Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

Threads

BY SUSAN KIEFFER

My friend Dave called his last apartment the control tower. He lived there from 1993 to 2007, on the eleventh floor of a well-appointed skyscraper in a nice neighborhood, overlooking a small, tranquil pond, around which young mothers pushed their strollers.

In his living room, a series of old tables spanned by pieces of plywood were arranged in a labyrinthine pattern. In its center sat an office chair upon which he could wheel from table to table by pushing one foot against the floor. Along these tables, vintage receivers, tape decks, and mixers bought from second-hand stores were connected by tangled masses of cords. They hummed softly, their power buttons glowing like tiny hearths. On one table, two broken amplifiers, each with one channel out, were wired together to form a single working unit.

Night after night, Dave sat up past sunrise, living what he called “a clockless existence,” creating intricate audio art from music, spoken word, and the ambient noises of his apartment. I have some of his songs still, transferred to my iPod from a CD inscribed with his clear, symmetrical handwriting. In these songs, he tries not to sound drunk. He rights his words as they emerge from his mouth, yet they tilt into one another, at moments slurred. His sentences are punctuated by sharp intakes of breath as he sucks on his cigarette.

The songs are arranged in layers. The base layer is music, usually trance, techno or Indian ragas. Over this music, he speaks. He muses on history, politics, love, and Eastern philosophies. He constructs wry and complex puns. Sometimes, he addresses his words to me. Ill love you tonight and always. His speech is interspersed with spoken word captured from the radio, fragments of punk rock gigs recorded in the seventies, and himself playing keyboards, bass or guitar. Dave could pick up an unfamiliar instrument, and within ten minutes be plunking out crude but melodic rock and roll. I think he found a kind of peace in his art. The focus required to assemble its elaborate structures may have quieted the voices that tormented him. The songs are calm, permeated by spiritual yearning, and studded with a breathtaking and hallucinatory genius. To me, they are beautiful.

In the mornings, if he were drinking, he searched the pockets of his dirty jeans for a few dollars and went to the liquor store two blocks away, where he bought beer. He bought only beer, because if he drank hard liquor, he might get too drunk too quickly and end up calling his stepfather and getting into an argument over his allowance, or going online and inviting strangers to his apartment. On his way home, he stopped at the gas station on the corner and negotiated with the weary man behind the counter for expired sandwiches recently removed from the refrigerator. He returned to the control tower, ate a sandwich, drank some beer and slept, waking up in mid-afternoon to start the process again.

Dave kept journals. In a corner of his bedroom stood a tall four-drawer filing cabinet, draped in heavy chains held together by padlocks. Hundreds of notebooks were crammed into this filing cabinet, chronicling his life from his teenage years up until the advent of the personal computer, when he began to store his writings electronically. He was convinced federal agents were going to break into his apartment, read in his journals about his mescaline use in the seventies, and take him to a CIA prison. When he left his apartment, he placed a strip of tape across the line of light separating the door from its frame so that if it were torn when he came home, he would know agents had entered, and he could run before they caught him. When I think of that filing cabinet now, I imagine it exploding, the heavy welded steel shattered by the force of his pain. I never saw those notebooks, but I have some journal entries, letters and poems retrieved for me by Dave’s uncle from his computer after his death.

Dave was born in 1956 on an Air Force base in France. When he was three months old, his father’s jet spiraled from the sky into a German field. His mother brought her infant son to upstate New York, where they lived in a small house on the bank of a cool, swirling creek until Dave was twelve. In his letters and songs, he describes building a go-kart too heavy to run on its recycled lawnmower engine, and the sweet oranges his grandmother quartered and arranged in a star shaped pattern on his plate. He and his mother then moved with her new husband, a Navy captain, to Maryland where Dave attended Saint Anselm’s Abbey School. Sitting on carved wooden pews beneath stained glass windows, he heard music, which he says on one of his tapes “radiated outward in increasing amplitude” into his life. Dave was a man through whom beauty rippled, like water spreading in circles from a stone.

