Some Kind of a Life
by Alison Hess
I cannot tell my right from my left. The trick with making an L with your index finger and thumb doesn’t work for me, because I get confused as to which way the L actually goes. I can read perfectly well, which is a good thing since I manage a bookstore. I discovered a small freckle on the inside of my left index finger. It’s a difficult place for a person to see. But that’s how I know it’s my left hand. It’s truly the only way. The freckle is fading a bit, and I’m thinking of getting a tiny tattoo—like just a droplet of ink. But I hate the sound those needles make. I walk by the tattooing parlor on Auburn Street every day and wave to Joe who works there, but I don’t like to go in. I am thinking of getting a tattoo now though. I don’t even think I’ll feel it. I’m just trying to figure out what grief looks like.
Doug died on Saturday. I don’t know how to talk about it, so I’ll just say it. Doug died. He’d be the reason for the tattoo, mostly because I feel like he’d appreciate it. Maybe a little banjo on my ankle. Or maybe I’ll just get a D on my finger and solve everything at once. But I don’t know if Doug should be the reason I’d know whether I’m going the right way.
In college, Doug was a year above me, 13 inches taller and could hug me inside his big warm arms like curtains away from the world. We were both outcasts in the same way, somehow. Neither of us felt smart enough to be at our college. Doug got a baseball scholarship, even though they don’t admit to giving them out. It was the perfect sport for him; he would stand on the pitcher’s mound above all else, saunter between batters, charm the crowd with the nod of his hat—then rip a fastball before anyone much knew what happened. He was like that—never taking himself too seriously while everyone else just thought he was the bee’s knees. That’s what my mom called him when she met him on parent’s weekend, and I was so embarrassed. But he was just that great.
As for how I ended up at the school, I think they needed someone from South Dakota. They boast about having someone from all 50 states in each class, and I suppose the options were slim. Doug started in 2002 and I started in 2003. We met in the dining hall because we were both working there. Sophomores don’t usually have to have the worst job on campus, but Doug didn’t mind doing it twice. He made friends with the cleaning staff and the cooks in their mandatory paper hats. He was serving potatoes on my first day I slid in behind the green beans beside him. He smiled down and me said, “Jeet?” in a crazy-thick Rhode Island accent. I started laughing. I was mostly trying not to smile too big because he was making me fall in love right there. He chuckled with me and tried again, “Did you eat?” I closed my eyes for just a second and smiled and said, “Not yet. I wasn’t sure if I should come hungry.” We both kept serving, him using something like an ice cream scoop to put a potato globe on everyone’s plate and me using tongs to collect the beans. Doug said, “Well if yuh still feel like food when we’re through, I’ll take you to Drigg.” That was what everyone called the sophomore’s dining hall, although anyone could technically go there. I said, “That’d be nice,” and meant it more than anything.
That was the beginning, and the best beginning I could imagine. But we never had sex in college. We’d just smoke joints and listen to bluegrass music in his room. We watched every South Park episode on his computer, leaning in to the little screen until I could hear his breathing. Doug would play the banjo for me, and I’d never know what to do when he did. I always wanted to tap my fingers on his thick thigh to the beat. But I never did. Sometimes the girls would dance a little, but I never did that either. I like to think I was too special for him to fuck at that point. He would fool around with the girls in his dorm, just to get off once in a while I think. There were 3 floors in the dorm, and from the bottom they went “beer,” “bitches” and “bud.” So it was football players, the prep-school WASPS that had lots of college sex—and then Doug and his friends who were an odd assortment of geology majors, Phish heads and writers.
I think maybe Doug knew he wouldn’t last at that school and tried to spare me the heartache. His sophomore year was his last. I was never really sure if he flunked out, got caught with weed, his parents couldn’t pay, or what. Doug just said, “Ginny my lou, I’ll be in P’tuckit anytime you want me.” He called me that, like some kind of version of “skip to my lou” that I never really understood. But I loved it because he called me his.
Those days were the start of our email correspondence. I printed each message in my room because I never wanted to accidentally leave anything on the printer in the library. I have 902 emails stuffed into folders with college seals. I moved them from my sophomore dorm to my junior dorm, to my senior house off campus—and then to closet top shelves in the various apartments I’ve had since. Every time a little more heft, a quiet lining of the heart.
I’m re-shingling my parent’s roof and starting a band. I went to Providence to hear The String Cheese Incident. Amazing. Think I’m gonna take up mandolin, too. There’s one in the pawnshop that looks perfect.
