Sunday, April 29, 2007

Thicker Than Blood

from Fumbling Toward Divinity, the book

192 WAS TRANQUIL. Full of spirits and magic and peace. Built in 1811, the two-story, post-and-beam cape with three bedrooms was one of the first farmhouses in Winthrop, a small town in a watery region of central Maine. Annabessacook Farm was named for the lake on which a piece of its forty acres bordered. According to local legend, Lake Annabessacook was named after a sea captain’s mistress called Anna, who was the best cook around.

Even before Job and Craig stepped foot in 192, they knew it was theirs. When they pulled up to the farm, they were drawn like mallards to the pond behind the house. “We’re actually gonna start outside,” Craig told Sharon, the real estate agent with the voice of a kindergarten teacher.

“Go right ahead, I’ll wait for you inside.”

They went right ahead and sat down next to the pond on a bench made out of a carved tree trunk. From there, they surveyed the place and took in its splendor. On the left, tall cattails and pond reeds sprang up out of the water. White birches, crab apple trees, and flowering perennials lined its banks all around. To the right, a giant weeping willow stretched up, up and out, its branches bent down to the ground. Straight across, reflected in the pond, was the big red barn with the big white door. Job got up and ran beyond the pond, past the barn, into the small grove of apple trees, and back. “Let’s make an offer,” said Craig.

“But we haven’t even seen the inside.”

“Doesn’t matter. Whatever we don’t like inside, we can change. But this out here—I’ve never felt anything like it. Look at you—you can’t even stop smiling. On your way back over here, I thought you were gonna start turning cartwheels.”

They walked through the farmer’s porch on the side of the house where Sharon had entered and finally went inside.

The expansive country kitchen with open, mustard-colored cupboards featured a huge antique wood-burning cook stove. “This is definitely it,” said Craig, eyeing the stove with wonder. On the front of it, he ran his fingers over the embossed lettering that spelled OUR MAINE. The kitchen opened to the first of two front parlors, which had a square-paneled drop ceiling and a fireplace with a wooden mantle and

brick hearth. The second parlor, with its original wood paneling and three exposed tree-trunk beams stretching west to east above them, was just through a small foyer, the original front entrance to the house. A huge brick mantle, remarkably masoned, with a beehive oven, an alcove for storing wood, and a cast-iron woodstove inserted in its triangular hollow intensified the rustic feel of the room. A single solid slab of granite formed the hearth. “This is gonna be the mask room,” said Job.

Original pine boards at least a foot wide—the widest looked about two feet—covered both parlors’ floors. The rustic parlor opened into a small birthing room, which had become an office. This room, which was also where—back in the day—the sick convalesced and bodies lay down to die, was wide awake. Craig could feel their energy, could hear their voices. “This house is haunted,” he said to Job.

“You think?”

“Can’t you feel it?”


“When we get here, you’ll see. It’s all good, though. It’s all good. You’ll see.”

Right then the floor started to tremble. But the spirits weren’t welcoming them into the house—yet. Across the meadow on the other side of the road, a long freight train was moving slowly down the track shaking 192 as it went by.

They walked back through the first parlor and the kitchen and through a French door on the northwest corner. The owners had turned the country porch—with its eight, six-over-six windows overlooking the riding ring—into a dining area for bed-and-breakfast guests.

Opposite the porch’s French door, on the other side of the kitchen was a narrow staircase with thin but steep stairs. Upstairs, two of the three guest rooms had dormers wide enough to accommodate queen-sized beds. All of the rooms showcased painted pine floors and loud wallpaper. “This will have to go,” said Job looking at the bold stripes and the horns of plenty stenciled around all the walls near the ceiling. Craig smiled when he saw the antique claw foot tub in the guest bathroom. It was painted gold. Sharon took them back downstairs, back through the kitchen, past the main side entrance, and into the back of the house where the owners lived. “This part was added in nineteen ninety-four,” she said as she walked them through the living room. “This used to be the carriage house, but the current owners tore it off and built this.”

“How big would you say the foundation is over here?” asked Job.

“Thirty by thirty. There’s a lot of space.”

