My friend’s festering bedsore of nomenclature.
To me, he was always just Chris, or Hessert. A college waistrel when I first met him, he was surreally beautiful (cleft chin, electric blue-grey eyes, the curly blond hair of an Adonis). The scion of a Tarrytown, NY, family that owned chunks of Manhattan and gold mines in the somewhere, he didn’t really care about any of it. Yes, Chris did use his privilege, grew up to live off his father’s inheritance, but if it had all gone away he would simply have found something else to do.
He was a depressive who plastered it over with a ratcheting, inhaled laugh like a hyena gnawing a particularly delicious bone. Those eyes chuckled and danced and his whole face radiated exuberance, even while you knew (if you knew Chris) that he was haunted, living beyond the cynical in an arena where the ways of the world were dogshit under his shoes.
He blundered through a couple years at Penn, then dropped out or was kicked out, completed a degree I don’t know where and became a mining geologist. That interest may have come from his father, an aging German pillar whom I saw only once. Or maybe he just liked rocks. Later, with his father’s inheritance, he invested in gold mines and, like several others in his trade, fell victim to a superbly orchestrated fraud pulled off in Indonesia.
Chris was the one friend I retained from college. We had known each other only tangentially at Penn, but he visited me off and on when I was living after graduation with some current students in a house on 34th St. (you’ll hear more about The House in coming months if you hang in with me).
A bit later, every year or two, I’d get a drunken phone call from Chris inviting me to something or other. The first was to his marriage in NYC. When I showed up, with my then (and several years after) Great Love Ronnie, he caught my eye and looked startled. Had he forgotten he’d invited me or just not figured I’d show?
Hard to say with Chris: The next time was an invitation to his mother’s Tarrytown home. I took the train to NYC and called ahead to Tarrytown. Chris wasn’t there, had gone off on some travel and told no one of my pending arrival. Feeling feverish and generally punk, I hopped the train back to Philly.
The drunken phone calls slowed to about once every five years. For the next decade, not surprisingly, I resisted all calls to gather. Finally, my wife Julie and I visited him (now divorced) in New York. We ended up sleeping in our van because his apartment was too small to accommodate us.
I hadn’t seen him for many years when he called this tine to say that he was remarried to a woman with whom he’d set up a mystery fanzine. They were living in Ontario but would be in Philly for a mystery-related convention. Could Linda and I drop by their convention booth?
When we tracked him down at the downtown hotel, I had to rein in an automatic startle response: with bland receding hair, and at least 100 pounds heavier, nothing about him – except the dancing eyes – resembled the shining god of yesteryear. But within five minutes I saw that the essential Chris was unchanged – the opposite of what I’d encountered with the few other college retreads. I’d found them weirdly unchanged physically but totally altered in their human aspect. (Is it impossible to retain both the inner and the outer mask?)
Another half decade later, Chris asked us to recommend restaurants in Philly where he could feed a couple business associates from Canada. From our narrowed list, he chose the White Dog, on the Penn campus, where we all gathered for one of the worst meals of my life.
I apologized profusely to everyone involved. They were all gracious – Canadians usually are (though the rightwinger business associates bitched about Clinton throughout the evening).
Somewhere along the line, Linda and I began a series of vacation trips to the farmhouse he’d bought on the Canadian shore of Lake Ontario. With his inheritance, he and Barbara had remodeled exquisitely, adding, on the side facing the lake, a light-shimmering room with a red-tiled floor and a wood stove.
That’s where we spent most of our time, since Chris kept the rest of the house at 50 degrees. I’ve never known anyone as inured to cold as Chris, except my brother Rod. (Neither of them, to my knowledge, owned any sort of outer coat.)
Our daughter Cait went with us on those visits. Chris and Barbara treated her not like a child but as another expansive member of the ensemble. We brought along Cait’s pug, Moonlight; Christ delighted in skewering her name: “Moonbeam,” “Moonshine,” and the like.
Cait had a great time tiring out their eldest dog, Bruno, a mostly-lab who would chase a frisbee until he could no longer move his legs. Their cocker spaniel, Penny, by contrast, was mostly immobile – a bloated, nasty, smelly little cur who didn’t like anybody.
I spent two weeks at their farmhouse alone one winter, housesitting while Chris and Barbara vacationed somewhere warm (Linda was teaching back home). Great fun. I love the snow, love the seasons, have never wanted to skedaddle to a place like Florida that refuses to acknowledge winter. And has no real trees.
For that visit, I flew into Toronto (on Chris’s dime), and he drove me the 100 miles to his place, while I, tucked inside my Bean jacket, shivered like a wet dog. Riding through the Canadian winter in Chris’s unheated car was an experience I wouldn’t wish to share with anyone. Except Chris.
For the Duration, they left me alone with a car, several hundred dollars in cash, full access to his computer and the run of their beautiful house. Chris may have been a major-league cynic about the human race, but with a friend, his trust was complete, unwavering, eternal (another way he echoed Rod).
Chris was a sailing enthusiast. I am not a sailing enthusiast. Once he took us out in his boat for two hours of encapsulated boredom. In his last year, he ordered a hand-crafted catamaran that was awaiting delivery when he dropped dead of a heart attack on his bedroom floor, age 59. Eleven months later, Barbara died of pancreatic cancer.
I miss few people from my past – almost none, really. Chris is one. The two pictures of him in my head – Greek god and German burger – stand side by side without conflict.
He was extremely ill at ease with life in its reality. So am I. Is that what we shared? I don’t know. But, beneath his surface contradictions, he was a complete, seamless human being.