Friday, February 18, 2011

Nothing To Live For Up Here


On an August evening in 1994, while playing basketball with Jens, Abe, Craig and Wolfie, the former announced he’d be taking his Volkswagen Vanagon out of Alaska, onto the open road, and to points unknown.

“Like where, Jens?”

“I don’t know…California…Mexico…Maine…wherever.”  

“Can I come?”  I asked without a thought.

“Sure,” as quickly as I’d asked, “if ya got nothing to live for up here.”

I hadn’t, so we began devising our escape.  Soon, Craig—just out of high school and already staring marriage in the face—was on board, too.  He needed this trip.  His girlfriend agreed to let him leave for the rest of the year, but no further.  Within a few weeks, bursting with bottlenecked anticipation, we left Craig’s house in Peters Creek on our grand adventure.  We headed quickly through interior Alaska and the Yukon Territory, but broke down on the third day in Watson Lake.  We camped for a week, and I invented a new kind of food: a piece of Spam with Bisquick wrapped in aluminum foil and baked in coals.  Jens named them “spam butts.”  They are delicious.  I recommend spam butts for your next cocktail party or bat/bar mitzvah.    

Watson Lake was boring and we soon tired of waiting for the van to be fixed and began to wonder if we were getting hosed—despite the mechanic’s repeated assurances that the “timing belt’s all torn to rat shit” and it’d be a few days more until it was shipped in because they didn’t have this kind of timing belt in stock.  Jens phoned his mechanic back home who, it turned out, had replaced the timing belt just before we left.  We told the mechanic we didn’t need a timing belt anymore and headed into British Columbia, singing along to the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” but replacing “Brooklyn” with “Spokane” (very clever).  We stopped to skinny dip at Liard Hot Springs, only to be upbraided by a cantankerous park ranger.  

“You boys need to have trunks on, eh.”  It was dark and we didn’t see what was the big damn deal.  The Germans at the other end of the pool giggled in German.     

We arrived in Spokane to see Wolfie, the newest resident at a Catholic seminary at the University of Gonzaga.  It was the first year in a long struggle for Wolf, who (thank god) is now married with children.  We arrived, rank and rancid, exhibiting precious little respect for Wolf’s new spiritual environs.  I sported a Bad Religion t-shirt, despite Wolfie’s entreaty I not. 

“Dave, I’m brand new to this place and I’m trying to make a good impression.  Do have to wear that shirt?”

“Don’t worry about it, bro!  It’s just a t-shirt.”

Poor ol’ Wolf was a bundle of nerves for the better part of our visit, and must have enjoyed some modicum of relief upon the departure of the pungent trio of irreverent teenagers.  

Heading west, we spent a night in the Washington desert at Moses Lake.  We camped under the stars which shot through the night sky at an astonishing rate.

“I’ve never seen shooting stars like this!  Amazing.  There’s another one!  And another one!”

“Man, I can’t believe it.  These stars are falling all over the place.”  I hadn’t seen many shooting stars, and we saw dozens that night through the cold desert air.  I am not able to see stars anymore, but these were so brilliant I couldn’t miss them.

In Oregon, we visited our second hot springs, this time at midday.  This one was of the nudist variety, but in the clear light of day, Jens, Craig and I were too shy for au natural so there we sat with naked hippies all around us—wearing our trunks, just as the Canadian park ranger had instructed.

Back at the parking lot, a hippie couple asked us if we’d give them a ride into town.

“You bet!” Jens jubilantly agreed without consulting Craig or me.  “We just need to get some things ready first.”

“Damn it, Jens!” Craig hissed under his breath.  “They’re disgusting hippies!  Look at ’em!”  Craig was right.  The disgusting hippies were going to have to figure out something else.  But who would tell them?  This day was getting more and more awkward.

“Screw ’em.  Let’s just bail.”

Craig and I hid in the van, and Jens pulled the mask of his polar army hat over his face, put on sunglasses, stuck a corn cob pipe in his mouth, and shot out of the parking lot with the hippies chasing us in the dust yelling “Hey!  You forgot about us!”

“Well, that’s what they get for being a dirty hippies,” as we motored south for California.   