On one side, the living room opened onto a short hallway that led to the bathroom with a shower and laundry; on the opposite, a master bedroom and recreation room. The master bedroom had a long bathroom with a huge green-and-white tiled shower, but no closet. The closet was behind the built-in entertainment center across the living room next to the bathroom hallway. The recreation room, which had a mural of the countryside painted on all four walls above dark-blue, waist-high wainscoting, opened onto a three-season porch that overlooked the pond. Craig thought the Crayola-colored landscape was so wrong for the room—for any room, mind you—that it was hard for him to keep his mouth shut. Somehow, he managed.

They climbed a staircase with two turns that led upstairs where three spacious bedrooms and another bathroom were situated. “All these walls are coming down,” said

Craig. He looked out one of the small windows on the back wall of one of the two rooms that overlooked the pond. “Job, c’mere. Quick.” Job came. A large crane, which had just soared from beyond the trees behind the tree-trunk bench and circled round the pond, was wading in the water, bending for the tiny catfish that lived there. “After we tear down the walls, this is where we’re gonna live,” said Craig. “We’ll put in huge picture windows and get a much better view of the pond. I bet that crane comes here everyday.”

Forest-green carpeting covered the staircase and floors throughout the entire addition, except the bathrooms. “This might be the ugliest carpet I’ve ever seen,” Job whispered so the realtor couldn’t hear him.

“Sharon, do you know what’s under this carpet?” asked Craig.

“Just plywood, I think.”

“Besides being ugly, I have too many allergies to have carpeting,” Craig whispered. “How about we rip this up and lay more wide pine floors?”

“Sounds good to me,” said Job.

“It’s gonna take a lot of work to get this the way we want it, but nothing in here has made me change my mind.”

“So,” said Sharon, walking toward the stairwell, “are you ready to see your lake?”

On their way, they walked through the big white door of their big red barn big enough for seven horses or other livestock.

They walked down Henry Lane, their private road, past the two lakefront cottages and the two year-round houses, which had been built on single-acre plots siphoned from the farm twenty years earlier, to their wooded lot on the lake. They hiked along the trail through the trees. “Over there,” said Sharon, pointing to part of the area bordering the brook that flowed into the lake, “wild raspberries and blueberries grow in season.” A small sandy beach slid into the lake, which looked more like a wide river that stretched north to south out of view. A tire was attached to the end of a thick, knotted rope hanging from a tree that had grown out over the lake about twenty feet. Someone had nailed slats of wood up the trunk of the tree every foot or so for easy access to the rope. Craig visualized himself swinging on the tire and flying into the lake. South, down the lake to their right, too far for either one of them to swim to, a tree-covered island reached up out of the lake. As they took it all in, neither of them spoke.

When they got back to the house, Job and Craig made their offer. The next day, the deal was done.

Four weeks later, on October 11, 2002, Craig and Job moved from Boston to heaven. Since 1811, 192 had changed hands three times.

ON MARCH 11, 2003, Craig was grilling farm-raised lamb chops on the Viking in their newly renovated kitchen when his cell phone rang. “Craig, this is Craig Bailey.”

“Oh, my word. To what do I owe this surprise?” Craig Bailey was a friend from Boston and Craig’s primary photographer throughout his performing career. Craig hadn’t seen or talked to him since he collected the pictures that Craig Bailey had taken of him, Jennifer, and Quincy during their visit for Job’s graduation last May.

“Are you sitting down?”

“No, child. I’m up in my dream-come-true kitchen cooking up a storm. You know we moved to Maine.”

“You need to sit down?”

“Craig, what is it?”

“Are you sitting down?”

“Just tell me, for heaven’s sake. What’s going on?”

“It’s Thomas.”

Back in 1991, on his twenty-fourth birthday, Craig went to the Boston Center for the Arts to see the Pomo Afro Homos (Postmodern African-American Homosexuals) perform their acclaimed show FIERCE LOVE. The next day, Brian Freeman, one of the performance trio, conducted a writing and performance workshop. There, Craig met Jeffrey Armstead and Thomas Grimes and the three of them became Brothers du Jour. They considered themselves a biblical trinity. Thomas, the father; Jeff, the son; Craig, the holy ghost.

