Monday, September 9, 2013

The Moth and the Flame

My friend, Duke is going to prison and I smile.

I met Duke in the aftermath of Johnny’s death.  We both wrote on his memory page in the virtual version of the Chicago Tribune.  Jessie, one of the bartenders at the Metro down in Union Station introduced us to one another.   We talked and I showed him the poem I wrote about Johnny.  He liked it. I asked him to tell me his real name. He smiled and said that Duke is my real name. He showed me his driver’s license to prove it.  After that we became friends who rode the train together. Then we became brothers. We figured out that we lived only a few miles from each other; that our kids went to the same high school.  We also figured out that we shared exactly the same values, the same love for our families both immediate and extended.  We commiserated that because of work we were not ever to be there for them as much as we wanted to be.

One night Duke said to me, “My son is concerned about us.”  I asked why. “He wanted to know if you knew that people I become friends with seem to have a tendency to die.”  I thought for a minute and I said, “Well, Duke, mine do too.  Maybe God brought us together so we can cancel that out.” Fifteen years; so far, so good.

During our friendship I got to meet Duke’s brothers, his parents and grandparents; and all of their families. I gained something special.  I got people I care about as much as I care about my own family.  Duke’s brother, Mark, is the miracle man of Lou Gehrig’s disease and my greatest inspiration as I deal with Parkinson’s.  I got to see pictures of him with his grandchild the other day and I cried. He is a freak of nature that one, but when I contemplate God, no matter how skeptical I am, I have to have to think a little harder when I think of Mark.

Duke and I flew to Kansas City so we could play in a charity golf tournament in the town not far away where Duke’s family lives.  It was a hot day, almost 120 degrees.  I got loopy at the silent auction and bought a George Brett signed baseball and a painting that Mark did.   When I wake up every morning, I see that ball sitting in the signed George Brett mitt that was a gift from my father, and Mark’s painting over my grandfather’s desk. What a marvelous way to greet the dawn.  The Johnsons have never let me down.

That night we played golf I fell asleep in a lawn chair in Scott's front yard. Mark asked "Should we just leave him here?" Duke said , "Do you have wolves?" Scott said, "No, we don't.  Well, at least not wolves."  I groggily said, "Why don't you just drown me in the pond?" Scott with no beat.  "Too many questions for me to answer . Let's go inside, brother."  

My friend Duke, is going to prison this week, and as I said, I can’t be more proud about that.

Here is the poem I wrote about our friend Johnny that led to me and Duke becoming friends:

They come in when the lights go on
At night we like to light candles
We watch them, large in their muted beige finery,
Punctuated with black orbs, like eyes,
As they flutter around the flame,
And we wonder what will happen first:
Will their flapping extinguish the light, or
Will they finally burn to death?

Tequila Johnny
Stolid, barely a nod on the sidewalk
When you saw him at lunch
As we pass the Plaza and the Bean
Wondering if he did not recognize you
But you knew he did.
He was separating
One life from the other.

A brilliant mathematical mind
Who couldn’t handle it.
Shooting pool all night
In a bar in Union Station
With his tie around his head
Doing perfect, lyrical bird calls
To get the keep, Robin’s, attention
Asking for yet another Corona
And yet another shot.

After much cajoling he bought a house
That he loved very much
He started going home at five o’clock to sand floors
We were happy for him
We worried less.

He didn’t listen to his preacher father’s words though
Not more than a month later
He coked out dead,
In front of his sister,
On a scratched up felt table
In rural Wisconsin,
Leaving nothing behind but memories.

Dylan Thomas is steeped with irony
He said, “Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Then at his pinnacle he took too many drinks
At the White Horse Tavern,
New York City.
They found him dead at 39
Face down in the Chelsea Hotel

There is the moth and there is the flame.
Killing yourself doesn’t have to happen
In an instant
With a single decision.
Sometimes it takes time.

There is after all
More than one way to skin a cat.

Regardless,
A skinned cat is still
A dead cat.


Duke was always the consummate salesperson.  A smile and a shoeshine; that was him. Charisma was his stock in trade. Friends with popes and Amish alike. Now he is going to prison and I couldn’t be happier. He is not going as an inmate. He is going as a counselor and I think he will be brilliant.  Because of him, there is bound to be at least one less moth charging into flame.