One night, strolling through North Beach down Broadway in San Francisco—Jens singing in a booming baritone, “If you’re going to San Franthithco”—we decided to visit an adult establishment called the Lusty Lady.  This was one of those joints where men put quarters in the slot of a booth and a sliding door opens for a specific and short time while naked women dance and carry on behind glass.  The booths are small, enough room for a single person, but we inserted a quarter and all three of us crammed in.  There were mirrors on the other side of the room, and Craig and Jens could see Japanese businessmen masturbating in the reflection.  This was a rare instance in which I was glad to have poor eyesight.
  
After the Lusty Lady, we went in search of our very first strip club experience.  The place was called the Adam & Eve, and they served pop and other nonalcoholic beverages.  I stumbled through the darkness and we found a table in front of the stage.  After some time, three strippers sat at our table.  

“You boys wanna buy us drinks?”

Green as grass, the three bumpkins glanced at each other as house music bumped on the sound system.  Strobes and other lights flashed about the room, distorting what little light existed apart from the state.  As is usual in clubs, I could vaguely see or hear.

Buy them drinks?  What the hell?

“You work here,” Jens pointed out.  “Don’t you get free soda?  Why don‘t you buy us drinks?”     

The girls giggled as Jens and Craig were led away by two of them, leaving me to chat awkwardly with the third, Cinnamon or Sparkles or whatever.  

“Where are you from?”

“Alaska.”

“Long way from home.”

“Say what?”  I leaned my ear nearer her mouth.

“I said you’re a long way from home!”

“Oh.  Yep.  Long way.”

“So, you want to buy me a drink, or what?”

These women must be thirsty from all that dancing. “What, like a Coke?”

“Yeah, like a Coke.  We don’t serve alcohol.”

“Okay, sure, what the hell?”  I reached into my wallet and grabbed a few bills, not knowing what was what.  “How much, like a couple bucks?”

The stripper giggled faux-flirtatiously, fiddling with my hair.  “Drinks are forty, sweetie.”

Techno music continued to throb.  “Wait, what?  Forty?”

“Yeah, forty.  C’mon, buy me a drink!”

“That seems like a lot for a Coke.”  But by now I’d already begun handing her bill after bill, which I’d thought to be but a few bucks.  It turned out to be more like eighty.  My face reddened and sweated as the strobe lit darkness, the noise, and the overabundance of naked women proved too much for my nascent manhood.  Before our forty dollar Cokes arrived, I snapped, springing from the table in exasperated confusion, tripping over chairs and strippers, stomping off to track down Craig and Jens.

I found them chatting with their respective dancers. 

“Yeah,” Craig agreed.  “Let’s get outta here.  They just want our money.”

“No shit.  I’m pretty sure I just gave that stripper eighty bucks.”

“What?  ‘Pretty sure’…what do you mean?”

“I—I—”   

“You think you gave one of the strippers eighty bucks?”  The boys made no effort to control their hysterics. 

I held my wallet close to my face.  “I—I was confused!  I didn’t know how much I was giving her.  It all happened so fast!  I’m realizing now I gave her four twenties—”

“Well you should at least get a lap dance!” Jens squealed with glee. 

The clouds parted.  “Oh, is that what that was all about?  Yeah, that makes more sense.  I’m an idiot.”

A renewed burst of laughter and agreement.

“C’mon, Davy!  That chick owes you a lap dance!”  Jens grabbed my arm and dragged me back towards the entrance.  

“Well, I’m sure as shit not in the mood for a lap dance now!”  

“No, I don’t suppose you are!”  Craig was enjoying this entirely too much.   

“Fuck you, Craig!  Fuck strip clubs!  This sucks!  I want my money back!”

 “You wanna get a refund, Davy?  Why don’t you head on in and ask her for your money back!” Jens was also enjoying this entirely too much, but I found it difficult to see the humor.  I could have made a lot of spam butts with that money.  

Humiliated, “You guys are assholes.”

“Dave, we love you!”  Jens let go of my arm and threw his around my neck and we slinked down Broadway deeper into the red light district.  “Cheer up, Big Buddy!”

“I feel like a fool.”

“You are a fool!” Craig concurred.