Brothers du Jour wrote the choredrama Through the Fire and burned up Boston, Cambridge, New York, Louisville, and a Kentucky state correc-tional facility. In 1993, Thomas urged Craig to do his own thing. “If you take the two monologues you wrote for Through the Fire,” Thomas opined, “and add a few other pieces, you’ve definitely got yourself a one-man show. As much as the critics praised your pieces in our show, it makes sense for you to expand them into a solo show. Brother, I wouldn’t tell you this if it wasn’t meant to be. None of these performance artists out there right now are baring body and soul the way you are, Craig. You’ve got something really special going on.”

“But what about Through the Fire? I didn’t think we were done with that already. Or do you know something I don’t?”

On February 24, 1994, Craig’s show skin & ornaments debuted at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston to a standing ovation. The critics’ raves followed.

On March 16, Jeff died. Alienated from his father, and his mother already gone, Jeff had Thomas and Craig, along with Robin and Lois, two of Jeff’s spiritual sisters, to care for him during his last days. To be at his side round the clock, Thomas and Craig had to tell the hospital staff they were Jeff’s brothers. Not a lie, for as Thomas often said, “Spirit is thicker than blood.” During Jeff’s last week, he allowed only his spiritual family to wash him, to administer his medication, to change his IV. After he spit out his last breath and smiled, Thomas and Craig rolled their brother into the morgue. They memorialized Jeff through poetry at his funeral and a few weeks later at a memorial service.

Over the next three years, together, Thomas and Craig, along with their friend Philip, would memorialize too many friends and mentors at World AIDS Day observances and community events around Boston. Thomas and Craig would talk often about co-writing another theater piece as Brothers du Jour, but without Jeff, they couldn’t bring themselves to walk that talk. Instead, Craig would publish two of Thomas’ books of poetry.

Their brotherhood was characterized by quality, not quantity. Thomas and Craig might not talk or see each other for months, but when they spoke, their three-, four-, and five-hour conversations—full of testifying and signifying and upright divining—were downright cathartic. As Lois would testify less than a week later, Craig also felt that Thomas could give him back the pieces of himself he’d forgotten.

In 1998, Thomas stood up as a person of honor at Craig and Job’s wedding. In his mellifluous baritone, he read two selections about marriage during the service. “I don’t have to worry about you anymore,” he said to Craig, and to Job, “Welcome to the family, brother-in-law.”

In August of 2002, a few months before he moved to heaven, Craig visited Thomas at his apartment in Boston’s Lower Roxbury, a few blocks from Dudley Station. They discussed Thomas’ new play, the benefits of leaving Boston versus staying, their families, Craig’s recent, difficult decision. “Are you still not speaking to your birth mom?” Thomas was sitting in the living room in his favorite chair. Behind him, his cluttered office looked like that of a playwright in high demand. Posters from his produced plays and pictures of entire casts hung from every wall.

“Brother, I’ve already been raised,” said Craig, facing Thomas from the couch. “She’s so desperate to make up for lost time, she keeps forgetting that.”

“When I first met her at your house, I could sense a heaviness all around her. Craig, I’m sure your choice was and still is very tough, but I’m also sure it’s for the best. You know, I ran into her at Mass General Hospital a few months ago.” Craig’s face asked, What were you doing there? “Tina was there for some tests,” Thomas continued, answering Craig’s face. Craig didn’t buy it. Thomas’ face was thin; his jeans too big. Craig didn’t question or interrupt. “As soon as I saw Jennifer, I remembered when you told me she’d gotten a job in food service over there. Sure enough when I got in the elevator and saw her standing next to one of those tall food carts, I recognized her immediately. She didn’t recognize me so I just said, ‘Jennifer, right? Aren’t you Craig’s mother?’ She looked at me kind of puzzled. Finally she said, ‘You’re Joseph’s friend, right?’ And I said, ‘I’m Craig’s brother. We met at his house.’ She seemed to remember me, but I’m not sure if she did. Brother, she didn’t look good at all. That is one deeply unhappy woman. Her eyes are closed and her aura is dim. It’s too bad.”

