Man got to sit and wonder
FOUR YEARS PRIOR, we’d met in 8th-grade English. Another four and his body, identifiable only by dental records, would be pulled from a car found burning in a park. I admit that like the coroner, I assumed it a suicide, given his past attempts.
Even though it spanned a mere eight years, what began as a middle-school friendship with Terry Holcomb Good proved to be among the most significant of my life. Now, the letter I hold in my hand 45 years after his death reminds me just how significant a relationship it was.
September 8, 1968
Been in New Orleans about a week. Crashin now on Dumaine in the Quarter. Please to send me some of your work air mail parcel post. Mum will pay postage & any fee you wish to charge for your efforts…
The “some of your work” he solicits–those things he is promising that his mother June will pay for–would have included pen-and-ink drawings of the sort I did back then, for instance my depiction of John Lennon’s fictional “St. Alf.” June had framed that one and hung it on the wall of their little house on Freeman Drive in Garland, Texas.
I’ve never forgotten the time when, on one visit, I turned to leave and saw it hanging there.
And I don’t mean to make too much of those drawings. It could certainly be that all Terry wanted was something he could later sell on the street in New Orleans, something to keep body and soul together.
But the casual nature of his request–as if he were simply calling in to have a pizza delivered–belies the high regard in which both he and his mother seemed to hold the work of my hands. My point is, those visits to Freeman Drive became a milestone in my coming of age as an artist and a writer, to realize that these brilliant people, so different from my own family, would value the things I created.
But not only my drawings. He is also referring to another creative product, things that wouldn’t have had value to anyone but us–stories and poems like those he and I began writing together in Mrs. Long’s eighth-grade English class.
Our literary collaboration got the two of us called into the principal’s office at Stephen F. Austin Junior High, ironically, we thought, since we were putting to work the very things we were learning in class. (But then, I don’t know, maybe it was that irreverent parody of Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken” that did us in.)
Mostly, though, we were inspired, again, by Lennon, and his books A Spaniard in the Works and In His Own Write; inspired to create what would today be called fan fiction, our response to poems such as Lennon’s darkish Good Dog Nigel (which I can still recite to this day; it begins)–
Arf Arf he goes a merry sight
Our little hairy friend
Arf Arf upon the lampost bright
Arfing round the bend
That’s how this friendship got its start: Terry and I writing these poems and stories; taking turns, passing them back and forth between classes; building them stanza by stanza, chapter by chapter.
Four years after, this letter from New Orleans conveys a sense of that joint venture. Broke and busted, he invites me to “draw or whatever” his predicament, to interpret his “scene” in words or pictures, to collaborate once again, this time in creating his own Postcard from the Edge:
…If you wonder what to draw or whatever for me, I now give you my scene. I’m stuck in this city with nothing for my head & not aware of how to get any of it. Withdrawn & self-destructive as ever. Very little bread. Been givin a lot of it for others wine & food & my music for me. I can’t get no relief, but it’s alright. Something’s bout to happen…
But this particular letter only tells one chapter of the story. It was one of dozens Terry wrote me over those last four years of his life, letters I’ve kept for more than four decades, never really understanding why I had.
And every time I pulled them out, I’d ask myself that question: why.
At first it may have been my early interest in psychology. He would write every letter from within 500 miles of Dallas, but from very different states of mind. And somewhere along the way, perhaps on one of those occasions he dropped in for a visit at our house on Celeste, he casually mentioned he had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic.
That made sense, as even his correspondence seemed choppy, fragmented, and schizoid. Along with the ever-changing locale, the paper he wrote on would change–this one a torn scrap of yellow, another lined notebook sheets, and one the back of a flyer he must have pulled from a bulletin board near Oklahoma City. But in rereading these letters, I notice that his handwriting seemed to change as well. His envelopes were most often the stationery of Parkland Hospital’s psychiatric ward or of Terrell State Hospital.
But wherever the letters originated and whatever they were written on, their envelopes also underscored a great sense of urgency: sequential letters might be postmarked only a day or two apart; and back when first class postage was a six-cent stamp, he might add a second one and then carefully letter below them, AIR MAIL.
Mostly that urgency was for things of the flesh. He would often ask me to mail cash or even drugs (later in the New Orleans letter expressing a preference for Demerol). And while I know I did what I could–this he acknowledged several times–the overwhelming sense that remains with me after all these years is that I really didn’t.
Once I had a dream, whether before he died or after probably doesn’t matter, in which I was driving up Portland Avenue in Oklahoma City when Terry stepped out from behind a tall hedgerow, waving his arms for me to stop. I didn’t stop, but instead, ran him over.
This all came up again recently when, in cleaning house, I found his letters and read them once more. Finally, I thought, it was time to throw them all away, only then realizing it would be as if I was back in that dream, running him down all over again.
So I began searching out and contacting people who knew him, some of whom I’d never met, some of whom I hadn’t seen since before Terry’s death.
