By Chris McNaught
Sketch by Chris McNaugh
And he was rich – yes richer than a king
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place
So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.
—Edwin Arlington Robinson
I first saw him in the fall of ’63, a blond Roman head and cocky smile descending a twisted street to the Café du Théatre in Neuchâtel. I remember how evenings in that quarter brimmed with the kinetic charm of students far from home.
His solicitations, so intense, drew women like flies. Like flies, they soon buzzed on, but that was 1963, when the mysteries of grape harvest still ripened beyond the study windows, when our first sputterings in French moved even the Swiss to laughter. He could never have guessed then, for all the world.
Save for the college autumn “wine and cheese” when he burst into the foyer to announce J.F.K.’s assassination, the next I really saw him was that December. The director had invited me to dinner in Berne – as he had all of us, alphabetically – a respite from Madame’s meat-impoverished purées. His driving was terrifying, but after a scenic spin we managed to halt in front of the fabled spy retreat, the Schweizerfof.
Mr. Wilde played to my young sense of intrigue, and we drifted from tales of Mata Hari to the isles of Greece and my summer plans. And then suddenly there he was, visible in the corner, through the aftermath of Black Forest venison and golden Chablis.
He was holding solitary court. They waited on him hand and foot, but you sensed an orchestration, a certain fragility in the luxury. Thus discovered, he agreed to join us at a film afterwards. It was The Pink Panther with Peter Sellers, and I can’t recall if we laughed more at him, or the Schwiezer- Deutsch soundtrack (we used to call it “fizzer-dutch”).
Back home, he failed first year at Trinity, and we all moved on. Maybe the return from Old World stones, from his own mistakes, back to his parents’ privileged preserve in north Toronto threw him off the pace. Someone told me that summer he had to shoot his horse while competing in Australia: I never saw him ride in Switzerland, certainly never realized he was world calibre. Few noted his A on eventual graduation. In our own passage, we did remember his brash allure, his frontal rush on all authority and his M.G. convertible.
He stayed fate for a time, by teaching of all things, but though he had instinctive rapport, he lacked the discipline to convey it evenly. In a bright interlude, Michelle arrived unheralded, but she overwhelmed him at the altar. She was a New Woman, and his brittle psyche was no match; it all collapsed in the first year.
It was 10 years at least before he told me of the death-bed reconciliation (far too late) with his cancerous tycoon-father, of the endless legal war his sisters waged to kill his share.
After that, his mother wasted steadily in the dry climes of Arizona, drinking. A bizarre itinerary drove him back and forth from Muskoka mansion to desert watering hole, lovingly preserving the former, tending the latter, until by the time she died, he’d described a vast, rootless geography. I often wonder what sped through his mind under those long night skies; above the pale ribbon, no true beacon shone.
We used to see him then, his other friend and I, three or four times a year when he would materialize on our front lawns in a dusty Econoline (his mobile world), littered with health foods, Mexican silver, peyote and wild offers of ocean real estate. He drove himself hard, scrounging (I suspect) for clues. His rare descent prompted spontaneous all-night dinners, exuberant flights from mortgage woes and self-advancement. Though now I see us round the table, I know he was just collecting scraps of hearsay and vignette from our very ordered lives, later to apply his own bias and hoard them as shadow arguments against any firm commitment.
We should have fought him tooth and nail. When he caromed off in all directions, arrogant and defensive, he was only hunting what we casually possessed. The birth of his reflex paranoia: we overlooked that too. I think the gun in his glove compartment disturbed us, but at the time we excused it as a minor perversion of the colourful world he imported. In our midst, there was little chance of his securing hope, and we were no more than an unsafe island among uncharted ambitions. As his van swayed into metaphor, we didn’t mind. After all, those were the dreary ’70s, when we hadn’t killed all our ’60s icons, and still clung blindly.
A few weeks more and the estate would have cleared; he could have bought that ketch, cash, and run charters off Cancun through darkest winter…
The call came one May morning at my law office, sandwiched between Mrs. White on one line disowning her son who kept setting fires in the Baptist church basement, and Jamie Brogger on the other, vowing certain default on support payments. The news killed that scenario.
The afternoon found my memory taking inventory as the car carried me prematurely back to cottage country. All was in flux. Moist earthen odours escaped the winter seal, and branches reached for the coming green. Birch clumps and sentinel pines guided us in. The town felt hushed, and I’m sure Ross and I were the only ones in the tavern with ties on – there seemed no better place to wait on the occasion, after propriety stifled a wild urge to frolic outside.
The hour came at last and we drove out to the white wood chapel, a small pioneer effort slapped on the rim of his favourite bay. The lake was cold crystal, no oily shimmer or algae of July. The minister was a seasoned Scottish cleric who struck me as from another century, with wiry, salt-pepper hair and laconic mien. You felt somehow his conviction sprang from a deep and natural source. He told us that this time last year he used to find him alone inside, “pondering.” Could never get him to a regular service though, and he surely tested one’s patience in debate. It surprised me he’d sought counsel of any kind, especially one so traditional and mute.
And then the local man who put his boats up for the winter volunteered how he’d come right up to him just two weeks before, right out of the blue like, and said that the clinic in Peterborough had refused him because he seemed “too sound.”
The air thickened with black flies. The dusk was mild and the five of us grew warm hoisting him inside. It seemed outrageous the insects couldn’t bother him. I thought how coming home means many things, how this final time, he wouldn’t be returning, Gatsby-like, to his northern mansion. The handwritten, one-paragraph will said “ashes to be scattered on the lakefront.”
His American girlfriend whispered to no one in particular that they’d been playing horseshoes – it was Friday afternoon of the long weekend – and she’d gone to town for groceries. He declined, said he’d take a walk and join her later.
It was nearly two days before a police dog sniffed him out on the opposite side of the lake. He must have hiked for ages, but then, he knew the wind-drift there and nobody heard. Buffy wasn’t allowed to see him until after the brief autopsy. The report said he’d lifted that monstrous revolver on the first night and blown most of his head away. They found $10,000 in bills in his back pocket and no note.
Outside, the birds swooped madly, gorging themselves on the flies. The pews, walls and coffin turned from burning orange to ochre in the sinking sun. In my view, the cleric proceeded with the tiny gathering – four trades people, a distant aunt and one of the estranged sisters – despite contrary sentiment from higher up.
He kept it stark, relying on St. Paul: “We shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump.” The other passage gracefully admonished that He made us in His likeness (so don’t cast any stones) and calmed the fear of each vicarious soul: “It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power.” And then a chickadee, which had perched curiously on the open sill of the lakeside window, spoke once and disappeared.
At about this point, I noticed we’d set the body feet-first towards the altar, but he wouldn’t have cared. His name was Peter, and he was a friend of mine.
Chris McNaught is a Glebe author, former criminal lawyer and feature writer for Canadian Lawyer Magazine. His most recent novel is The Linnet (Vanguard Press/Pegasus, U.K.).