“It’s painful to see. Sure, she was suffocating and all of that. Lord knows, when I’m at my best, I can deal with suffocating people. But, Brother Father, when all was said and done, it hurt too much to watch her suffer so willingly.”

“All she had to do,” said Thomas, “was be still and listen and love you enough to learn how to forgive herself.”

After Craig moved, he would call Thomas often and tell him all about his new house, his new life. About the chickens and goats and sheep and pigs and alpacas and white horses he would get. About the seedlings of thyme, coriander, mint, parsley, and much, much more germinating in peat moss on the breakfast porch. About Maine’s enthralling beauty and idyllic settings. Its spellbinding light. He would call Thomas and tell him how much he wanted his brother to come up—for a weekend, a week, a lifetime—and get away from it all. But Craig always had to leave a message because Thomas wasn’t picking up and he wasn’t calling back. Craig knew Thomas could go underground, as Thomas would call it, for months at a time. When Thomas would come up from under, a call to Craig was one of the first he’d make.

Now, the man who shared his name was calling to tell Craig that Thomas Grimes, his beloved brother-father-friend, wasn’t coming up again, that his twin sister, Tina, had found him in his bathtub this morning. Dead. Craig immediately thought of his friend who—back in 1994—took his own life so AIDS wouldn’t and wondered if such a thing had come to pass again. Now, Craig knew why Thomas had been on his mind all day yesterday. Now, Craig knew why he woke up today with a neck so stiff and sore, he knew something in his universe was misaligned.

Craig hangs up the phone, turns off the stove and walks to his shore of the lake. There, he sits down, at last. In the wind rush and tree creek, Craig listens for the unmistakable sound of Thomas’ voice. There. He hears it. No. Feels it. Cloaking his shoulders like a quilt. Craig looks toward the island, a dark mound of earth that sits, all alone, in the middle of icy water. His tears flow. He smiles.

The sun hung high in the sky-blue sky. The bright, bright light was more intense than it had been in weeks. The days were getting longer.

In Loving Memory of Thomas Grimes
April 29, 1957 - March 11, 2003
You would've been 50 today

Friday, April 27, 2007

The Day I Became My Father's Son

I HATE SHOPPING. If there were a way to go into a store and have everything you want or need, in your size, of course, laid out before you just inside the threshold of the door for you to pick and choose from, perhaps I'd enjoy it more. But, no. That would be utopia. I like to spend as little time in stores as possible, especially when shopping for clothes.

Today, I decided it was time for some new jeans. So I drove over to Gap at the nearest strip mall (welcome to small-town America) and began the tedious task. All Gap jeans had a 1969 label attached to the back of the waistband. I didn't bother to ask the salesperson if that was the year Gap was founded, but I figured as much. I knew that 1969 was the year I became a Hickman, 16 months after being placed for adoption as a 5-day old baby.

After I purchased my two pair of jeans, I felt weak. I wasn't in the store for long at all, but it seemed to have drained all my energy. A doctor's visit beforehand revealed that I was slightly anemic, so I decided to head on over to Longhorn Steakhouse and have some iron-rich red meat for lunch. I don't usually eat red meat, but, hey, I don't buy Gap jeans either.

While waiting for my petite filet and broccoli to arrive, I jumped back into the The Girls Who Went Away. I started reading the last chapter when it dawned on me that today is April 27. Within seconds, my head drooped and I was sobbing.

Today was the day I became my father's son.

(Click to enlarge)

On April 27, 1969, I went permanently to the home of Hazelle and Mary Juanita Hickman on 13th Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was then that I became my father's namesake as well. In a sense, anyway. You see, my mother named me Craig, which means "rugged rock," and my father named me Von, which means "from," after a nickname that he'd been given by a friend down at Pabst in the early 50s. He didn't have a middle name, even though he was often called Von Hickman (we were known as the Vonhickmans to many families in our camping group) so he officially gave me his nickname as my own. Craig Von Hickman. Craig from Hickman. Rock of Daddy.

