cast out of the world I have always lived in, and now I am driving through a house of cards, or a movie set. Nothing is quite believable, and though I have sometimes felt this way before, this time it doesn't seem like I am alone in my disbelief. It's like there is a false front, a veneer of Disneyland, a peeling paint-job no longer quite masking the world of bitter poverty and fear it was set up to hide.
Everywhere I look in this city, where the farmlands have been covered with asphalt, and the asphalt is covered with cars, most of them tattered and shabby, the real world, the land of 100 or 1000 or 1,000,000 years ago is suddenly covered up with artificial neighborhoods where nobody is neighbors,houses illuminated by the flickering light of the TV, shopping malls where the same endless litany of stores. I rebel. This is not an acceptable reality, it's simply too bleak! All the stores are full of the same stuff. That's nothing new: what's new down here is that there are, almost universally, no customers in these stores. The isles are full of stuff, but devoid of people, and of the 8 lines to 8 cash registers, 7 are empty. Except at gas stations, I am almost the only customer. The only place I have been down here, that seemed even remotely "alive," was Kinko's Copy Center, where people were actually doing things, or at least thought they were.
On Thursday afternoon, about 8 hours after Virgil had died, Jemmy and Cordia Blustein, Linda Holdt and I went up to Sweets Mill, to survey our bleak inheritance and imagine what keeping the place going will really be like, without Virgil to call the shots. Everyone is well aware that the early stage of the transition is gonna be rough. It's a big step from playing Virgil's lieutenants and running a festival for a wise and fun-loving benevolent despot to playing senators and running a parliamentary system (a Sweets Mill foundation) that seeks to enshrine and preserve the traditions and on the basis of this vision, a foundation that has to generate income to make capital improvements and bring the facilities up to commercial standards. It is going to be hard to preserve the festival atmosphere without the old system. This is an enormous challenge, and one that is not likely to be a particularly comfortable for anybody, because at least as far as I can tell, everyone remains attached to their own fairly personal vision of how it used to work up here. This is only natural, in fact it (the lack of process) is an inevitable consequence of the despotic system and one of the classic arguments for decentralization of command. It is also why Virgil had so much to do, before he could let go and scatter. One by one, it seemed to me, he went thru lists in his head, settling accounts. He would discuss projects ongoing and unfinished, and try to wrap them up. He asked "can you handle it?" and if you said, like Warren did, "Sure, we can handle it Virgil..." or "I'll do it...", or "It's taken care of..." he'd let it go, and go on to the next list, the next person. But if there was any equivocation or pause, he suggested "then we probably ought to abandon that one, what do you think?" An equally acceptable outcome... realism, not guilt. And thus he freed himself as he freed us.
Sometimes it got past the surreal into the borderline hilarious. He wanted Martin to get the truck running, to gas it up to make one last run, to bust him out. He was organizing food and everything, and he was sure they'd need the crow-bar to pry open the gate. The crow-bar was not behind the seat and the truck refused to run. People asked him where he wanted to go, which turned out to be here, and when he learned that he was already there, at his Santa Ana house, all he could say was "Oh Shit!" At that point, it all became enormously symbolic, and Frank gave him his Cadillac to make the run. Virgil thanked him for the car.
On the way out of town, we stopped at Jemmy and Cordia's trailer. They have a 25 acre piece of farmland, with a couple of creeks running through it. Evo has already got his house up, at the end by the road. They moved it to the site, gutted it and did what Jemmy called a 120% remodel, adding considerably to the floorplan and springing an enormous deck around 3 sides of it. Jemmy's house is just beginning to take shape, and he and Cordia are currently living in a 20' trailer surrounded by a rich assortment of salvaged building materials: timbers and planks from old barns, a large redwood water-tank, and other things that will eventually become their house. Their trailer used to be a job-site office for a construction company. They salvaged an old 3-story redwood pumphouse, with a roofline that peaks in the middle like a school-house. One layer of it is set up on an insulated concrete slab they poured with 2 loops of plastic plumbing pipe running through it. The other 2 layers are still sitting on cribbing, waiting to be moved to their foundations. If I understand the plan correctly, they will eventually be assembled into 3 downstairs rooms of a multi-room 2 level house. Cordia gets green in the backseat so as soon as we got off the pavement, I let her drive.
The road to the Sweets Mill parking-lot is very soft this time of year. Under a delicate veneer of plants, the red dust is saturated at least 6" deep in places. Cordia almost got my little Ford rental-car stuck in grease-like mud, but we really couldn't have gone any farther on that road regardless of who had been driving. If it is to become and all-season road, it probably needs several thousand dollars worth of gravel for ballast, but that would make it vastly less pleasant to walk on barefoot in the summer, and the place is several years away from having the facilities for parties in the middle of the winter. As Virgil was wont to say, let's drop that one for a while.
