Tuesday, May 6, 2014
On Terry Dilley
I TOOK THE BAR EXAM in June in 1979 at a hockey arena in St. Paul. Before test results were announced, I moved to Austin, Minnesota where I had been hired as an associate at a small-town law firm. I began my law practice in July 1979. For a couple of years, I was lonely and unhappy in Austin. The town was very different from the suburbs where I had been raised, a blue- collar meat-packing community on the flat and featureless prairie. The kinds of people that I met in Austin, mostly farmers and butchers, were unfamiliar to me. I worked long hours and wasn’t confident that I had the skills to be successful as a lawyer – I wasn’t interested in business or finance or politics. My girlfriend refused to accompany me when I moved and, after a few months, our relationship ended. I was homesick for the restaurants and cinemas in Minneapolis, the streets and bus-routes that I knew by heart, the art museums and the lakes in their moist, green parks, and my friends from High School and College.
After awhile, I became, more or less, accustomed to Austin. I made a few friends and began a disastrous romance with a local woman. I moved from my apartment across from the parking lot of the Community College to a house a couple blocks down the street. One weekend, I had a party. We opened some folding chairs around a plump, silver keg of beer in the tiny garage behind my home and people gathered there and the sun was warm and the garage had a shack-smell of dry wood and creosote shingles. Picnic bugs with leopard-patterned carapaces crawled on our bare legs and hands sipping sweat and spilled beer. The weather was hot, but not humid and, it was early summer, so that the afternoon seemed endless.
I had met some musicians who played Fridays and Saturdays in local taverns and they knew a couple people from the Community College. A few of my friends came down from Minneapolis and they pitched small tents in the backyard so that they could spend the night. Everyone was very happy and there were girls at the party flirting with us, enough of a scent of sex in the air to liberate the tongue to flights of eloquence and I remember that our conversation was vivid and enlivened with bright, fantastical flourishes. Although many of the people at the party didn’t know one another, they all seemed surprisingly pleased to be together.
At the party, I met a dapper, little man who said that he was an instructor at the Community College. The little man was bald with a monastic fringe of hair above his ears and he had a beard neatly cut Amish-style with no moustache. The handsome little man was dressed as if he had just come from a tennis court and he was very gregarious, notably articulate, and, exceedingly, cheerful and friendly. I liked him from the moment that I saw him. The bright day brightened even more and the light seemed to expand so that distant horizons appeared gold and amber between the trees, far away vistas illuminated as if particularly favored by the sun strolling overhead, and, then, shadows unscrolled across the lawns and the air became green and blue and grey.
The man from the Community College told me that he taught Sociology and that he had walked from his home, a place only a half-block from the grove of old, stately trees decorating the campus and shadowing the sidewalk that led to the brick college buildings where he worked. I found the little man’s conversation fascinating, and, in fact, I spent much of the party talking closely with him and neglecting my other guests. I remember that the teacher from the college called the gathering a “rat-killing,” a phrase that I had never heard. My new friend told me that he sometimes spent Sunday evenings reading, and discussing Plato with one of the musicians that I knew from the downtown bars. He suggested that I join the reading group. I was skeptical. I didn’t know anything about philosophy, had never read Plato, and instinctively distrusted most abstract ideas. I was a modern man and an attorney at law, an officer of the court, and I didn’t imagine that Plato could teach me anything useful. But, because I was fascinated by the little man and enjoyed his company, I agreed to attend one of the readings. This was how I first met my lifelong friend, Terry Dilley.
When it was quite dark, Mr. Dilley walked back to his home two or three blocks away. The evening was mild and cool and the breeze scattered the picnic bugs so that they didn’t harass us any longer. We drank until we passed out and I spent the night lying under a fragrant lilac bush on the edge of my back yard. A number of my friends slept outside that night, fallen like the casualties of some kind of skirmish, under the flowering bushes edging my lawn. Dawn came early and the sun ignited the dew and made it glisten. The people sleeping on the grass bathed in the dew and it freshened them. I stood up and stretched and felt irrationally, wonderfully happy. The morning was full of whispers and some church bells made a bouquet in the sky and, it seemed, like it would be another bright and wonderful day.