Today, I don't feel like a rock. But on this day 38 years ago, I became my father's son.

I think I'm going to have a Pabst and a shot of brandy to celebrate.

Daddy and I at a farm in Horicon, Wisconsin, where we often went camping.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

The Booklet for Daddy's Farewell

HE CAME TO ME in a dream. I was taking a nap a few days ago in the middle of the day. My body was stiff as a board. I seemed to be in that no-place between sleep and awake. I was aware that I couldn't move.

Daddy was telling a story to my beloved. They were both laughing. I heard Daddy's voice, but not his words. I kept trying to reach out and touch him, but my body was stiff as death. I heard myself say, "Keep talking, Daddy. Keep talking." A few minutes later, my bladder filled up and I rose to go the bathroom.

Oh, how I miss him.

That was the second visitation. The first came when I was riffling through Mama's extensive collection of photographs to chose the ones for his funeral program. Sitting on the couch up front, snapshots spread all over the cocktail table, I looked up and saw his silhouette in the door to the dining room. He walked toward me, a smile on his face, and sat down in the overstuffed green chair under his wedding portrait. Seconds later, the apparition vanished.

The program booklet turned out beautifully. Click on each panel to see actual size.

On the Cover: Daddy, age 13.

Mama's Dedication: Left to right, top to bottom: Mama's handwritten tribute; their wedding on June 23, 1946; Mama's 75th birthday on December 6, 2002; a visit to Horicon ledge, where we used to camp, 2003; at a cocktail party, 1950s; at their 50th wedding anniversary; laughing at a holiday gather, 1999.

Obituary, Page 1: Daddy sings "Ebb Tide," my favorite song, his too, at my wedding, August 22, 1998; Daddy during the Second World War - the back of the photo reads: "M. Boone, H. Hayes & myself on Guadalcanal" in Daddy's perfect penmanship; chilling with a Pabst and a shot of brandy in his basement barroom after a day at the brewery with Catfish, his lifelong friend, late 1970s.

Obituary, Page 2: Singing with the Pabst men's choir, the first black man to do so, 1954; Singing to Sauvignon, my biological nephew, Memorial Day weekend, 2002.

Children's Dedications: At a family restaurant in Milwaukee, summer 1997; At my Viking stove stirring a pot of gumbo in Maine, Christmas 2002.

Back Cover: Goodbye, Daddy. You're at peace in the web of His arms.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Oscar Winner Jennifer Hudson Filming New Movie

IN THE WAKE of her Oscar-winning debut as Effie Melody White in Dreamgirls (the first Black actor in the history of the Awards to ever win for a debut performance, thank you very much), Jennifer Hudson is starring in the ensemble Winged Creatures, along with none other then co-Class of 2006 Oscar winner (who won for his first nomination, no less) Forest Whitaker.

Directed by Aussie Rowan Woods (The Boys, Little Fish), the film is about a group of strangers who form a unique relationship with each other after surviving a random shooting at a Los Angeles diner. Along with Hudson and Whitaker, the film also stars Kate Beckinsale, Dakota Fanning, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Guy Pearce, and wouldn't you know, Class of 2006 Oscar nominee Jackie Earle Haley.

Another Crash? I sure hope not. Woods has done good work and with this cast, he really can't go wrong unless the story is just not there. Which was my biggest problem with Crash and other ensemble pieces set in LA (Short Cuts, Traffic) that seem patched together like some bad quilt.

With such a large ensemble cast, there's no telling how big her role, or anyone else's for that matter, will be. But this (great) news puts to rest the notion that she wouldn't be making another movie anytime soon, choosing instead to focus on her recording career. (Her debut album is slated for release in the fall.) From the look of it, she won't have to do any singing in her new endeaver, a goal she stated with conviction after her Oscar win.

Check out more pictures of her and Forest on the set over at A Socialite's Life.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Day My Navel Was Cut

div align="justify">FOR MUCH OF THE PAST few days, I haven't been able to get this memory out of my head. It goes something like this:

“Do you think he knew?” Mama is sitting at the kitchen about to take her insulin. Her question leaps out of nowhere. Still, I understand it.

