People live in strange places. This thought occurs to me as I stand in a friend’s bedroom looking over the remains of a life I hadn’t understood as well as I’d thought. The unmade bed, the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of books, the loaded .357 tucked under the pillow – these were all things I had expected to see. The rest, though, came as a surprise.
Just an hour ago I’d gotten a terrible, if expected, call. John was dead and his family was on the way. A friend wanted to know if I could go over and open a few windows, air out the smell of week-old death. ‘I can’t do it,’ he said, ‘but I’ll meet you there with a key.’
I drive in silence. Over the past month I’ve made this same drive a dozen times. I’d bring a few books; maybe some strange and terrible newspaper article I knew would tease out that savage smile. I’d knock on the door and, when John wouldn’t answer, leave the books on his porch. Later he’d sneak out, snatch what I’d left and disappear back inside. I like to think he read what I brought and it made things better but I can’t be sure. He was sick, sicker than we realized.
When I arrive I am given a key to the basement door. I walk around back past the overgrown bushes, the rusting car, the kudzu-covered canoe. I slip the key into the lock and, for the first time in my life, walk into my friend’s house.
I have been to strange places. One night I ran a stabbing at a crack motel, one of those ‘stay a night or stay forever’ tenements that literally breed weirdness. As we treated our patient a crowd gathered to watch, some laughing, others crying. A handful gazed upon us as indifferent and bored as a long line of customers at the post office. Into this bizarrely intimate moment – bathed in flashing emergency lights, populated by hookers, smelling of congealed blood, and framed by shadows teeming with coital moans and the amber glow of crack pipes – wandered an old man. He met my stare as he picked his way through and, without stopping, simply said ‘Strange place, brother. Strange place.’
My friend died in the basement. As soon as I walk in I see exactly where he fell. People never called upon to witness it assume the worst part of death is its smell. And, yes, the air down here is less than pleasant but it’s exactly what I expected. Truly arresting is what I see. A body left untended for even a few days leaves marks if not indelible, then at least unmistakable. The floor, not far from where I stand, is stained by the brown smudge of decomposition. It takes a second to process what I’m seeing and another to convince myself I can deal with it.
I try the basement light but it doesn’t work and I quickly realize why. My friend – the unrepentant gun-slinger who nearly shot himself twirling a .38, the snickering practical joker who once tricked Ted Turner, the voracious reader who rode the train to the airport just for the magazines, the staggering genius who abandoned his career at one of Atlanta’s most prestigious architectural firms to work in a hardware store – was living in the dark. There is no power. No gas. No running water. He survived on the skills of a lifelong Boy Scout and avid outdoorsman. But it’s winter and I’m freezing. In today’s world of wireless internet and multiple AC units, a house without power is not just off the grid, it’s barely a home.
Many times, always it seems in the dead of winter or smothering heat of summer, we’re called into abandoned houses reclaimed and parceled out by the homeless. They’re known as cat holes and you always know when you’re going to one because the call comes from a pay phone.
Sometimes, like John, the residents of these ghost towns aren’t homeless. Landlords who have decided to close down and raze an apartment complex will often vacate them one apartment at a time. This dooms the last tenant to a strange, post-apocalyptic world of boarded up windows and bashed-in doors. Finding a family living happily and quietly in the very back of an otherwise abandoned apartment complex, the contents of its gutted buildings littering the street, is spooky.
Sitting on the table are my friend’s cigarettes, his lighter, a pocket knife and the notebook in which he wrote the strange things he heard people say. His prized quote was ‘Sure be do is am.’ The place is a mess but that’s not surprising. Quick minds settle in cluttered spaces and, besides, the only truly clean place I’ve ever been is the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta.
But this house is a different kind of messy. Partially-eaten meals and old food clutter the countertops. The walls are covered with scraps of paper upon which John had scribbled half-conceived ideas and fully realized delusions. The voice that calls out from the notes is not that of my ever-scheming but tender-hearted friend. The voice is angry, scared, confused and fanatical. Paranoia, rage and insanity charge the air like a live wire. In the coming weeks I will learn that his genius was accompanied by an unbalanced mind and when the pneumonia sapped his strength he simply stopped taking his medicine. The mind is the fountainhead of all human progress and when insanity is allowed to take hold, the world it creates is beyond terrifying.
John lived in his parents’ house. He was the oldest of the brothers and when his parents died he moved back in. Almost nothing remains of the house of John’s childhood except the front room. Where the rest of the place is scarred by horrors even friends and pharmacology were powerless to prevent, the front room exists today as, I suspect, it did when John was a child.
This isn’t unusual. Twice I was called out to an alcoholic, teetering on the edge and about to fall off, who avoided his living room. While the rest of the house was nothing but blood-stained walls and empty liquor bottles, the living room was lavishly decorated. Family members smiled down at him from carefully hung group pictures and none of the furniture had been pawned. This room was the only place where his former life lived on.
John had done the same thing. Over time he had slipped, one rung at a time, so slowly it was almost imperceptible, but this room survived. Somewhere in a deep pocket of his troubled mind was the man he had been. And this room, untouched, unlived in but carefully preserved, was the physical presence of that man’s fading memory.
As I walk around opening windows, I am nearly brought to tears by all the things I didn’t know: the missed signs, the missed opportunities, the private misery of someone I called a friend for so long but who, in the end, would die alone. In his bedroom I open one last window, thumb through a few books and unload his pistol. For all its insanity, its cluttered mess, its powerless, waterless squalor, its carefully preserved past and its slowly decomposing present, this house is the physical presence of John’s troubled but brilliant mind.
And believe me, it is a strange place, brother. Strange place.