I think I was 26. When you are 26, you can spend the night outdoors, pillowed on the grass with flakes of lilac falling into your eyes and arise fresh and well-rested without any aches and pains.
SO YOU SEE that my first early memories involving Terry Dilley are entangled with recollections of being young and strong, without the aches and pains that now afflict me and relatively undamaged by life, naive enough to make new friends, yearning for sex and romance, willing to learn new things and sufficiently adventurous to explore new ideas, even ideas against which I had strong biases, for instance, Plato’s idealism and philosophy in general. I could go to a woman’s apartment and hope to seduce her and, then, fail and spend the night driving drunk on lonely rural highways under the light of the moon or, even, sleep on her hardwood floor near her cat-box without having a sore back or, even, being particularly tired the next day. I was young and optimistic after my fashion and my whole life was ahead of me.
Terry was my friend for 33 years. He died on Friday, April 25, 2014 at 11:05 am. I last spoke with him on Wednesday evening, a day and a half before his death. At that time, Terry was exceedingly weak and badly dehydrated. The corners of his mouth were encrusted with sores and his tongue was badly swollen and seemed to be rotting. But conversation was important to him and, although he was terribly sick, he spoke to me for about an hour. I had brought an article about Dante, Terry’s favorite poet, from the weekend supplement to the Wall Street Journal and I read to him from that essay. When the writer quoted someone who claimed that Dante’s “Divine Comedy” helped him to quit smoking, Terry grunted: “Enough!” I showed him an interview with the entomologist and sociobiologist, E. O. Wilson, one of Terry’s betes noire. (Many years ago, Terry attended the annual Nobel Prize conference at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter – Wilson lectured at that conference and Terry was fond of telling people that the ant-expert was the worst public speaker that he had ever heard.) We talked about mutual acquaintances and Terry tried to tell me some jokes. His voice was weak and his speech was badly impaired – I could only understand about one-third of what he told me. As was often the case, we spoke about theology, a subject in which we both had an interest. At my church, the pastors have begun the practice of offering communion by “intinction,” that is, dipping the wafer in the wine. I misheard the word “intinction” and thought that the communion was now taking place according to “intention.” I told Terry that if communion was strictly by “intention,” I would just remain comfortably ensconced in my pew, would not venture to the front of the church, and simply register with the Holy Spirit my “intention” to take the sacrament. Terry cited some canon law on that subject and told me to go to his office and, on an upper shelf, find his Benedictine missal. I located the book and held it in front of him so that he could mouth the Latin phrases explaining communion by intinction. I tried to read some of the Latin but knew that my halting and inaccurate pronunciation was painful to Terry’s ears and so, after a couple minutes, set the book aside. Terry’s mouth was terribly dry and so his companion, Marijo, dabbed at his gums with a small blue sponge attached to a clear plastic rod something like a swizzle-stick in a martini. I had completed a play and some friends were planning to read the text out loud on Saturday and I told Terry that I would video-tape the proceedings so that he could watch it. But both of us knew that he would be dead by that time.
I told Terry that I would stop by to see him on Thursday. He tried to smile at me. He could see that I was stricken by his condition and, probably, hoped to cheer me up. I told him goodbye and went outside into the cold and windy night.
For 33 years, Terry and I met once or twice a week to talk. He was opinionated, frequently held views I thought insufferable and, much of the time, I disagreed with what he said. But, of course, I was the younger man and always sought his approval. As I write these words, I am still motivated by the impulse to frame these arguments and fashion my prose to solicit his approval. For this reason, I am oppressed by a strong sense of futility. If Terry isn’t around to read these words, what is the point of writing them?
