The writer Denis Johnson, who now is dead, once explained to a group of people, among whom I happened to be a member, that the fear of the apocalypse was really only a fear of personal annihilation. Johnson got clean but not soon enough to grow old. There are days when the world feels emptier without him and days when I think: he’s one of the lucky ones. Like today, when winds from the polar vortex are madly playing the wind chimes, and the cat won’t stop attacking the furniture, and I assigned too much reading and writing because that’s what I do to mask the truth, growing more evident each passing day, that I don’t know what the everloving fuck I’m doing. It’s on days like these that I can’t help but wonder: why does life have to be so long? Or, as one of my former students once wrote in the best in-class writing exercise I’ve ever received, during which she fantasized about a stranger shooting her in the head and thanking him for saving her, “What am I going to do with my long string of tomorrows?” That’s when I remember that I need to put into writing that my wish is to be buried—and to convince my wife to be buried there with me—in what my father calls “the family plot,” a clearing behind my parents’ house in the mountains of North Carolina that isn’t big enough, probably, to hold all the relatives that also imagine it to be their final resting place. My father texted last night to say that our friend Leon had died and that he didn’t “know any more than that” and “goodnight” because he was going to bed. Good old Leon, I’d thought. My sister, who’d texted me the other day to say that our mother had seemed worse than when she’d seen her at Christmas, had worn this look of utter confusion in the mornings and stood before the front windows at night, thinking she saw things in the darkness, with no words to say what she thought they might be, texted my father and me “goodnight.” Ignoring their attempts at ending the conversation, I texted back “not THE Leon” and my father replied with “yes” and “he’d had Alzheimer’s.” I knew the picture in my head of Leon—a short, stocky, balding man with a mustache and a slow drawl who was funny and kind and for some reason, like me, cheered for the Dallas Cowboys—was painfully outdated, and could hardly bear to imagine what he’d looked like at the moment of his death. He’d been married for many years to a woman named Ellen, who happened to be the ex-wife of one of my mother’s cousins. Ellen and Leon used to visit us and we them, and once my sister and I spent a weekend there while my parents went on vacation to Aruba or some such exotic locale, and the only memories I have of that weekend are dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” as it played on a big Zenith in Ellen and Leon’s master bedroom and visiting Leon’s store—he ran a convenience mart and in one of the aisles there were a selection of cheap toys, from which we were allowed to make selections—and I remember thinking how cool it would be to own a store, to waltz in and take whatever you wanted whenever you wanted it, as if that was actually how it worked. This is, I suppose, the extent of what I remember about Leon, other than that he was what you might call a smooth operator, maybe wore a leather jacket or those glasses that turned to sunglasses when the sun hit them, and that he always greeted my mother with a long hug and kiss on the cheek, which seemed borderline lascivious, as if he might be reveling in the chance to embrace a woman who was not his wife, a characteristic greeting which once prompted my sister to order him not to do that, because he wasn’t my mother’s husband. Good old Leon, I thought. How many people, like me, hadn’t had the chance to say goodbye? “Deader than hell,” as my father might say, allowing himself to swear because he wasn’t saying the word in earnest but simply repeating a phrase he’d picked up from or had heard his patients or staff at his dental office use. Therefore, it wouldn’t have been cruel for my father say that, and Leon might’ve laughed had he heard, but the cruelest thing was the way he’d died: eaten from the inside out, his brain erased, Leon became a ghost that primarily haunted the ones he loved most. Is it fair to call a living person—my own dear mother, for instance, who used to play piano and write letters and make the world’s best vegetarian meatballs but who can no longer retrieve a glass of water from the sink by herself—a ghost? I recently watched online a video of a young man whose facial features I could not distinguish; they had been digitally blurred to hide his identity. This young man had purportedly time traveled from the year 2030 and was holding a black and white map showing to what extent the coastline had been erased, due to rising ocean levels. California was gone. Most of Oregon and Washington. All but a smidge of Florida. Most of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, even the mountains where I now reside. The picture might have served as a representation of my mother’s brain, or Leon’s, or—on some future day—of mine: my beaches and mountains and amber waves of grain churned to oblivion, and my alphabet with it, and therefore no way for me to supply a final report, no way—except for now, while I’m in my right mind, and before the great forgetting begins—to say goodbye.
Notes from Guest Reader Erin Fitzgerald
“Good Old Leon” uses a scaffolding similar to the story that its title references. But its path, and the ghosts that roam along it, are very much its own.