There were things I wanted to know. If I had indeed not done enough, if I had neglected him and in effect forgotten our friendship, was there anyone else who did remember, anyone who had not failed him?
And were I now to throw these letters away, would all remembrance of Terry be lost?
One of those I contacted was Terry’s younger brother who hadn’t forgotten much of anything. In fact, I was amazed at his recall. He remembered Terry’s ambidexterity, explaining to me that this was why his brother’s handwriting often appeared to change. He remembered my drawing of St. Alf hanging on their living room wall, and most significant to me, he remembered the day Terry died.
One thing Terry’s brother remembered helped fill in another gap in my narrative. Though he was eleven months younger than Terry, still in his mother’s womb, and not an actual witness to the event itself, he remembered from June’s account every detail of another family tragedy, their father’s murder in 1951. How, in the midst of the custody battle over a half-sister, their father Seth, holding eight-month old Terry in his arms, was shot in the head by June’s first husband.
June had told me the story, too, years and years ago, and ever since I’d wondered if witnessing his father’s murder up close could have contributed to Terry’s troubled mind. Yes, his brother said, but not as I’d assumed: it wasn’t that the trauma had anything to do with Terry’s diagnosed schizophrenia. Rather, as children will often do, he carried with him for the rest of his life a borrowed guilt, believing he had somehow contributed to his father’s death. Because he was in his arms at the time.
Finally near the end of that letter from New Orleans, Terry tossed off a line that is, to me, like a foreshadowing of his own end. His phrase, “not the right things at the right time” sums up how tragically things would turn out for him: the opposite, as I now know, of how they should have turned out. He wrote:
…Things are happenin & have happened. Just not the right things at the right time. Gotta stop now as the waiters at the Cafe du Monde here are beginin to hassle me. Send things to me at 201 Mission, Baptist Rescue Mission, New Orleans, 70130.
As I continued to read the rest of Terry’s letters, I wondered again why I’d saved them–the events and circumstances of that period of my life being so chaotic and painful–until I found in one the line of instruction I’d been acting upon all along without even remembering why:
“NOTICE Please to not throw away or misplace any of this shit I send ya…”
He went on to relate an important detail of his life, one I’d apparently forgotten, that he hoped to become a writer. So now I was reminded: I had saved them in part because he’d asked me to, but also because I knew he was a writer, and that these letters might offer proof, maybe even in some inexplicable way help bring my friend, this brilliant mind, back to life.
As it turns out, though, one letter would recommend a reason to let him go.
Over those early years I had watched as Terry’s mind began to spin faster and faster. This he would acknowledge himself in one letter from Terrell State Hospital, the funny farm he refers to here. It was the only place his mind geared down, partly from his meds and partly from shock treatment:
Saturday–I’m hoping to make this my last time on the farm, Jimmy Starr. Trying to cultivate easiness. I must learn to go really slow. Slow. Longer periods between cigarettes, between meals, and between thoughts.
But it would not be his last time in an institution, and the chaos of those racing thoughts continued a little longer, in one letter spilling out onto page after page of verse (front and back, 18 pages in all). He cited, probably from memory, Leonard Cohen, A.C. Swinburne, Longfellow, The Fugs, George Orwell, Frank Zappa, Joseph Heller, Bob Dylan, a Chilean proverb, Nietzsche, and even a few lines from the stupid poems we’d written at Stephen F. Austin Junior High.
And in the midst of those 18 pages was a quote that has strangely, these decades later, brought a certain kind of resignation and closure to my own unsettled thoughts. It was the sacred text of Bokononism that Terry remembered from Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle.
Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder, ‘Why, why, why?’
Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.
Once upon a time I had decided to accept the coroner’s ruling. After all, Terry had attempted suicide so many times before. I will never forget one in particular, the time he injected lighter fluid into his arm, and the abcessed veins he showed me after. Still I was left wondering why. As Bokonon had said, in the hubris of my humanity I felt it imperative that I understand.
But no longer.
This is not easy, accepting that Terry’s death was an accident. It is to me an even more tragic conclusion than the coroner’s, that he had taken his own life. But that ruling was later refuted, not only within days by the police but also by his mother, by the woman Terry had just married, and just a few days before I write this, by his brother. In those final months of his life, Terry had shown signs of real recovery. And all three family members said it was impossible to reconcile that peaceful state with someone who would suddenly douse himself with gasoline and light himself on fire.
One of his last letters seems to bear this out. His handwriting, now more fluid, less urgent, was almost unrecognizable to me as Terry’s. He wrote,
I do feel I’m through that period of interesting but very bad news which has been the last 4 years. I just feel it’s over.
So now, despite how difficult it is to accept the early and untimely loss of my friend, I can at least say that he has also taught me something these many years later: the strange peace of knowing, and accepting, that however much I might question why, some things I will never understand.