TERRY LIKED ALL SORTS OF THINGS. Here is a list: he revered Dante and felt that the Florentine poet was the world’s greatest poet. In the later part of his life, he read and re-read Marcel Proust, first in English and, then, in French. As a young man, Terry admired H. L. Mencken, who was also my father’s favorite writer. He thought Flannery O’Connor was a great short story writer; second only to Proust, Saul Bellow was his preferred novelist. He liked the Latin poetry of Catullus. In his field of professional study, Terry was enthusiastic about the writings of Max Weber, particularly his “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Terry’s favorite movie was Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. He spent his lifetime reading Montaigne and felt that the Frenchman’s Essais were an education in life as well as preparation for death. Terry’s favorite philosopher was Spinoza, although he was unable to successfully communicate his enthusiasm for this thinker to others. For years, Terry taught Ethics at the College and he was an adherent to the “Virtue Ethics” articulated by Alasdair McIntyre – Terry was a staunch opponent of Kant’s ethical dogmatism. Once, Terry attended a graduate seminar on the subject of the politics of Thomas Hobbes and this writer also appealed to him strongly. (He admired Nietzsche’s acerbic wit, but was, I think, suspicious of the German philosopher). Terry liked Tendermaid loose meat sandwiches and, sometimes, enjoyed a malted milk at that restaurant. He had a sweet-tooth and, I think, a weakness for sugary baked goods, including cookies and brownies. Terry didn’t mind Spam and, in fact, sometimes fried that meat product to accompany his breakfast. For many years, Terry coached tennis at the Community College and participated in that sport competitively until he was seventy or so. I have heard that he was an excellent player and had a very powerful serve – the ball was shot at his opponent like a cannonball.
Terry had no interest in team sports and didn’t watch football or basketball. As far as I know, he attended one professional baseball game in his entire life and said that the experience had bored him intensely. He regarded instrumentalities such as snowmobiles and motorcycles with complete disdain and said that people driving machines of that kind were assisting evolution by removing their defective DNA from the gene pool – sometimes, he called motorcyle and snowmobile enthusiasts “organ donors.” That said, Terry also enjoyed driving small, sporty cars and took pride in accelerating into sharp corners in a fast, well-tuned vehicle. Terry watched old movies on TV, but didn’t follow sitcoms or Cable News. When he was a young man, he despised dogs and pet-owners in general. Later, however, when his daughter acquired a small white dog, he liked the animal’s company and enjoyed petting the little creature. He was opposed to all wars and violence of any kind, although he acknowledged that armed conflict provided many interesting occasions for thought and was, probably, a necessary amusement for mankind.
Terry was a admirer of attractive women and, sometimes, referred to them as “tasty little kumquats.” Women enjoyed Terry’s company because of his wit and his extremely gentle manner. When he was younger, with his friend, Jack Herzog, he sometimes went to the local cemetery with women that he liked. They sat between graves enjoying the fine weather and drinking wine. Terry liked wine and knew something about how grapes were grown and their varieties. (For a time, I think he worked for the Greeks at their liquor store, delivering booze to home-bound alcoholics – this must have been shortly after he moved to town.) He disliked beer. At the end of his life, Terry told me that he was experiencing very strange dreams. In his sleep, Terry imagined that he was at the bottom of a vast and rotund vat of beer and he was drinking incessantly and the beer cooled his lips and throat and was a very good thing. “I don’t know what it means,” Terry told me. He was either extraordinarily inept at dream interpretation, or pretended to be inept, perhaps, because he distrusted all visionary experiences. (When I first met Terry in the early eighties he was so obstinately rational that he told me that he had never dreamed once in his life and had no idea what the experience was even like. But, later, he often recounted dreams to me and, so, perhaps our relationship – I am a great connoisseur of dreams – or some other factor, caused him to be more attentive to this part of his consciousness.) When Terry told me about the beer flooding his dream, I felt a little nauseated – it was obvious to me that he was exceedingly dehydrated and that his body was signaling something to him that his mind resolutely discounted.