Tamara, the young lady who used to live next door, is preparing the kitchen floor for a deep cleanse. She calls her Ma’am. She has generously offered Mama her services for years and refuses the folded-up bills Mama tries to slide in her hand. I won’t let her refuse today. She’s already cleaned the living room, dining room, and moved furniture and knickknacks to the basement to make room for the guests that will flood the house after Daddy’s funeral on Thursday.

Right now, I wish Tamara would leave the floor alone. I’m sure Daddy, too weak for regular ones, shuffled across the worn linoleum with tiny stutter steps just a few weeks ago. Likely he wore his black leather slippers, but no matter. If I were Rok, my sister’s fluffy little dog, I’d sniff around the floor right now seeking the scent of Daddy wherever it might linger. Which is perhaps why Rok is cuddled up on Daddy’s chair in the back bedroom right now.

“Yes. I can’t imagine he had no idea,” I finally answer Mama. “Even if he didn’t know exactly what was going on, he had to sense something was going on. He was in pain for quite a while if I look back on it.”

“Tamara said he told her boyfriend.” Mama shoots the insulin into her left shoulder.

I look at Tamara, my face a big, bold question mark.

“My boyfriend started to get all this good liquor.” Sweeping the last bit of dust onto the pan, she answers, her tone matter-of-fact. “Hennessey, Courvousier, you know, the good stuff. I said, ‘Where are you getting all this from?’ He said, ‘Mr. Hickman gave it to me. Says he can’t drink anymore because he’s got cancer.’” So matter-of-fact, her words cut through my navel.

“When was this?” I finally give voice to my surprise. No. Shock.

“About a year and a half ago before we moved.”

So that’s why.

That’s why his doctor hadn’t ordered more tests in the two painful episodes that took Daddy to the emergency room over the past six months. That’s why he joined a men’s prayer group down at the church last summer. That’s why for the last six months or more he called every weekend, sometimes three times, sometimes four, unable to remember that he’d called already. Just to talk. To tell me that he loved me. To ask about Job. The animals. To tell me that he loved us both. The animals, too. That I’d always be his baby.

I ought to have known.

That’s why, through tears, he shrieked, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry...” so many times when I first talked to him after the diagnosis became family property that I couldn’t stop the rain falling from my eyes.

Oh, how I wish I had known.

“If I had known,” Mama says, disposing her paraphernalia in a plastic container, “I woulda been in a mental institution.”

That’s why.

Daddy knew to keep his secret, like most of his pain, to himself.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Sweet Home

I ARRIVED HOME from North Carolina Tuesday night. Well, actually, it was the afternoon, but because I knew my husband wouldn't be home till 9 o'clock, I stayed in Portland, Maine, for half a day before driving an hour north to Winthrop because I didn't want to walk into an empty house.

Strange what grief can do.

My short-term memory has taken a vacation. I can't remember what I said or heard yesterday. I guess my mind knows it's best to live in the moment, especially right now.

My bed felt great, but I've got to get used to being there again. Hubby didn't know what to do with all my tossing and turning. It's as though everything is brand new. And I mean everything.

On the flight from Milwaukee to Augusta, Maine, the airline had lost my carry-on luggage. Don't ask. I wouldn't tell anyway. It's too surreal.

But they found it while I was in Winston-Salem for the Davis Cup. I was a bit concerned because the luggage contained so many sentimental things: Daddy's partial, which he wore on the lower left side of his mouth; his antique gold razor and shaving brush; his case and bifocals, which improved his glaucoma-pressured eyesight just enough so he could read blurry text in the newspaper, the Bible, or see his son's face plastered on the backcover duskjacket of his son's book tucked, backside up, under the socks in his sock drawer; his deodorant and cologne; his watch and favorite ring; his bleached-white and ironed handkerchiefs; an award of appreciation for his years as an elder at the church; his Pabst Brewing Company Quarter Century Club program for a banquet honoring employees of 25 years or more; the pillowcase he slept upon when I arrived in Milwaukee for the first time; and the pillowcases' beautiful white lace hem which had torn away from it when removed from the pillow.