It was probably during high school that he began drinking. In my mind I see him, careening with friends down moonlit roads in a beat up Trans Am, guzzling beer and singing along with an eight-track of MC5. The car’s windows are down, letting in the soft summer air. The driver’s left arm hangs out the window, his hand tapping the side of the car to the beat of the music. The boys are laughing. But Dave’s drinking possessed an urgency surpassing that of his peers, and his behavior was perhaps even then becoming erratic.

He moved to Boston to attend Boston University, where he majored in History. His mother and stepfather settled in Gloucester, a working-class seaside town north of Boston, from whose sparkling harbor rough men had harvested fish and lobster for over three centuries. During the nineties, he and I sometimes visited his parents there, making our way along paths known only by locals to abandoned quarries filled with achingly clear water reflecting the surrounding trees and circled by solitary gulls. We swam, drying off on the warm rocks, and drank beer and smoked. Now, on clear summer days, I like to cycle in Gloucester. When I crest a hill and glimpse a quarry, its blue interrupted by dark and slender trees, I can taste the tomatoes, sliced thin and sprinkled with pepper and salt, from Dave’s mother’s garden.

I was introduced to Dave in 1978. He was twenty-two. I was fifteen. I had just run away from home, and was sleeping on friends’ couches and in parks in a dirty, crumpled sleeping bag. He was an enthusiastic member of the Boston punk rock community, who had nicknamed him Dave Hardkorps. We went out almost every night, drinking and dancing in loud, dark clubs. I had never seen anyone so handsome, nor met anyone so kind. I loved the way his fine hair fell into his eyes, the way his slim body stretched along his couch, one black high top Converse sneaker on the floor. He let me stay with him in his basement apartment, and shared with me the greasy roast beef sandwiches he brought home after the bars closed. In bed, I’d come moments after he first touched me.

But when he found out the police were looking for me, he asked me to leave. He was afraid he’d be arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. I moved into a decrepit boarding house, sharing a tiny room with a friend. By then, even our punk rock friends, among whom impulsive and self-destructive behavior was considered the norm, noticed that he was acting strangely and his alcohol consumption was out of control. Garbage and empty beer bottles piled up in his apartment. He stole a friend’s car and drove it fast down a narrow Boston street, scraping the side of the car against a pole before getting picked up by the police. Finally, he showed up at the boarding house at 3 A.M. one morning and announced that he was joining the Navy. I don’t know what led him to that decision. Perhaps he thought Navy discipline would help him stop drinking. Perhaps he thought he could impress his stepfather. I do know I tried to talk him out of it, full of foreboding.

He made it through basic training. A picture of him in his mother’s house shows him then, lean, muscled and smiling at the camera. But shortly thereafter, his schizophrenia descended upon him with its full force. He sat on his bed writing poetry about starfish and missile silos, refusing to follow orders. The Navy was neither equipped nor inclined to handle mental illness with compassion. They imprisoned him for insubordination and gave him no treatment. Ultimately, they placed him in the psychiatric ward of the Philadelphia Naval Hospital, forcibly medicating him with a liquid antipsychotic, until they discharged him, according to the discharge papers, “for the good of the Navy.” Years later, he wept as he told me he had paced the brig’s hot yard for hours, screaming “Out, demons! Out!”

While Dave was in the Navy, I met a man and moved with him to a small town in Maine. He had inherited money, and had some vague plan to open an electronics repair shop under the tall pines. I tried not to think of Dave, and instead spent my time walking two miles into the center of town to buy beer, and watching sitcom reruns on our small black and white TV. Several years later, we were living on rice, lentils and corn from neighbors’ fields and there was still no electronics repair shop. I hitchhiked home to Boston, and found work as an ice cream maker in Cambridge. By then, Dave had left the Navy, and wrote to a friend, My consciousness has been undergoing quite a change. Visions and voices change their nature. I have made a choice to go on a regimen of an anti-psychotic drug called Stelazine.

I lost interest in the clubs, and avoided my punk rock friends, preferring to stay home nights and drink in my small, rent-controlled apartment. I didn’t see much of Dave, but he sometimes came to the ice cream shop so I could cash a check from his stepfather. I am ashamed of how embarrassed I felt when the bell above the door rang, and I saw him coming in. His hair was greasy, and he smelled of stale sweat and beer. He had gained over a hundred pounds from the combination of alcohol and his medication. His Ramones T-shirt stretched tightly across his belly. I didn’t want my co-workers to know he was my friend. He told me the punk rockers had started calling him Stella, a snide reference to his medication. We laughed about it, but I no longer find it funny.