When he was middle-aged and raising his family, Terry told me that he thought that all travel was a great waste of time. He said that people traveled to escape themselves and that, since this was an impossibility, there was really no point in ever leaving home. I recall that he once took his family to Minnesota’s North Shore, planning a week trip north of Duluth. But things went so terribly wrong that he was back in Austin in forty-eight hours. This catastrophe must have been very memorable. When Terry was dying, he discussed this with his son, Sean, and they both recalled their time in the car together as being miserable. “I don’t know why we went,” Terry said. “No one wanted to go. We thought it was our duty.” Both Terry and Sean blamed Ann, Terry’s wife. “Like all middle-class American housewives,” Terry said, “Ann thought that it was obligatory to take a family vacation.” Sean said that he thought Terry had defeated the entire venture by refusing to make any reasonable plans for the outing. Apparently, the vacation had been aleatory – they just randomly drove from place to place and it was raining and the huge lake was grey and choppy and menacing, and the children were each isolated from their parents and one another by their music and head-phones. As with many of his opinions, however, Terry revised his views about travel. In the last twenty years of his life, he traveled to Paris many times and, in fact, led tours in France. On his death bed, Terry remembered with great fondness his adventures in France, the Bayeaux tapestry, the famous battlefields, and a great apocalyptic painting that he had once seen somewhere in Normandy – Terry couldn’t recall the name of the town and so I went to the room where he kept his books and found a guide to France that identified the town, but now I have forgotten that name as well. Terry knew Paris well and understood its subways and had walked through most of that City’s neighborhoods.
Before he became sick and invalid, Terry was planning a trip to Italy. He spent a number of months practicing his Italian. He liked to learn languages and enjoyed listening to instructional tapes to improve his diction. (He could read New Testament koine Greek, although with difficulty, German, French, Italian, and, of course, Latin.) The weekend before his final illness, Terry and I talked about his impairments. At that time, he couldn’t walk very well and was humiliated that he had to use a wheelchair when he left his home. But the thing that he regretted the most, he told me, was that the heaviness afflicting his tongue and, sometimes, slurring his speech had made it difficult for him to perfect the rolled Italian “r”. He suffered from a neurological condition, Myasthenia Gravis, and, at the moment, the effect of the disease that he thought most embarrassing was its impact on his pronunciation of Italian words and phrases.
IN COMMON WITH ALL MEN, I suppose that Terry experienced disorderly passions and rage and was vehement about some things. But I never detected any signs of these turbulent emotions in him. I was fourteen years his junior and admired him as a wiser older man. successful in his management of his emotions. By contrast, I was (and am) gullible, sentimental, easily swayed to anger and regarded Terry as a an example of a man whose life was well-regulated and orderly even to a fault.
Nonetheless, certain aspects of Terry’s past life suggested to me powerful, if concealed, emotions and, even, curiously impulsive behavior. When he was 18 or 19, Terry left his home and became a novice at a Catholic monastery, Blue Cloud, on the prairies of South Dakota. Terry’s monastic adventure is particularly odd because he was raised Protestant, either Lutheran or Methodist, I think. Something, apparently, impelled Terry to temporarily renounce the world and take religious orders. Of course, he was too intellectually curious, too defiantly non-conformist to succeed as a monk and his abbot, apparently, persuaded him to leave the cloister, attend college, and complete his education. This entire episode in Terry’s life was always obscure to me and seems inexplicable without some powerful emotional impetus. When I first knew him, Terry was in the throes of family life, surrounded by women and children, and, of course, he recalled his days at Blue Cloud with uncomplicated, and false, I think, nostalgia. Later, Terry conceded that he was ill-suited for monastic life and that it was fortunate that he was persuaded to abandon that path for the less monastic, but still somewhat cloistered life of the Academy.
