Bye Bye Cowboy


Sam is dead and gone.  I find this out as I browse the Los Angeles Times obituaries.  I routinely read the obituary section of many online newspapers.  Sometimes I just browse and sometimes I search for specific names.  Because I have lived in Vancouver, Cuba, Spain, France, Japan, and the US, this searching for names can become quite onerous.  Anyways, people don’t stick in one place like they used to.   

Searching obituaries is an existential tick.  It’s a Tourette’s of the heart. Humans don’t do well with uncertainty, a fact that compels me to assemble a definitive list of both the living and the dead.  A macabre roll call of sorts.  I have no interest in holding an internal purgatory for all the people from my past.  I want to know where they are.  On the other hand, reading obituaries is about more than existential angst.  I search out certain intense emotional experiences, hoping to cut through the bluntness imposed by anti-depressants and other psychopharmaceuticals.  My organs are bathed in 60mg of Cymbalta and 100mg of Straterra on a daily basis, and I’m searching for something to drive an ice pick through the hardened shell they create around my feelings.  I don’t want to shatter this shell, just poke enough holes for the light to get in.  For the breath to get out.  

I cannot make this next point emphatically enough.  Anti-depressants and other psychopharmaceutical drugs can be necessary, and even life saving.   I don’t think I would have survived, much less thrived, had I resisted help in this form.  The unfortunate part of these medications is that they can flatten you out. When I was a little girl, my dad used to lay all his clothes out underneath his mattress every night, in order to press them for the next day.  I remember thinking that it was almost like he was sleeping with a second person laying beneath him.  Being on antidepressants feels a little like being this second person.  The flatness, the heaviness.  I think the urge to feel deeply again is inevitable.  To pull that flat man from out underneath the mattress and and shake him back to life, like one of those instant pop up tents.  The second you pull it out of the box it explodes to life like a jack in the box.  It’s unsettling and thrilling at the same time.  

The obituary in the Los Angeles Times tells me that Sam is dead and gone and that he died at the age of 77.  This age surprises me and doesn’t square with the way I remember Sam.  I remember Sam as old and weak, and yet when I do the math, I realize he must have been only 70 when I knew him.   Is it possible Sam was so young?     

Picture May in Tucson, Arizona.  It is 32 degrees celsius and I am walking down the sprawling main mall that snakes its way through the University of Arizona’s campus.  A perfectly manicured landing strip lined with towering palm trees and terracotta colour brick buildings that reflect pink light at sunset.  In the middle of the day, on a hot day, the heat makes your eyelids burn and it feels like you are holding a blow dryer to your face at point blank range.  Except the air is stagnant and still.

When I first see Sam, he is sitting alone on a bench.  I don’t remember noticing much about him, except to notice he is there.  I mosey into the apartment block where I am meeting with my supervisor and come out two hours later to see Sam still sitting on the bench.  He isn’t sitting with his head tilted back drinking in the sun-that’s not the way people really take in the sun in Tucson, except between the months of December-March-  and something about his posture or the expression on his face communicates distress.  Perhaps it is his cane that disarms me. I approach him and ask if everything is okay.  He says no. He missed his bus home and it was the last one and he doesn’t know how to get home and he can’t reach his person and doesn’t have any more change to use the phone.  I sit with him on the bench and place a phone call to ‘his person’ on my cell phone.  I chat with her and tell her I can take Sam home.  It doesn’t occur to me, or else it’s just that the thought doesn’t overwhelm me, that this could be a dangerous person.  To me, he is a grandpa, dehydrated, tired, lost, moderately immobile.  Later on that night my roommate admonished me.  She said Jacccccccqueline, Ted Bundy had a cane!  That was his whole schtick! She said, you really need to be more careful.

I drove Sam home.  Sam was tall and his legs were very long.  He looked like a giant grasshopper folded up in the passenger seat of my two-door Honda civic.  He lived quite literally on the side of a highway, in a complex called the ‘Bella Apartments’, although nothing about these apartments was particularly bella.  It looked like a motel in the interior of Canada, the kind of place you stayed on your way into or out of a place when people got too tired, kids got too fussy, people got too hungry.   Mysterious stains on carpets and shower curtains half yellow half white, like bacterial ombre.   It was the kind of motel where the ice machine was empty and the only food to be had was from a vending machine with corn chips and a dent in its side.  On your way to somewhere, those corn chips and that can of coke tasted like god damn heaven, but it was no place to live a life.  