How’s all the readin’ and writin’ treatin’ yuh, smaht girl?
Over and out—
I’m eating in Drigg these days, but it’s not as exciting now that I’m not sneaking in with you. The big development is sushi on Tuesdays. Pretty major, right? Ha. But you have to get there at 5 to get anything but vegetable. And you know me…I’m not gonna duke it out over a tuna roll.
I learned something in my English class the other day that I thought was cool. It’s that in ancient Greece, the dead were buried with a coin between their front teeth to pay the ferryman to cross the River Styx. It was like going across the river got them to heaven. So I think your “whistling teeth,” where a coin would fit just dandy, are actually an attribute of the divine. Uh huh.
How’s the fam?
Some of the printouts have hearts drawn on them, but it’s not really why you think. Just like I can’t tell left from right, I also can’t draw a symmetrical heart. I figured it out in kindergarten, when they gave us some test to see how much we knew. We had to draw a heart and an X and a circle. I’d played lots of tic-tac-toe with my brother and the X and the O were totally fine, but the heart I just couldn’t do. No matter whether I started at the bottom or the valley up top, it always came out lopsided, even to this day.
I got through college feeling like I only had one foot in. I went from working at the dining hall to working at a museum run by the college. All I had to do was make sure kids didn’t touch the art. And even when they did, I just said, “Hey if you’d stop touching that, that’d be great.” Most of the time I could just wander around and read the descriptions over and over and get lost in the period rooms. Once there was an exhibit of war propaganda and I used my discount to buy a poster that said, “Production or destruction?” I just liked it, I guess. But I’ve never really done either.
After I graduated, I moved across the state to Boston, which seemed to be where most people went. It was only an hour from Rhode Island, where Doug had never left. But at that point he was doing a tour out west with his band and seeing a girl named Leigh who seemed cool enough. I lived in Somerville in an old wooden house with 3 other girls and tried to start some kind of a life. I dated a biology grad student at Tufts who had a ferret for a pet. He kind of looked like a ferret too, now that I think about it. But he’d load 5 Bob Dylan CDs into his player and we’d just make out while it shuffled. He’d run his fingers over my body and tell me how it worked. He’d put his clammy palm beneath my left breast and say, “Your spleen is right here, busy removing red blood cells and recycling iron.” After a few organs, I’d kiss him to make him stop, while the ferret scratched like a warning in its cage.
I got the email about Doug two days ago. It was from one of his friends from that 3rd floor of his last dorm. The subject line was “Sad news,” and my heart started to speed. I opened it and just stared for a long time.
With much sadness, I need to tell you that our friend Doug O’Keefe passed away Friday morning. I’m not sure if you already heard, but this is to make sure that you know. I’m including a link to the obituary in his town’s paper and my favorite picture of him. We all have good memories. Let’s not forget them.
Then I clicked the obituary in his town paper. There was a schedule for services and a string of comments from people sending condolences. I wrote back to Roger and asked him if he knew how it happened. I also added that Doug and I had seen a lot of each other the year before last and I was very shocked and sad. Roger wrote back and said,
Ah Ginny, you were always his favorite. Here’s what I know: Doug was on a job in Newport, putting slate shingles on one of those waterfront mansions, and he slipped. Slate in rain. Simple as that. But his family wants to keep the details private. Let’s all have a ‘beah’ in his honor tonight. He’d want that.
Simple as that. Simple as that Doug climbed a ladder rung-by-rung, his giant feet arcing across the metal. Simple as that he smiled to his crew above and below, yelling to one of his boys to steady huh legs and another to line the tiles with cayah. And simple as that he fell down at many times the velocity at which he’d risen.
Or maybe it was slower than I think. Maybe the cool earth felt a shadow grow on its skin and sucked in a hot breath to accept him. Maybe he tumbled into perfect outfield turf, the kind that lines the lawns of the rich. Yes, the fresh-cut kind that shivers across bare soles. Like the touch of skilled, calloused palms across a nervous virgin body. Doug’s rugged limbs as cradled as a seamed ball in the pocket of a much-loved glove. My right hand on my left heart. My two left feet finding his right rhythm. My right heart forever beating for his body that left.
Alison Hess spent a decade working in advertising and is now effectively working the system. Her first story was published in American Letters & Commentary. She lives in Brooklyn.