By the time I turned twenty-four, I had been making ice cream for three years. I decided to go to college. I wanted to grow up. I was admitted to the University of Massachusetts, but alcohol, like a fire, had engulfed my life. One day, I opened my closet door and found the floor covered with empty bottles. I didn’t remember how they got there. I struggled through two years of school, but after failing all my classes one semester, I dropped out. I saw a social worker who referred me to a state-run detox.  After five days there I came home, cleaned my apartment, and began attending twelve step meetings.

Then I ran into Dave, again, one day. I was surprised how happy I was to see him ambling toward me along the shady street, the tinny sound of punk rock leaking from his headphones. He told me he was looking for a place to live, and I offered to let him come stay with me, provided he went to a meeting every day.  For three years we lived together in that apartment, with its peeling paint and windows overlooking a small, bare courtyard. We were not lovers during that time. We were both too raw, assailed by emotions long kept at bay by alcohol. We watched TV into the early mornings. When an ad for mail order hearing aids came on, we called the eight-hundred number, and shouted “What’s that? I can’t hear you!” at the salesperson who answered our call. We went to the convenience store and came home with bags of ice cream sandwiches and candy bars. I cooked us huge pots of rice and vegetables, drenched in soy sauce and margarine, which we ate sitting on the carpet in front of the TV. Dave wrote poems about me. Like the moon and stars, she is there and brings me peace.

In the absence of alcohol, the symptoms of his schizophrenia diminished. But I know now from reading his poems that his suffering did not cease. The voices in his head, though they had tortured him, had been companions.  Compared to the complex, swirling energies of psychosis, the multitude of thoughts traversing his mind like birds, his new life seemed dull and empty. He stayed in his room, listening to music and writing. I remember flight, and I go to the window. He took the subway across town once a week to see a therapist provided by the Veterans Administration. The therapist introduced him to Hinduism and Buddhism, hoping these serene philosophies would soothe him. He started meditating in the park around the corner. I have a picture of him sitting there on the thick grass, scattered with the frail white stars of blossoming clover. He is thin again, and his hair shines in the sun. The camera has caught him with his eyes and mouth shut, but it is clear he was smiling just before the shutter closed.

After Dave had been sober for six months, his doctor prescribed tranquilizers. He stopped going to meetings, instead staying home to watch movies on our old TV, pausing in frustration every few minutes to adjust the bent antenna.  I was busy with meetings and therapy, focused on my recovery. I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t notice his pain. One afternoon, he went to the liquor store and bought a six-pack of Budweiser in cans. He drank them in the laundry room of our building, crumpling the empties and tossing them in the trash alongside empty detergent boxes. He came home, and I smelled the beer on him. I’d had it drummed into me by my sober friends that I should never live with someone who was drinking. I was in my twenties, and thought in absolutes. I threw him out. A poem he wrote shortly after moving out of my apartment says, I had found you, my soul mate. And with the dawn you were gone.

Dave stayed with some friends a few blocks away for several months and then moved to Portland, Maine, to live with one of our friends who was active in the punk scene there, hoping to pull his life together. I have a number of his journal entries from this period. They show that he kept busy. He filled in for the bassist in his friend’s band. He begged money from his stepfather for an FCC license and got his own radio show, Out of the Garage, featuring  classic garage rock, one of the precursors to seventies punk.  He tried to control his drinking, but kept slipping up. Got fucked up on beer last night. Way, way too fucked up. He attempted repeatedly to contact me, but I didn’t return his calls or letters. Been trying to reach Susan for a month now.