The luggage had been found in Boston. US Airways flew it to Augusta the morning after it was located. I guess Daddy finally got a ride in a plane for the first time in more than 60 years after all.

All of those sentimental things have come to rest in my home and make up a shrine to Daddy right under "The Holy Ghost" -- a glorious work of art that depicts a crucified dreadlocked Black woman, created by an old Boston friend -- on the altar that sits beneath the painting.

I feel like a ghost. No. Yes. But I also feel like I'm walking on the moon.

Strange what grief can do.

Just a few hours ago, my sister Gina reminded me that I am now the man of the family. "The patriarch," she said. Oh. If only I could walk in the footsteps of Daddy, the great man of his loving family that aches and aches and aches for his physical presence right here, right now.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

When It Rains, It Pours

LYING IN BED, I can hear the rain beating hard against the house. A howling wind slaps the neighbor's outer door back and forth on its hinges. Thunder rolls in the distance like an omen.

I'm still in Milwaukee. Mama is preparing herself for my departure, but the thought of me leaving makes her anxious. She just can't believe that Daddy is not here.

I was planning to return to Maine on Sunday to get a few days of deep sleep before heading to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Thursday to take in the US vs. Spain Davis Cup quarterfinal tie Easter weekend.

But late in the evening last friday, I felt the urge to call my husband instead of waiting for him to call me.

"Did Joe call you yet?" he inquired. I said that he hadn't. "Well, he called with some very bad news and I gave him your cell number. Do you want me to tell you or do you want to wait till he calls." I told him to tell me. "It's about Damian."

Damian Vella was one of my best friends in high school. A short Cicilian boy with a big personality and more flair than a fashion designer, he was my running buddy. Though he was born exactly one month after me on January 8, 1968, he was a year ahead of me in high school because he had skipped a grade in elementary school.

Thinking we were grown, we flashed our fake ID's and populated many a gay bar in the Walker's Point area of Milwaukee. We also worked together for years at McDonald's, our first employer.

The Monday after Daddy's funeral, I fell apart. I was staying on Milwaukee's East Side at this big old mansion that belongs to my sister's doctor friend because Daddy's cousin Della Mae was staying in my childhood bedroom across the hall from my mother. I was so forlorn that I went to Von Trier, one of the first bars Damian introduced me to, an Old-Milwaukee-style neighborhood watering hole near his childhood home that made the best Long Island Ice Teas this side of the Mississippi.

Walking down the street after I left the bar, I had to wrap my arms around myself, fearing that, like some delipaidated car speeding down the highway, pieces of me would start flying off. I couldn't stop thinking about Damian. I hadn't talked to him in years, but whenever we spoke, no matter how much time had elapsed between phone calls, we eased into conversation without effort. Damian fit into my life like an old shoe.

The next day, I looked up on the Internet his telephone number in Minneapolis, where he lived and worked for 20 years. I needed to talk to him about Daddy. Preoccupied with Mama and family business, I didn't get around to dialing his number. Outside of my husband, I hadn't called anyone all week.

"Damian committed suicide late Tuesday night," Job said, his voice pained and deliberate. "Joe said his funeral is next Tuesday."

"Jesus Christ," I repied, too shocked to feel any other emotion, "I've been thinking about him all week. I meant to call him, but..."

"You've always been a pyschic bitch." Jop cut me off from my regret. "Do you think you're going to stay for the funeral?"

His obituary appeared in Sunday's paper. He's really gone. I cried like the sky pouring rain against this house.

Earlier today, I made a cheesecake and a tray of lasagna and took it over to his family's house before hanging out with Joe, who'd flown into Milwaukee from Manhattan this afternoon.

Thunder rolls in the distance like an omen. I pull out Damian's phone number and dial it. Finally. I hope to hear his voice once more. But the voicemail greeting recites that automatic robotic message that tells you what number you've called.

I hang up.

Later this evening, I'll see his body, attend his funeral mass at a giant Catholic church not far from where Joe and I ate dinner tonight.

Now, I sign his guestbook.

The wind-slapped door just banged shut.