Sam opened the door to his apartment.  The air was thick with the smell of smoke, and a sludge hung in the air.    The hand that held open the door had blackened fingers and nails the colour of film developer. They made me think of words like lung cancer, metastatic, mass, carcinoma.  adenocarcinoma, large cell, small cell, non-small cells, squamous cell. The nails and the apartment both augured something dirty and infected and dark.  I wonder now how Sam did die.  Did he die of lung cancer after all?  Sam had had a stroke several months before meeting me, this accounted for the cane, but the stroke had clearly not acted as an impetus to him quitting smoking.  When I think of Sam, I always think of the color grey, like the tips of his fingers, like the carpet, like the swill of air that filled my lungs as I stepped in his front door.  I left Sam that day saying that he could feel free to call me anytime, maybe even just to have dinner if he got lonesome. 

I don’t know why I said this.  It wouldn’t be the first time I had invited a similar relationship.  Three years after meeting Sam l met another elderly man, probably about the same age Sam was then, who had collapsed near the shopping mall, his body slumped to the ground, his right fingers pitifully gripping a chain link fence. I held his hand until the ambulance came and asked him to call me later to let me know he was okay.  When he called me, I said he could call me anytime he needed something, or maybe just if he wanted to talk.  He called the next day-I know because I traced the call-and I didn’t pick up.  And I didn’t call back.  I guess you could say I learned my lesson after Sam.  I learned to question this knee-jerk response of mine, although I have not yet entirely figured it out.  

Sure, I like telling people about my good deeds and basking in the glow of their admiration–Jacqueline, you are soooo kind.  There aren’t many people like you out there.  You are suuuuuch a good person. Sure, I also like telling people these stories and seeing the look on their face- Jac, you are so quirky.  You are sooooo interesting.  Who does that? But basking in altruistic glory and narcissistic self-reflection doesn’t fully explain this behaviour.  It doesn’t explain feeling so compelled to connect with these people, even while the drive to ignore them was also so strong.

Sam did call.  He called often.  He called every day.  We went out to dinner, we went to see movies.  I learned that Sam had been a football star, a Marlboro man, an innovator in the field of technology, an author, a millionaire.  The full story with all the details is even more unbelievable, but I’ve researched it extensively-then and now-and it is all true from what I can glean. But even at the time, I was aware of the fact that I did not know everything.  You don’t go from tech-innovator/millionaire to a highway hovel in Tucson, Arizona without something big happening.  Sam told me “he got involved with the wrong people” in Los Angeles, but wouldn’t say anything more about his proverbial fall from grace. He fell from grace in Los Angeles and moved to another state.  Sam said things were going well in this new place, until “something happened”.  Another fall from grace. But even involvement with the wrong people, does not explain his lack of social network, the fact that he did not have contact with his family, that did not have friends to speak of.  

The first time Sam and I met for dinner, we ate pie at a restaurant on 4th Avenue.  Sam had a fringe of hair that clung to his balding skull, like a Fransiscan monk.  When I picked him up for dinner that night, the mousy grey fringe I remembered from our first meeting had turned black and there were streams of hair dye running down the back of his neck, like black tears.  These streams of black broke my heart worse than anything else about Sam.  I immediately pictured him standing in front of a tiny mirror, hopeful and excited, trying to apply the hair dye evenly, unable to reach all the spots, unable to tell he hadn’t reached the spots.  Ugh, humans are devastating, I thought to myself.  The hair dye was more of the dirty grey smog evil carcinoma stuff.  Like the inside of Sam’s body was harbouring a diseased knot, like some kind of throbbing teratoma that oozed black liquid and emitted smoke and grey. 