The fire destroyed most of the buildings, and after the fire, someone came in and stole the tractor and who knows what all else. None of Virgil's treasure trove from Santa Ana house is going to be hauled up to the Mill until a full-time caretaker has been installed. The lodge and the showerhouse and the kitchen and the treehouse and the oak-tree-swing at the lake are all lying in ruins. The cast-iron harp from the piano that propelled the dances in the old lodge lies twisted and rusting on the brick patio. The path from Downtown to Virgil's dome looks more like a fire-road in a junkyard than the county fair gay-way I remembered, but here and there, there are signs of new order returning in the aftermath of the destruction. A new 16 X 24 pole building is rising, the prototype for the next generation of structures. Shed-roofed but still unsheathed and roofless, it was framed with full-round fire-killed 5" pines, of which there are sure to be many, at least for the next few years. We did not go into Virgil's dome, which was nicely sealed up, and appeared to be well on the way to recovery, but did not feel like it was the place for us to light. With all its tarps and ladders and hoses, it had the feeling of a project momentarily suspended... all it needed was a "wet paint" sign.
We walked around the Lake in the gathering darkness, all alone in our private wondering. Linda was obviously very close to Virgil. With Lee Birch's assistance, she was in definitely the "person in charge" when I got to Fresno, the first person I talked to the night I arrived. Jemmy and Cordia are the couple who had been Virgil's primary care-givers for the past month. With Tom Ninkovitch and a couple of others, these people had been the wrecking crew who sprung Virgil from the hospital, so he could die with dignity in his own house, in his own bed, surrounded by his friends and the last great party.
Jemmy grew up a block away from Virgil's Santa Ana house. He is in his middle 30's and I suspect that he, probably more than anyone else, grew up in the sunlight of the Virgil we knew and loved. He and Cordia were pretty burned out when I arrived, but they continued to put in 30 hour shifts until they decided that I was really someone they could pass the care of Virgil to. I think we figured each other out when I got antsy and aggressive when Virgil appeared to be running out of oxygen, and I was demanding that we either decide to turn it off or decide to order more before we ran out. Running out accidentally was not on their agenda any more than it was on mine. At 5 pm the evening before Virgil died, Cordia and I had crushed the 15 grain morphine sulfate tablet into little pieces and picked the first of the two little pieces that let him let go of the pain that was making him whimper in his sleep and beg for some of the percidan that he had saved from when his hip was broken. When we gave him the first piece, he was ecstatic, how lucky, he gleamed, to be able to trip out at the end. But 2 hours later he still hurt, so we gave him the second chunk, and it was all he needed: it let him let go. He never really talked to us again.
While I was stumbling around, half in the present and half in my memories, the sunset flared purple and orange across the lake, silhouetting cattails that grow in the muck that has filled the lake in the wake of the fire. I had on jeans, a lifa turtleneck, plenty of socks and 2 layers of synchilla, and Linda and Jemmy at least had on real boots, but Cordia was not dressed to be quite so "outdoors" in the middle of winter, an hour after sundown at over 5,000 feet, and her feet were getting pretty cold, standing on the snow that covered the dam. So Linda, who knew where to find the key, led us all into Asgaard where we lit candles and made a fire in the woodstove. With the door wide open and the damper turned down, we talked until the fire burned low, wondering out loud about the future and the past, but most of what we said is gone.
In the dancing yellow light we performed a toast-like tea ceremony to the future, using some clear plastic cups that someone had left there last summer, and followed it with a small sacramental feast of bread and cheese and I broke them an apple, sharing my only magic trick in the glow of the dying embers.
As soon as we got to back down to Auberry we hit impenetrable fog. 1 car-length fog. 30 mph fog. We got to Virgil's to find Virgil's wake in full storm, even the walkway from the driveway to the house was full of people, and the house was packed. Tom had built an alter of sorts, based on Virgil's workmate bench-vise with an old winding road highway warning sign for the backdrop. The sign was metaphorical: yellow and black and shot full of bullet holes, it showed a twisting arrow, pointing up. Who among, asked Tom, has followed a path that was not sometimes crooked and was never shot full of holes?
At Tom's direction, Virgil was laid out in state, on his bed, on an embroidered sheet, in his favorite clothes, looking enormously peaceful. Tom set a chair next to the bed, for people to sit in, to be alone with their fears and memories. In the aftermath of his death he was not particularly beautiful. I had to put his tongue back into his mouth, and massage his flesh to remove the dents from the mattress and the bedding. Your heart keeps your flesh pumped up, like a balloon. But by the end of his life, Virgil's heart was too shot full of holes to keep him pumped up. Everything except his bone-structure was soft and you could not hear a heartbeat with the stethoscope, just a faint, squishy rush of movement. Alan's blue foam one-use hospital mattress pad was very soft, but its foam fingers made deep dents in his legs and shoulders and arms.
As he died, some but not all of his muscles had gone slack, leaving him looking unfamiliar and distorted, and his corpse continued to move for several hours, as the various circuits shut down and relaxed, but as he became truly dead, he relaxed into the face and posture we were accustomed to. and over time, his face gradually assumed a very beautiful, almost radiant expression.
The wake lasted until 2pm Friday, when the van from the Neptune Society arrived to carry him away, to a refrigerator, to await cremation, after which we cleaned up the house and scattered.
I came home to pandemonium and shock, to the death of my relationship with my wife, to the death of who I believed I was, and since I got home, I have been too distracted to transcribe the handwritten log.
I believe I will recover, but it may take a while. I have been married to Carter for 24 years. We were together almost continuosly from Halloween of 1965 until I went down to Virgil's wake. But Carter had already decided to leave by Thanksgiving... It had just taken her a month and a half to figure out how to tell me to go... Nearly every cell in my body has grown up in her company. I do not know how to live without her. It feels a lot like trying to live without rain, or without sunshine. or without air.