Richard, the dragon who lost his tail

The day after my best friend died on June 9, 2003, when my son was at his dad’s and I was alone, I twirled as fast as I could on the hardwood floor. The pain that had launched into every nerve was so intense, I was trying to spin it away from me.

As soon as I heard the words, “This is Cindy, Richard’s sister-in-law,” I knew he was gone. My son Jorel, four years old, stood in the doorway watching me drop to my knees. I remember the knowing look on his young face, his dark brown eyes behind blue-framed glasses, the sun behind him spotlighting his short blond hair into gold. We had heard the phone ringing when we got home, and I had rushed in to answer it.

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My favorite picture of Richard, at his friend’s wedding circa 2000.

 

Jorel remembers Richard as my generous friend who had taken us to see Spirited Away and then found a T-shirt for him at an Asian gift store in Seattle, with an embroidered “dragon without wings” flaming across the front. Jorel had become obsessed with dragons without wings.

Now, 14 years later, and just a little more than a year younger than Richard was when he died at age 53, I’ve moved back to Washington State and am going through boxes of old papers I had been storing in Denver for years—getting rid of decades-old utility bills, Atlantic and Harper’s magazines from the 90s. But what do I do with this?

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Piles of Richard’s writing on thin airmail paper. These pages are so upside down, right-side up, and out of order, they may have been the ones he was holding when he fell to the floor and died.

Most of the pages are out of order and unnumbered. Boxes of them. Sometimes he used napkins.

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Or paper towels, on both sides—probably while mopping bathrooms as a janitor at the University of Washington. The words would start flowing in his head. He had to capture them before they were gone:

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Some of the pages are essays and notes for his dissertation on William Blake. He attended the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley and continued working on his PhD in Comparative Religion from a distance in Seattle. A former United Methodist minister, he studied Chinese philosophers along with Eliot and Blake, trying to build a bridge between Western and Eastern thought. He moved to Seattle because I was there, and then I left about a year later when I was five months pregnant, to marry my son’s dad and live where he lived, in Denver.

Most of the pages are from our fantasy novel we were coauthoring (an altogether different book than the one I’m now coauthoring with my brother). Richard died after he had just finished giving the typed manuscript, along with his handwritten additions, a final proof and was leaving his usual generous tip at the Atlas Grill (I’ve been working on a poem about this for about a decade). The pages went flying into the air around him as he fell down from a pulmonary embolism. He had been at that restaurant (now a different restaurant) in the University of Washington District almost every day for years, continuing to work on our book while I was away. The staff would have a pitcher of iced tea waiting for him when he showed up in the late morning, after cleaning classrooms, halls, and professors’ offices until 1 am. He was the most well-read and scholarly-minded friend I’ve ever had. He should have been a professor himself. There is, by the way, a janitor in the fantasy novel I’m writing with my brother.

Richard and I corresponded via phone and mail after I moved to Denver. I would type up and revise what he wrote. He had never learned how to type.

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Every once in a while, as I go through the boxes I’ve neglected since he died, I find a relatively uncrinkled page. This one had a note at the bottom for me. We often disagreed, but our back-and-forth, intense, jovial arguing was what made the whole coauthoring project so much fun:

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Richard and I met at the University of Montana, in the MFA program. One of his stories—always fantastical—featured a dragon. Our professor leading the workshop introduced Richard’s story: “This is either really really good or really really bad. I tend to think it’s really really bad.” Richard still quoted him years after that with a mournful laugh. I hated that professor for his soulless arrogance.

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Richard at the Green Mill Lounge, Chicago, circa 1995.

In Seattle, Richard started calling himself Eeyore. His favorite phrase was, “The universe hates me.” We could never decide if he was humbly arrogant or arrogantly humble. Even with the dishevelment of the pages, much like the disorder of his personal hygiene, Richard’s handwriting was almost always impeccable. I called him my slovenly king. He had a noble air about him, despite his Kentucky accent. When I mixed up my words after my head injury in 1997, he said, “You really do have a brain sprain.” We were ruthless in our teasing. It felt necessary, I guess, so we could keep laughing at ourselves in the world instead of letting our lack of anything close to conventional success destroy our spirits.