Sometimes Sam brought pictures with him.  These pictures never included images of family or friends, but rather pictures of strip clubs in Thailand, McMansions in California he once owned, a prostitute named Rainbow who he said was the love of his life.  My impression was that there was a lot of grief in Sam over the life he once had.  Maybe also over the life he never had.   His younger life was the life of  a vibrant man, an ingenious man, a man who made things happen, a man who was good looking like Sean Connery, who was tall, rich, in control of his life.  Now eating apple pie with me once a week was as good as it got.  

Sam had lived an interesting life and I appreciated that.  He wasn’t quite like other ‘grandparents’ I had met.  He was unafraid to swear or tell his stories.  Even though I didn’t know all his stories, there was a sense that he had lived a life.  There were hints of a dangerous life.  And he had a gun.  In Tucson, this really isn’t that remarkable.  But to a little old Canadian who had only seen a handgun once in her life, this was something.  He asked me if I wanted to see it.  I didn’t.  He didn’t offer to show me in order to threaten me.  In fact, I was the one who asked him if he had a gun.  What would possess someone to ask this?  In part, I’m somewhat infamous for my bold questions–this question isn’t at all outside of my scope of practice–and yet, I have to imagine that even my bold questions come from somewhere and contain some meaning.  I asked about the gun over apple pie.  Was I scared?  Was I thinking about the ride home alone in the dark along the highway?  My roomate’s Ted Bundy comment?  Was I imagining he might spring to life, throwing his cane out the window of the car in dramatic fashion, binding me with zap straps and tossing me into the trunk in the desert heat?

For those of you who haven’t lived in the desert, I’ll tell you-for all its’ beauty, the desert makes a haunting bedfellow.  It feels like bad things can happen easily, or a lot, in the desert.  It’s easy to imagine bodies buried underfoot.  The desert is beautiful, but there is something vaguely ominous about it too. And then there is the downright savage.  On days when the heat rises in Tucson to over 40 degrees, going out in your car without water could mean a death sentence.  In other words, if your car were to break down, you might die.  Even if you weren’t that far from the city, you could still die.  In Arizona it is illegal for a business or a person to refuse another person water, and I know of no other such place with the same law.  But it is necessary.  Not providing water could be deadlier than a gun here.   Every day hundreds of illegal immigrants drag their families through the Sonoran desert between Nogales and Tucson, their blood bubbling like hot tar, in search of a better, safer, more promising life.  In Tucson when we gathered in groups, we didn’t pray for world peace, or an end to world hunger, we thought of all the people travelling through the desert at the moment, and prayed they would get out alive.     This knowledge of the desert is something you carry with you when you live in Tucson.  Its lethality a thin gauze of caution pulled over your skin. 

In Tucson, I liked to take long drives.  One night I drove into the Santa Catalina mountains, alone and listening to an old John Mayer CD, cell phone battery low, gas tank low.  It was October and by October in Tucson the temperature dips to a comfortable 15 degrees celsius at night.  Heat and dehydration were no longer threats at this time of year.  And yet, when I finally realized I was lost, I felt that the fear of not having water, or frying from the inside out, of long stretches of lonely highway, of families scorching to death and drinking out of cacti to survive and find a better life, was still with me.  Like a phantom limb.  I drove around in circles, the landscape turning darker, the shadows growing deeper and longer-the world looking like a half dismantled stage set once everyone has gone home. My phone was dead. My gas tank was empty. I was terrified, perhaps more terrified than I have ever been in my life and when a police car, haphazardly cruising through the mountains or perhaps searching for a scary convict escaped from a nearby maximum security prison and hiding behind a giant jagged rock in close proximity to my car, my heart was beating so hard I had trouble talking.  It was the first car I had seen in over an hour. 

Sam did not scare me like the desert, but I had a niggling discomfort, like the feeling most women get when they have to walk back to their car in an empty parking garage.  Unfounded in the moment, but perhaps not entirely unfounded in the bigger scheme of things.  I don’t know if my intermittent worries and dis-ease around Sam were related to having lived as a woman in the world for 35 years, to my neurosis, or to something inherently unsafe about him.  I’m inclined towards the first two possibilities, but certainly there were many things about Sam that I did not understand.  

