Monday, May 19, 2014


Last night, you dreamed of Duke again, possibly because he has become more persistent of late, but of equal probability because of a book you've assigned for discussion tomorrow.

The book, Rebecca, is in your noir fiction class, its opening line prompting the way you began this essay.  Duke, who was not Duke until you named him so, was a friend from high school, extending through university.  By any account, he was a close friend.

You'd lost acquaintances and grandparents to death.  Duke was your first close friend to be lost to death.  He did not live to see thirty, the culprit cancer.  

Because of your class in noir fiction, you've been reading a good deal of the genre.  Tomorrow, you'll talk, then lead discussion on Rebecca and Jim Crumley's ever-so-dark The Last Good Kiss, which Rolling Stone has called "the last good mystery."  Death, agendas, and unexpected twists abound in both novels, but Crumley takes the noirish tendencies to a place where, even though you'd been a long-time friend of the hardboiled detective novel, you found in him an awareness that seemed to draw landscapes of despair and inner turmoil into a new focus.

In some ways, you had more in common with Dave Lauren, who managed to walk into a moving train, or Mark Rashmir, a drinking and music-loving friend, than you did with Duke.  The process of diverging paths had already begun.  Yes, you and Duke were fraternity brothers.  Yes, he was as familiar at your parents' table as you were at the table of his parents, but what had once been nearly a daily contact had already begun to move toward monthly, if that.

His inherent generosity and an enormous sense of empathy made him seem larger than he was.  You find yourself wanting to say he was five nine or five ten, but he was five six, his body type tending to roundness, which he took care to present as trimness.

When you last saw him, in his room at The City of Hope Cancer Facility in Duarte, he was, as you would become, years later, after your debate with cancer, drawn, thin, his facial features like venetian blind slats.  He surely knew the noir nature of his prognosis when he motioned you closer to him, asking you to remember him, to write about him.  

This wish of his was the equivalent of seeing you as the vessel, the bottle into which he'd hoped to be inserted, then tossed into the ocean.  He surely wished to be remembered by all his close friends and she who had become his fiancee, but he was putting his hopes for visibility beyond a generation of friendly regard.

"Write about me,"  he said.  Then he pleaded.  "Write about me."

Duke has been gone for many years, and you have not written about him, perhaps because there was no traction for drama in him other than the sorts of sentiment Houseman found in "To an athlete, dying young" you found to border on the sentiments you wished to avoid.  The only negative things you could find to say or think had to do with his being gone and his having been so uniform in good cheer and a zest for life.  Wilbert I. Melnick, you would have written.  Bound to become a professor of history.  Bound to have caused those, such as you, who were neutral to history to become wrapped in its implications and consequences.  Bound to be a remarkable, sensitive husband and a supportive father, bound to excel at such things because he already did in fact excel at being a person of the sort such persons as you valued his friendship.  At the time of your friendship, you might have been an actor, trying out for the role of Sisyphus, casting about for a suitable rock.

This did not seem enough, and so Duke has haunted you, reminding you of potential reasons, differences in personalities, that were causing the parallel lines of your connection to fracture, then slip off at awkward angles.  

He caused your awareness of that wish to live in your age and beyond, based on legacies of constructive actions left behind.  From time to time, you'd thought about how desperate he was for a future, given his prognosis, to pick you as the medium, you to inscribe on the equivalent of that rock in New Mexico the equivalent of "Paso por aqui" passed by here.  His gift to you was in fact taking you at your word.  By then, you'd already known what you wished to become and to be remembered as, even though your vision was heavy on generality and quite light on specifics.

You first called him Duke, the Super Hero, because of his ability to inspire and solve the sorts of conundrums that occur between people.  There was certain to have been envy in your action, but there was enough admiration to give the name resonance.  Shortly before his departure into the Army, his fraternity brothers gave him a going-away gift, a silver ID bracelet, inscribed Duke.

With the name of Wilbert, Willie was an inevitable consequence, which you could not abide.  You gave him a name, but he has given you the gift of the things he was and the need to find ways to bring them to life.

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