Jens laugher and broke into song: “If you’re going to San Franthithco…”  

The van was deteriorating before our eyes.  Somewhere along the way first gear and reverse broke; furthermore, it was leaking oil so badly we needed a new quart every fifty miles or so--a strain on the budget and a constant annoyance.  Starting early in the trip, Jens had disallowed Craig or I from driving, so our permanent job was to push the van like Olympic bobsledders until we had the momentum to jump in and take off in second gear.  

We focused on rock climbing, hitting world-class spots like Smith Rocks, Yosemite and Joshua Tree.  We played chess and debated religion, philosophy, and physics.  Jens lacked actual knowledge on the topic, and was no match for the Craig's math background, but his imagination was vivid enough to sustain and arguments on theoretical grounds.  Religiously, we were all disinclined, although Jens was fond of claiming to be a communist Mormon, owing first to his desire to see the basic needs of people met, and secondly based to the appeal of that religion's sexually charged conception of the afterlife.  It was all a bit tongue-in-cheek, as Jens found theistic and creationist accounts of the universe to be the height of idiocy.   

By late-November we had pushed that VW all over the southwestern states, and into Socorro, New Mexico where we had friends attending NM Tech.  We sat around smelling repugnant and not doing much, so we decided to go hiking for a couple of days.  Happy to get us out of their house, our hosts told us about Strawberry Peak several miles across the desert off the highway.

“There’s a concrete altar at the top some nut-job techie built back in the day.  Apparently he dragged cement, water, rebar all the way to the summit.  I guess he made sacrifices to Martians with a tinfoil hat and the whole nine.  It’s kind of a legend around here.”

Intruiging.  We headed out, but I twisted my ankle descending into a ditch by the parking lot.  

On my ass I grasped my ankle in dismay.  “That was like the third step of this hike!  Goddamn this hurts!”  The only sensible thing was to chalk it up as a loss and let Craig and Jens carry on without me, so the three of us continued across the high desert on our pilgrimage to the Altar of the Alien Gods.  

With each step, my ankle worsened, but I wanted to see this altar and make a few sacrifices of my own.  Having to favor my left ankle, it wasn’t long before I twisted it, too.  Now I was completely out of good ankles and walking in sand over rocks and through brambles was twice as difficult.  We trespassed military land and camped in an area where they tested bombs.  For some reason, the only food we had was a couple bags of nuts and some chili which was gone after the first night.

The next day we reached the windy summit.  The altar was indeed fashioned of concrete and rebar, and was larger than I’d expected.  Naturally, we stripped naked and sacrificed a cigarette and a comb to the alien gods, made gestures with some malachite crystals we found in the altar’s tabernacle, and danced atop the high, frigid New Mexican peak.  After sending smoke signals to any extraterrestrials interested in reading them, we dressed and headed down the mountain and back across the long stretch of badland into town.  We’d polished off the nuts and started to become really hungry. [what a great sentence].  I fell every other step or so because my ankles no longer functioned as ankles but also because it was dark and the desert was fraught with rocks and boulders, ditches, trenches, brush and cacti.  On several occasions I fell on a cactus.

“Fuck!” Who knew falling a cactus would hurt so much?  “This is ridiculous,” grumbling as I stumbled across the wasteland.  “I can’t see a thing in this shit.”

Craig and Jens did their best to help, but there wasn’t much they could do, until Jens (always the innovator) looped a piece of climbing webbing through his belt and I took hold of the other end.  

“Just follow me, Big Buddy.  I’ll let you know what we’re coming into.  OK, we’ve got a steep downward slope for about ten feet...Alright, now it’s smooth sailing...Now we got a shit ton of brush and cactus on all sides, so you’re gonna wanna walk directly behind me."

We staggered along, me tugging at Jens’ waste, Jens never with a murmur of complaint.

“Smooth sailing, now Davy Sprocket!”

He was my talking desert guide dog, and though it must have been a huge pain in the ass to have a grown man hitched to his belt with a piece of nylon webbing, Jens reassured, “No, no Davy…you’d do the same for me.”  