I’m not sure why he left Portland. Maybe his drinking had escalated, and his friend no longer wanted him there. He returned to Massachusetts, drifting from rooming house to rooming house along Boston’s North Shore. He went off his medication. He was in trouble, and his parents knew it. They combined resources with his uncle to buy him the control tower and started sending him an allowance. His uncle sent him a computer. Once he moved in, we started talking on the phone. He called to tell me of his fears. He spoke of federal agents, of phone taps, of people hacking his files. A man was waiting for him in his lobby, he said. The man had seven aliases and a gun, and had been chasing him for years. I tried to reassure him. I teased him. He laughed.  A familiar warmth grew across the distance between us.

When I had been sober for eight years, my resolve worn bare by a severe depression, I returned to drinking.  Dave and I resumed our relationship, spending most of our days together in my apartment or the control tower, getting drunk, smoking, listening to music and talking. He made me dozens of CD’s, thoughtful compilations of our favorite music. He often spent an hour on the subway to come to my apartment to check on me or loan me money. Once, while hospitalized in an attempt to stop drinking, I called him and asked him to bring me clothes. He arrived during visiting hours with an armful of dirty punk rock T-shirts, not having the money to wash them. On my futon, we had drunken but tender sex. In conversations of which I remember only moments, we discussed marriage.

After seven years and a series of hospitalizations, I managed to stop drinking. I didn’t want to kick Dave out of my life again, so I asked him just not to call me if he was drunk. He called nearly every day, calling back minutes later if I hung up, leaving long series of drunken messages on my machine. He berated me for abandoning him, demanding to know if I had a new boyfriend. He emailed me long, incoherent sections of his journals. I lost patience. I sent him a series of angry emails. On the phone, I shouted at him to leave me alone.  Eventually, he stopped calling.

Two years later, I received a call from one of Dave’s friends; she had found my number among his papers. The gentle man I had loved for twenty-nine years was dead. He was fifty-one years old. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I remember riding past him in a car with some friends one afternoon about a year before his death. He walked hunched over, his eyes on the sidewalk. His long hair was stringy and streaked with grey. His headphones sat askew on his head. I could have asked my friends to stop the car, but I didn’t. He died of cirrhosis of the liver and small cell lung cancer, a deadly, fast moving disease associated with smoking. In one of his journal entries from 2007 he wrote, Ive been having episodes of coughing so intense that I cant even take an in-breath. He went for a checkup. It was too late.  He spent the last three weeks of his life in a hospital bed, his pain barely alleviated by strong narcotics. His mother sat beside him. Sometimes, I picture her there holding his hand. It still hurts that he didn’t call me.

His friend had keys to his place, and invited me to come and take something by which to remember him. When I arrived, his uncle and cousin were there. They were packing up his computer and cardboard boxes of his cassette tapes to bring to his parents’ garage. They filled a footlocker from his Navy days with the VHS tapes he had discovered would hold eight hours of audio. I sometimes wonder what’s happened to all those tapes. It would take years to listen to them all. One night when we were drinking in the control tower he had taken a swig of his beer and, teetering a little, gestured toward where they stood in precarious stacks against the walls. They were his life’s work, he’d said.

I took a stack of pocket-sized books. Rilke, Sappho, Lao Tsu. Meditations on Shiva, Springs of Indian Wisdom, The Pocket Zen Reader. The books were dog-eared, their covers faded. They were curved from having been pressed against his body in his back pocket. During his brief periods of sobriety, he had read them in cafés, sipping ginseng tea, his headphones blasting to drown out his voices. They felt warm to my touch. I also took a set of two Chinese Baoding balls. These are metal balls about an inch and a half in diameter. They contain small chimes, and are intended for stress relief or to aid in meditation. The ones from Dave’s apartment were coated with bright blue enamel, and decorated with a yin-yang symbol. When I lifted them they rang out, as if I had cupped my hands around a small church.

The journals and letters of Dave’s that I have are separated into folders according to the year in which they were written. One file appears in every folder. He had saved it from the Internet to his computer over and over again. It is a poem written by Duane Esposito, entitled “St John the Divine.” What, in our limpid and shipwrecked lives, its final lines ask, may we claim as vast as love?  When Dave moved out of my apartment, he wrote, Even if our paths must take different directions, they’ll cross from time to time. He was right. Our lives were braided. Dave has left my life for the last time. I hold the threads along which, again and again, we were lost to one another. And then found.

 For Dave Koehler