literature: Just One Slice of Life

September 28, 2004: Bobby Fuhrel contributed this first person narrative that features an unexpected twist at the end.

Looking at the objects I carry on my keychain, I see one I’ve had since 1983 when it was given to me by a now-departed brother. I’d just returned from four years out in the Pacific Islands and had looked up my closest buddy, Doug, with whom I’d gone through fraternity Hell Week and lots of other pleasant, exciting adventures. While I was soaking up Polynesia, Doug had returned to India for a second time, bringing back boxes of mother-of-pearl mortars and pestles, which he called coca canoes, white cotton meditation pajamas, elaborately embroidered sari borders, silk scarves, sandalwood business cards and cases of incense, along with hundreds of striped, carpet material shoulder bags made by Tibetan refugees in Nepal. On one of the main drags in town near the university, he’d opened a small storefront known as the Karma Trading Company.

So one Florida August afternoon, I strolled down the sand alley to his compound in the old hippie ghetto section of town and reached over the seven foot fence to ring the hidden buzzer. Doug’s girl Gale came out onto the landing on the second floor of the garage apartment behind the large house on the street. She was as thin and pale as ever, and she called down to me, "Doug’s at the Guz," not realizing I didn’t know that a nearby florist had been half taken over by a locals bar called the "Guzzling Gator."

"Where’s the Guz?" I asked her, and she pointed out toward University Avenue.

"Just across the street; can’t miss it," she responded, so I headed over to where my pal conducted his occasionally shady business.

I found Doug inside, at the bar with a St. Pauli Girl and the usual Braves game on the t.v. We hugged, and he told me he had to drive out toward Newberry; did I want to come along?

"Why not?"

"You’ll have to wait in the car for a while," he informed me. "You don’t want to know what’s happening in there."

"That’s cool." I loved his orange 240 Z, and the weather was cooler out of town, so the idea of a wait didn’t bother me.

So we cruised out State Road 26 west of town, and I waited under a live oak while Doug went inside. He wasn’t gone long. When he came back to the car, he handed me this small, flat, silver knife/bottle opener with "Guinness" engraved on one side and a harp on the back. Grady owed him something he couldn’t pay, so he gave him this knife, and Doug, knowing my love of Irish literature and history, thought I’d appreciate it more than he. That has turned out to be true, but for a reason neither of us could have imagined.

At that time, Doug and I had known each other for about eighteen years. I knew his family as well, and his mother Dot had always welcomed me and others among her son’s friends. When his import business succeeded, she got a house and a car in town, and so I came to know her better than the mothers of any of my other friends. She was cool, a part of his life but never a nag, someone we, barely adults ourselves, could talk to as someone with much worldly wisdom. Doug was in no way a "momma’s boy," but he had an unusually close relationship with his mom, and our entire group of friends came to know her.

When I first went to Polynesia, we rented our house to Doug. He promised to care for it as if it were his own. But in a less than lucid moment he had sublet it to someone we didn’t know, who essentially trashed the house and yard and fell behind in the payments. Dot was supposed to be managing it for Doug, but she was so protective of him that she wouldn’t blame him. We finally had to get an attorney to have this subletting tenant removed, and that led to an estrangement of sorts between Doug and me.

But now we were back as best friends, and any animosity between us was in the past. Things were going well, but I was having to warn Doug about his activities, that eventually they’d catch up to him. When they did, and he had to flee to the Caribbean ahead of the heat that caught another good buddy, he began to call his girlfriend at our house. That was definitely not cool, as we had been told by the feds that our phone was tapped, so we had to tell Doug to quit calling, for his own safety. We didn’t want anyone tracing the calls to where he was hiding. He thought we were afraid for our own skins, not understanding at all why we’d prevent him from calling. With one friend in jail and my best friend a fugitive, my wife and I decided to go back out to the Pacific.

So with Doug somewhere in the Caribbean and us back in Polynesia, this time outside of Hilo on the Big Island of Hawai’i, we had little day to day control over what happened to our Florida house and no contact whatsoever with Doug. I felt terrible, but what could I do? I’d been acting only to save his hide from the cops.

We finally managed to get in touch with Dot, who explained how upset Doug had been when we told him not to call any more. We in turn explained to her why we had had to tell him that. She understood, and told us she’d contact him for us. But she also said that she had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and had only months to live.

My wife decided that, to show our gratitude for her putting us back in touch with Doug, we should invite Dot to come out to Hawai’i. for one final visit. When Doug was little, they had lived there, and my wife wanted to meet her in Honolulu and take her to all the places she had lived in back then. Dot accepted, and my wife spent three days with her, touring the spots Dot remembered so fondly, before they came over to our apartment in Keaukaha.

Dot surprised us both by asking if we knew a nice local church; she said in her final days she wanted to get right with God. In all the years I had known her, I had never seen a religious side. As it happens, we’d been going to a Hawai’ian language service nearby where true aloha flowed. So that Sunday, we took Dot, and she really loved it. Instead of a simple handshake as a sign of peace, the congregation spent a good fifteen minutes hugging everybody there. The abundance of flowers made incense superfluous. Dot was thrilled by the entire event.

I accompanied her to Honolulu and wheeled her to her plane. We both knew we’d not meet again.

She returned to Florida. About three months later, we got a call from her daughter, Doug’s sister Kathy. We learned that Dot had been writing a letter of thanks to Father George, the pastor in Keaukaha, when she died. But in the unfinished letter she had requested something special, a funeral at his church, with him presiding, and a burial at sea in Hawai’i. Kathy asked us if we could arrange it.

We did, and Kathy flew out with Dot’s remains. Dot’s photo was displayed, framed by plumeria, on the altar next to her urn. Many people remembered her, and the church was packed. All we had to do afterwards was find the perfect spot to spread her ashes.

Kathy, my wife, and I left the church with Dot in Kathy’s arms. We drove further down the Keaukaha peninsula. After parking the car, we hiked through grassy undergrowth to a spot under the palms popular with locals for picnicking and snorkeling, a series of lava outcroppings, blowholes, and tidal pools. Carefully climbing over the jagged a’a lava, we found a tidepool where Dot would be sheltered for as long as possible before eventually merging with the glowing sand.

Kathy handed me the dark brown, heavy plastic box serving as an urn. That I opened easily, but inside it I found that Dot’s ashes, really more like gravel, were still enclosed in a transparent, double-duty plastic bag.

I paused, wondering how to open it.

" I can’t just smash it on a rock or rip it across the lava," I thought aloud. Biting into it struck me as completely inappropriate.

" Let me see if there’s something in the car," my wife suggested.

I stood there perplexed for a moment. Then I had it. I reached into my pocket. There I felt the keys with the Guinness knife. The reason I’d been carrying it, through good times and bad with Doug, was obvious. With one quick but careful slash, I was able to release his mom to flow into the gently waving ocean.

When Kathy returned to Florida and told Doug what had occurred in Hawai’i, naturally he realized our intentions had been honorable all along. From then until his death eleven years later, we were brothers once again.