On we trekked across the New Mexican countryside, weak from hunger, and wishing we’d brought more nuts.  I assumed my ankles would need to be amputated once we got back to town through all that darkness.  

It seemed like Jens could see anything in the dark.

The years went on, and Jens had many more adventures, including a hitch as a U.S. Army Ranger sniper.  Following his military service, he returned to Alaska, and our renewed friendship grew and morphed over time as friendships do.  He studied science at the university, and,  to the bewilderment of his professors, wrote lengthy and disorganized polemics on a vast range of scientific topics, oftentimes irrespective of the assignment.  When he was neither working nor sleeping, he wrote prodigiously.  But before long, he dropped out to pursue a career in business, at which he was a success, in the traditional sense, I suppose.  His attention to details was impeccable (if not maniacal) and his work ethic was indefatigable (if not addictive).

We became very close, and I was happy he'd decided to move back to Alaska.  But we'd butted heads from time to time.  Socially, Jens could be exasperating.  He and alcohol didn’t mix well, and he’d do whatever necessary to be the center of attention, even if it meant playing the role of the sociopath.  Dozens of bizarre anecdotes circulate (too many to relate) but one fight in particular ended with Jens and I taking several months apart from one another.  Upon returning from a uniquely antisocial performance at a friend’s party, I repeatedly told him he’d been acting like “a little bitch”—a moniker employed by his stepfather during Jens’ youth: a sacred cow I didn't know about. 

Months of silence passed until eventually a peace was brokered, but things were never quite the same between us.  With time, we became more distant, and Jens began associating with my friends rather than with me.  (With Abe, Craig and Wolf out of the state, he had few friends of his own outside work).  We always loved each other, and we’d make time (and he’d always insist upon picking up the tab).  But as his obsession with work intensified, our dialogues became monologues.  His career consumed him, and he grew even more distant. 

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when things began their decent in earnest.  Presently, Jens began to suffer delusions.  He would do and say strange things, even for Jens’ standard.  He thought F-15s were following him.  He thought the government was monitoring his activities.  On one occasion, his stepfather phoned me to see what could be done to commit Jens to the local mental institution.  Communications with Abe, Wolf and Craig ultimately concluded that I didn’t have the legal power to commit Jens to the facility without his approval.  On two occasions I confronted him about his delusions, but with supreme deftness, Jens skirted the questions and assured me everything was just fine.  Instead of pressing the point, however, I dropped it.  I have never completely forgiven myself for that.    

He suffered so mightily and so hopelessly, he turned to the place hurting people often turn to in their darkest hours: religion.  Where to begin?  He quit chewing tobacco (a vice he’d struggled with for years) and commited himself to a life of strict celibacy.  He became a vegan, and dedicated his time to prayer and the study of holy writ.  He never cussed, never discussed anything vulgar, and drank nothing stiffer than chamomile tea.   Weary of his life in Alaska and his struggle to create himself, he sold his house and moved into my parents’ camper trailer.  From my father’s shop he built a fiberglass shell for his truck: a portable monk’s cell in which to live his ascetic existence and practice his ecclesiastical studies, which, like his studies in science and business, surpassed mere obsession.

Our conversations became still more distant, disconnected.  I considered his newfound religiosity ridiculous, and wondered if he wasn’t better off without it.  Sure, Jens was a nut, but who was this stoical man sipping tea and speaking of sin and salvation in my parents' kitchen?  

In September 2007, he said goodbye and left for the Lower 48.  Despite pleas from my parents, his friends, and from his family, he would not reveal where he was planning to go.

  “I don’t know…California…Mexico…Maine…wherever.”

I wasn’t getting a more specific answer out of him, either.  

“You gonna pursue religious stuff while you’re gone?”

“Oh yeah.  I’m going to go to churches, synagogues, mosques, Buddhist temples, you name it.  I’m open to whatever.”  

A few months after he left, he called me.  He was in Bend, Oregon.

“I just wanted to say bye for now, Dave.  I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, and I won’t be in contact by email or phone or anything for awhile.  I’ll see you again, but I just don’t know when, and I wanted to say goodbye.”