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Me and Richard in Seattle, circa 1995. (Pardon the cropping. The fellow in the middle was a friend of a friend. I no longer know him.)

Richard grew even neater in his writing over time. He started carefully marking out his deletions in perfect, black rectangles.

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We first met at the orientation party at the MFA program director’s house. Richard was wearing his rainbow sweater of squares. The first tale he told me was true and effusive. He had been walking while reading about the legendary Chinese butterfly, when a small white butterfly appeared before him, flitting his way forward, urging him to apply at Montana. I had never met such a strange human being. He was earnest in his 80s sweater, the palms of his hands pressing together and waving gently before him, as if he had finally landed where he was supposed to be.

By that first winter in Missoula, his big toe stuck out of the hole in his sock and the hole in his brown shoe, his toenail catching snow like a tongue (I’ve also been working on a poem about that for about a decade). He had worn white pants and fancy hats in Beverly Hills when he was married to a woman from Vietnam. They had expensive, original paintings hanging on their apartment walls. She had left him because he “drank too much iced tea.”

His wife’s sister had bribed her away from her white husband (the family disapproved), promising a loan to start her own cosmetic shop. He went through bankruptcy that first year in Montana. He had taught high school history in California and was now a janitor at the university. He would be a janitor at universities until he died. But even with his sad, humorous tone in telling the story of his divorce—he was clearly still in love with his ex-wife—he maintained a state of ecstasy, always, those first few years I knew him, oblivious to his poverty, to the possibility of a frostbitten toe. “We need to get you some new shoes,” our friend Tim insisted. I haven’t been able to find Tim since Richard died. Let me know if you see him. Last name Kelly. There are way too many Tim Kellys in Chicago. Timothy J. Kelly (not the lawyer). He was/is a better writer than either of us. He’s Irish-American, grew up in Chicago, street-wise, taught high school English there the last time I saw him, and is a master reciter of poetry. He had me memorize Dylan Thomas’s “Altarwise by Owl-Light”—all ten stanzas—after my auto accident, as a way of retraining my brain. It worked. Not long after that I could read again without getting sick.

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Me, friend Katri, Richard, and Tim in Chicago, circa 1995.

Richard & Tim in Chicago

Richard appeared in at least a couple of my dreams after he died. The first one was a bit disturbing. It was all in black-and-white, and his skin was gray. He walked up to me and kissed me on the cheek, like he would every time he gave me a book. He gave me a whole bookshelf-full of books. One time, as we crossed the street in Missoula toward campus, he opened a book of Rilke to show me a poem he had just discovered, “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.” I hadn’t read the poet before, and we were both so in awe of the poem as he read it out loud—we followed the words on the page like little kids, oblivious to the occasional car that could have run us over.

In the dream, where everything was gray, I noticed his familiar body odor was gone, but he had the same glimmer of ecstasy in his expression. He had been in love with me our whole friendship, after he got over his ex-wife, anyway, even asking me for just eight years (I never understood why eight years) of romantic togetherness. I refused, and it almost ruined our relationship. But we bounced right back into jovial friendship. He died ten years later.

When I was leaving Missoula once to visit family in Seattle, he said goodbye to me in the airport parking lot. “You’re so beautiful,” he said, smoothing the top of my head as if my hair was silk spun from the sun. That’s another little poem I worked on for years and never published. I still plan to gather my poems about him into a collection. Maybe a chapbook.

In my final dream about him, he was wearing his rainbow sweater of squares. He was walking in a line behind other ghosts, high up in the blue sky, on the other side of a long row of windows toward an open door, where they would all disappear into the light, one by one. I could only see the side of his face, far away and small, as he walked. He was finally ready to face the universe.

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