Down to the River
“Think of where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was, I had such friends.” - W.B. Yeats
Just wanted to let you know, Chuck, nobody wore a tie today. Not that you would have expected that of either Chris Greta or me. I think the last time either one of us had one of those things around our necks was at our daughter’s weddings. We’d have worn one for you, though, if we’d thought it appropriate. But we figured a departure ceremony for you in the desert made more sense.
And you should have seen the desert, buddy. Everything was abloom. There is nothing quite as starkly beautiful as an ocotillo turning out its red flowers come spring. There were colors and plants I’d never seen, and I’ve been a desert rat for a long damn time. I learned of at least one new species that I think is called the Evening Primrose. They were scattered randomly all across the campground. I swear the desert in Big Bend was giving you a full palette of a good-bye party. Every type of cactus was busy setting flowers out to the sun.
Anyway, we took the long ride down to the big river and set you loose on the Rio Grande. It’s a sort of symbolic going home, too, since you grew up as a young man in Brownsville. The river will take you back there and then out to sea. Your friends like thinking of you as a part of something meaningful and grand. That’s why Greta and I decided the best place to scatter your ashes was at the mouth of Santa Elena Canyon where the Rio Grande spreads out after carving those 1500 foot rock walls.
We brought you down here on our motorcycles along Ross Maxwell Drive, which is one of the most beautiful stretches of twisting pavement ever engineered by human technology and labor. The 30-mile long route traces the western edge of the Chisos Mountains and rises up to one of the most breathtaking views in any national park at Sotol Vista. In all our conversations, I guess we never got around to talking about this place so I don’t know if you ever made it out here. Seems like you would have, given your endless curiosity. Greta and I brought along our friend Danny from Marathon, and we stopped to take in epic horizons at Sotol Vista before going down to the river and toasting you with a few Lone Stars, and scattering your ashes to the border waters.
I got to thinking about the time I met you, which, admittedly, was under duress. Greta kept bothering me about talking to some guy who wanted to be writer and had written an interesting novel. That describes a lot of people now that the Internet has made everyone with a keyboard into a writer. I didn’t want to meet because I thought I’d have to disappoint someone by telling them I didn’t have time to help, and I didn’t. But I caved into Greta’s endless pleadings and then you walked into that sports bar with a foot-tall cardboard box that you said was the manuscript of your first book and I cringed as much as I smiled. You were clearly a determined sort.
“Can you help me?” you asked. “I really want to be a writer.”
“What were you before?”
“A sales guy, executive, and an entrepreneur, had a few of my own businesses. But I want to create art now in this part of my life.”
“This is a lot of words, Chuck. And chances are, like most beginners, it’s likely a mess.”
“Just tell me what I need to do, and I’ll do it. I don’t quit.”
And you never did. The writing was, unsurprisingly, pretty bad. But the story was well-plotted and quite clever for a first-timer. Took me forever to get through that manuscript. I don’t even remember the number of pages. Felt like Tolstoy’s first draft of “War and Peace” with a boat anchor as a paperweight. But we polished the narrative, and rewrote the entire manuscript and co-authored a novel that gave us both pride. I still think “The Rembrandt Bomb” is a movie waiting to be made. Plus, you created two characters that would serve what eventually became a kind of franchise for you.
I had to give you the hard truth that you might be more of a storyteller than a writer, and you were fine with that and said you’d keep getting better, and that’s exactly what happened. You just kept writing, science fiction, fantasies, mysteries, thrillers, histories, and anything that came to those bristling convolutions of your brain. I think I counted thirteen books, which includes “A Folded Memory,” your collection of poems, short stories, and cartoon drawings, because, apparently, just writing novels wasn’t enough.
You became as fine a writer as you were a storyteller, buddy. Every book was better than the previous, and you just kept cranking them out, telling everyone art is what kept you living all those years. And before you made your departure, you were working on two novels, one a massive historical narrative on the founding of the U.S., and both unfinished. As you requested, your bride Janet has given me your computer because she said you wanted me to finish the manuscripts. I’ll read what you have and see if I can execute and honor your vision. Not sure I’m quite the writer you became, though.
And then there is your other art, the paintings and sculptures. What the hell, Chuck? You said you had no formal training but you look at a piece of stone, go buy the tools needed to carve it, and out of that block of granite or quartz comes a being, a face, a god. Who can do that? Or just pick up a pencil and draw, or a brush, and cast colors onto a canvas with the detail and the beauty that your work evokes. When I walked into your studio behind your place in Bastrop I was floored by all your achievements and their collective beauty. And all this came to you so late in life, after you’d had a full career in business. I wonder what the world missed by you waiting so long to find your muse.
I suspect you were that rare person that everyone liked. Those are not in great commodity out in the wild. A part of my sadness at your passing was that I had gotten to know you so late in your life. We always had conversations that set my mind to racing, maybe not as fast as yours, but you always got me contemplative of things I’d never bothered to ponder. Your perspective was continually enlightening.
I think my only disappointment with you is that you didn’t try to land an agent or a New York publisher and were content to let people find your books self-published on Amazon. I think you deserve a big audience, and I am convinced an agent would have picked you up because you had a marketable body of work that would make some house a bunch of money. But you were more interested in the writing, which is why you became so accomplished at the skill.
When your family, friends, and neighbors gathered to celebrate your memory in front of your studio, the stories and descriptions were the kind that every soul would want to have said of them in their absence. If the measure of a man’s life is the kindnesses and thoughtfulness of others that he rendered, then your departure must have come with very few regrets. Whatever your character flaws, and I’m sure you had a few like all of us, you must have managed them well because you left the people who loved you with a pretty warm glow, my friend.
They say time is the fire that burns us all, but you even outran that for a while and got deep into your eighth decade. Maybe art did keep you alive. But I know you are missed. Of course, whatever comes next after this life is unknowable to us still living, but I sure hope there is some way Greta and you and I will get another chance to sit on that patio by the Colorado and have a cold beer and laugh like we did the last time we hung out. Anyway, I’m planning on seeing you again.
And I know you’ll have some damn fine stories to tell.