At this point, I had accepted that Jens was going to need to do what he needed to do.  There was never any stopping him, and I sure as hell wasn‘t going to be able to this time.  I concluded he’d be alright, and I took him at his word he just needed to sort some things out.  “Okay, Big Buddy.  Contact me, though, please, please.  When you can.  And Craig, Abe, and Wolf.  And my parents.  We love the shit out of you, Jens.  I know you need to go and make your discoveries, and I support you in that.  But I don’t want to lose touch with you.”

“Well, I don’t know, Dave.  We’ll see.  But hey, you take care of yourself, Dave.”

I heard later he was living at the Salton Sea in California, a renowned haunt for religious whack-jobs and Jesus freaks.  I'd heard that his father found him there, living a vagrant’s existence, digging in dumpsters and sleeping outside.  He had given away his truck and camper shell.  Craig, Wolf, Abe and I received second and third hand reports from time to time, and while Craig was the most worried, I remained confident Jens would sort shit out and eventually come home.

On the morning of Thursday, March 5, 2009 I awoke in my apartment in Buenos Aires.  I made mate and checked my email.  In my inbox was a message from Jens.

“Holy shit!  Jens!  No way!”  It had been over a year since our phone conversation.  The subject line read simply “Jens.” 

Why would Jens put his own name in the subject line?

I opened it.  The message was not from Jens.  It read:

This is Jens' Mom, Cheryl writing to all of you.  Jens had given me his password and I never thought I would have to use it.

I just got a call from the California coroner's office and Jens was hit and killed by a semi truck.  Unfortunately, that is all the information I have right now until I speak with the investigator.   As a mother, this brings me the deepest sorrow and grief.  I'm so overwhelmed right now I can't even think of the right words, but I know that you were his dearest friends and he would want you to all know how much you meant to him over the years....

I sprang from my chair, hands on my face.

I wish I could say Jens found what he was looking for, but I don’t believe he did.  It’d be soothing if there was some poetic closure, some peaceful way to make the loss easier, but there’s not.  He died too soon, he died too young, he died before he could slay his own demons, and he died without the answers he sought.  I am as sure of that as I can be.

It was ruled an accident, but it wasn’t.  He committed suicide.  Despite every attempt to convince ourselves suicide was not Jens’ way, and that dragging another person—the trucker—into his death was not the sort of thing he could ever do, I am nearly certain he did just that.  He was just so sick by that time.  This was his final step away from those who loved him. 

I called Abe, and when I told him Jens had died, his first response was, "How?  Suicide?"

"Yes, probably."

For Craig, the idea of Jens dying in some random, freak accident was too much to bear.  "I hope he died because he chose to die," he told us.  I soon came to agree with Craig.   

It was Wolf who suggested that the suicide was years in the making, that Jens’ retreat from us, slow though it was, was a means of blood letting until he ultimately bled to death, this to ease us, to prepare us, to make his death less sudden. 

If this was his intention, he failed.

Craig’s father shook our hands, hugged his son, and bade us be careful.  We packed the last of our gear into the VW and sped north up the Glenn Highway, cheering and banging our fists on the roof, more alive than we’d ever felt before, ablaze with a joy sparkling in every cell of our bodies.  We were men now, and we were free!  On the road the world was open to us, there for the taking, as they say.  We’d escaped our youths and our homes, and before us, all was new.  Behind us was, well, behind us, and that was all we wanted.  After all, we had nothing to live for up here.

7 comments:

  1. This is beautiful, Dave. RIP, Jens.

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  2. Wow Dave. That must have been hard to write, but it was beautiful. I love imagining your five youthful faces being in such familiar places.

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  3. Beautiful, Dave. I'm so glad you wrote about this--for Jens' sake and all of us who often feel we don't have much to live for up here. You're a brilliant writer.

    PS I'm pretty stoked you rocked your Bad Religion t-shirt at Catholic Seminary school. Don't ever get rid of that thing...

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  4. Dave, you're an amazing writer. I'm so sorry for your loss..also for Craig, Wolf and Abe. This story brought me to tears. Memory Eternal, Jens.

    Anna

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  5. Better than any obituary. And I mean it.

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  6. Finally took the time to sit down with my full attention to read this. And I am wiping the tears from my eyes. Well done.

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