I have a subscription to  I looked up Sam’s name, and from his obituary I gleaned his parent’s and sibling’s names.  I learned that he was the youngest of four brothers, that his father was an electrician with a grade nine education. that his mother was Canadian and had the same last name as my grandmother.  Wilson.  Not exactly uncommon, but still. I found the exact addresses of his various homes in his fall from grace states.  I google street-viewed these places and found that they existed like breadcumbs, tracing Sam’s early life, his success in the nineties, and his various falls from grace, until eventually there is not even a record of his residence in Tucson.  Bella Apartments is conspicuously absent.  I wondered back then, and wonder now, what exactly it was that Sam was running from.  Maybe he got in trouble with the mob.  Maybe he was a child sex offender whose name was public record in another state whose family had disowned him.  Maybe there was a hit out on him.  Maybe it was nothing criminal at all.  Maybe he just want a fresh start. Maybe its’ something much more mundane, like needing to move to a state with low housing prices. 

About 6 months into our relationship, Sam told me he was in love with me, that he loved my smell.  Those two things always seem to go together in my experience.  He said he felt guilty about this and he thought I should know the truth.  I was touched by the vulnerability of his disclosure, and also by the real care he had shown in telling me.  He didn’t want to be operating under false pretences.  When you care for someone, you don’t keep your real motives a secret.  I’m not sure, maybe he thought there was a chance.  

When I met his disclosure with expressions of regret at being unable to reciprocate his feelings,  he told me he wouldn’t mind just a mercy fuck.  He said I didn’t need to be worried, it would be like playing pool with a limp noodle.  I was shocked by both the request and the language.  I guess I was very naive.  Or maybe looking up at 70 from 27, the gulf seemed so impossibility large from my perspective, I had trouble imagining it would even cross his mind.  At the same time, I didn’t want to shame him.  I lived with frat boys and sometimes they got drunk and tried to sleep with me.  Why not a 70 year old man?  What about a 70-year-old man who was lonely and alone and recovering from a major medical trauma?  Doesn’t that make even more sense?  I didn’t shame Sam, but I did tell him that under the circumstances, and because I had a boyfriend, it probably wouldn’t make sense to continue our friendship.  In other words, I just didn’t want to.  A little part of me felt the aforementioned dis-ease, but mostly I just didn’t have the energy to deal with the nuances of human relationships.  Even though I believed it was totally normal and unavoidable that one human should become attracted to one another, even when they are married, even when they are old, even when they are partnered with a best friend or a sister or a brother, I just didn’t have the energy.  Maybe a mercy fuck wasn’t such a horrible thing–there are other worse kinds of fucks (revenge fucks, hate fucks, rebound fucks etc).  In that light, mercy fucking seems benign, almost altruistic.  But I certainly wasn’t going to be the one to give it to him, and I had been disabused of some of the naivety that had allowed me to be there for Sam as a friend.  We didn’t talk much after that.  It seems Sam reconnected with Rainbow at the end of his life.  I know this because he forwarded me an email she had written him.  She was on Sam’s side.  She said I had totally been leading him on.  I understood in his forwarding of this e-mail how hurt he was.  I never replied.

But I hope Rainbow stayed on his side.  I hope that however Sam died, it wasn’t alone, which is so much the way I knew him.  I hope he died with some peace from whatever ghosts he was running from.  I hope this generally for most people and I hope this specifically for Sam because I knew him, albeit with many holes and omissions.  I also hope this for Sam, because I want it for myself.   I’m pretty sure some parts of me and some parts of Sam are cut from the same cloth.  I’m pretty sure at Sam’s funeral, if Rainbow was there, she probably said Sam “was quite a character”.  And I’m pretty sure that when I die, someone at my funeral is going to say the same about me.  


***Please note, I have changed and omitted names of people and places in order to protect anyone who might be connected to Sam.  Being a public figure, Sam is easily searchable on the Internet.  By changing details, I hope to protect his friends and family-not so much from the things I know, but rather from the things I don’t know, the things I misremember, and the conclusions I reach that might turn out to be misguided.