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Shake it off and head on out

Column by Hal Walter

Mountain Life – December 2003 – Colorado Central Magazine

THERE WAS AN INITIAL quiet thump, and then another, and by the time I looked up from the kitchen, the old spaniel dog was in a full head-over-heels tumble from the stairs that lead up to my office. It appeared to be slow motion, but in fact was happening so fast that I could not react.

I walked over to the black heap at the bottom of the stairs, a lucky 13 in number if you count the upper landing. The dog, 4 years older in age than the number of stairs she had just tumbled down, rolled over, shook it off, and padded for the front door. It occurred to me that she had just gone limp and ridden it out — probably why she didn’t get hurt.

It’s been said that getting old is a bitch. Things that seemed to move slowly earlier in life have a way of speeding up. Life sometimes spins out of control. Before you know it you’re in a full tumble and you need to make yourself limp and just go with the flow.

For example, most people don’t find out that they are going to be a father and that their mother has ovarian cancer in two phone calls only hours apart on the same beautiful autumn afternoon. And if they do, most people aren’t 43 years old at the time.

This is the same mother who had the strength to pick me up after my birth father dropped me on a coffee table when I was, I think, 7; then he walked out the door. While this could explain certain mental complexities, as I remember it, the incident was an actual accident stemming from his belligerent drunkenness. I never saw him again.

Now mom needs to muster her strength once again. By all indications, she’s going to have another grandchild in April.

In my senior year of college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I roomed with a guy by the name of Ben Clark. “Benny Boy” I used to call him. Ben was an engineer and moved to San Francisco, where he later married and had two daughters.

Ben came to my wedding back in 1986, incidentally the same year the aforementioned spaniel was whelped. As roommates we had the same deal I have always had with my wife. I do the cooking but only help with the dishes. Ben actually took this a step further than Mary, however; he also set the table. We lived cheaply and I cooked things like ground-turkey burritos, slow-cooker chickens, and wild game and fish that I provided. I remember that we basically lived off an antelope that I had hunted that year.

A woman I knew from one of the many newspapers at which I worked part-time had given me a box full of her hand-me-down college kitchen equipment. This included some pots and pans, plastic bowls and cups, and some silverware. There was a fork in the silverware collection that caused a violent metallic reaction as soon as it touched my mouth. As soon as that happened, practically the rest of the meal would taste like metal.

MY REACTION was such that Ben knew I hated this fork. Sometimes when I appeared to be thinking too hard while making dinner he would purposely set the table with the offending fork at my place just to watch my reaction when the metal touched my lips. It was an early hint that I tend to take things too seriously.

Between meals we had all the fun that college seniors should have, both having just turned 21 and spending our last year in Boulder. We also wrestled like kids. Ben was the strongest skinny guy I ever knew. I am surprised the neighbors in the slum apartments where we lived never called the cops, or that the walls stood up to our tussles. Ben almost always won.

But through it all the fork became a joke, a symbol of our friendship and brotherhood. And it began to turn up in some odd places. After we graduated the fork turned up in Pueblo where I had taken my first serious newspaper job. Ben went on a trip to Europe, and left an address where he could get mail. Instead of a postcard, the fork was waiting there for him. It traveled around Europe with him that summer.

THE FORK PASSED back and forth. I chose quite a different lifestyle from most of my college friends. Actually, all of them. Benny, like everyone else I knew from CU, became a career-track professional with a city or suburban existence. Meanwhile, I chose a rural mountain lifestyle — and my stock portfolio includes a horse, a mule, and four donkeys. Most of my college friends can’t even imagine the life I live. Likewise, I can’t imagine theirs. But that’s OK.

A few years ago another college buddy of mine, Lance, was traveling to San Francisco and I knew he was going to Ben’s home for dinner. I gave him the fork and explicit instructions that it was to be stashed in Ben’s silverware drawer. It took months for Ben to figure it out but when he did he covertly placed the fork in Lance’s hand at a restaurant on his next visit. Lance didn’t realize it until it was too late, but he was now united in the brotherhood of the fork.

Lance, however, just kept the thing. It moved to Montana with him and then back to Colorado Springs. But this was nothing for a fork that had been to Europe.

Recently Lance called with the news that Ben was sick with brain cancer. The college gang was putting together a fund for a personal chef to help out in his home. I had been out of touch with Ben for many years. The last time I saw him was at my wedding. He had sent an invitation to his wedding but I had not been able to go. One day recently, while cleaning out a drawer, Mary found the RSVP card. Apparently I had filled it out but never mailed it in. A sad feeling came over me.

Still, thoughts of my sick mother, impending fatherhood and the never-ending struggle of work continued to cloud my mind. And our old cocker spaniel was starting to get up in the middle of the night and wander around, toenails clacking on the kitchen floor, adding a certain geriatric-care element to my life.

One night in the wee hours of the morning I awoke to the clatter of dog toenails. I got up and walked naked outside in the chilly night away from the house with the old dog. I peed. She squatted next to me. There was no moon, only a jillion bright stars. A meteor streaked across the northern sky. The thoughts and questions started to pour in … I will be 50 when my child goes off to 1st grade. What if these stars fade into a sea of manmade light before my child has a chance to know them? Will I need to get a real job? Will I have to start peeing indoors?

The news came that very next day, as I suppose news like this always does, in this case a solemn phone call from Lance on a cold Sunday morning. Ben had died. Though never stated, there seemed to be some pressure from old friends to attend the services in San Francisco. For various reasons, including a pregnant wife, time, work and finances, I could not attend. Besides, the person I most wanted to see was Ben, and he was dead. I felt awful because I had not been the model friend; instead I had let this friendship slip away over the years.

LANCE CALLED the next week to tell me about the services. But there was more to this story than a college reunion brought about by the premature death of a friend. As keeper of the fork, Lance had stowed it in his checked luggage and placed it on the mantel at the services. He told Ben’s wife Jamie that he had brought the fork. She knew the whole story of the fork, and she wittily wrote the perfect ending for the story. She told the pastor, and he related some of the story to the mourners. Apparently there is an old-world custom regarding forks, the dead, and dessert.

I am told Ben was buried with the fork in his hand.

These are the days of the world, the stories of a life. Endings and beginnings. Middles and in-betweens. These stories whirl about until they become just one big story. Sometime in your 40s you realize it’s all just life. This is the story of your life, and the stories of those around you all in one, tumbling as one, wildly down the stairs.

Like an old dog, you just shake it off and head to the front door. The world is out there.

Hal Walter writes from 35 acres, more or less, in the Wet Mountains.