There were other episodes in Terry’s history that seemed to involve turbulent feelings. Terry’s romance and courtship of his wife Ann seems to have had something of the scent of the forbidden. At the time of their first meeting, Terry was still, nominally at least, associated with the monastic orders and, presumably, afflicted with a vow of celibacy. Ann’s intervention in Terry’s life seems to have been instrumental in ending his monastic ambitions. And, in the late sixties, Terry was closely involved in the movement opposing the war in Vietnam. He counseled young men to avoid the draft and seems to have sometimes suggested actions that violated State and Federal law – this is mostly surmise on my part, but I don’t think that Terry would have disputed this view of things. Terry was a lifelong liberal Democrat although he became increasingly disenchanted with all forms of politics as he aged. At the height of the conflict in Southeast Asia, Terry once appeared on a local TV show to debate the merits of the Vietnam war with a hapless young man who was a recent combat veteran. Later, Terry remembered that the veteran couldn’t articulate any rational reasons for continuing the war and so he had to make arguments on both sides of the issue, presenting his opponent’s positions for him before refuting them. The local DFL was convulsed by divisions caused by Vietnam and Terry, of course, was a vocal member of the anti-LBJ, anti-war faction. Terry was fond of recalling his support of Eugene McCarthy at the county DFL convention – I think it was held at St. Edward’s Catholic church and parochial school in the gymnasium. The Democratic party-regulars were ambushed by the anti-war insurgency in their ranks and the balloting for State delegates continued for many hours, thirty or forty votes taken and counted one after another until exhaustion ended the controversy near dawn. That struggle had a distinct Town versus Gown flavor – the anti-war, pro-McCarthy delegates were mostly young people affiliated with the Community College as either students or teachers; the pro-LBJ machine was dominated by dynasties of downtown lawyers, the Baudlers and the Plunketts, attorneys who hoped for judicial appointments from Hubert Humphrey and his minions. There were highly principled people on both sides of the fight and no one was willing to compromise. At the height of the debate, someone questioned the liberal credentials of the Baudler family, all its men prominent lawyers in town. Ancient Otto Baudler, the patriarch of that legal dynasty, rose to address the assembly. Trembling with rage, he said: “You say I’m not a liberal. You say I’m not progressive. But I want you to know that the first candidate for president I ever voted for was Eugene Debs. I voted or him in 1920 when he was in jail.” Terry repeated this story many times to me and it was clearly a touchstone to his imagination. “I think there were maybe two or three other people in the room,” Terry used to say, “who knew who Debs was.”
But all of this passion was in the past when I knew Terry. I never saw him angry and, since he knew that I was a Republican at that time, he didn’t discuss politics with me. Indeed, as he grew older, he generally discounted politics and political controversy as a kind of madness. One of his favorite precepts about politics took this form: “We look at the past and wonder how people could be so religious, how they could take religion so seriously four-hundred years ago so as to burn heretics and start wars. Five-hundred years from now, people will look at our history and wonder what it was that caused us to think that politics was so important.” He expressed this sentiment to me and others many times.
The ancient Greeks identified as a virtue something that they called “Sophrosyne”. I think this word embodies the Greek ethos that moderation should be practiced in all things. Terry Dilley embodied “Sophrosyne”. He was the most moderate and temperate man that I have ever known and, really, the only person to ever successfully practice this virtue not merely occasionally or for a few months at a time, but for decades. This suggests a paradox: I suppose that Terry was so diligent in his practice of moderation in all things because there were, perhaps, currents in the character that were fanatical, zealous, and frighteningly unbounded. But this is pure speculation. I never saw any evidence of these traits in my friend.
ALL ORGANIZED FORMS OF HUMAN ENDEAVOR, Terry regarded with skepticism. Any activity endorsed by a majority of men and women was futile, Terry thought, and an exercise in folly. When we discussed literature together, Terry frequently misread the authors, imposing his own mild nihilism on the text – “the writer is telling us,” Terry would proclaim, “that all of this effort and enthusiasm is for nothing, that nothing is accomplished, that nothing can be accomplished. It’s all an illusion.” Not surprisingly, a novel that he often quoted was Joseph Heller’s “Catch 22" which does, I think, express ideas of this kind. Sometimes, Terry mentioned Pascal who argued that all of the misfortune in human affairs arises from the fact that men and women are unable to sit idly in a room for an hour or a day without inventing false utopias and murderous political and religious schemes.
I suspect that Terry, even, regarded his vocation as a teacher with considerable mental reservations. Terry often cited Plato’s maxim that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” But, as a logician, he also hastened to add that Plato had not gone so far as to maintain the opposite, namely that an “examined life was worth living.” In most things, Terry was cheerfully pessimistic. Folly would always prevail. Stupidity ruled the world. He didn’t know Alexander Pope well, but I do and will append this citation from “The Dunciad”:
Lo! Thy dread empire, Chaos! is restored,
Light dies before thy uncreating word.
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall,
And universal darkness buried all.
Terry would have endorsed this sentiment. Human nature was mostly crooked and venal in his view and he maintained that fraudulent schemes to perfect people and institutions were the source of most misery that could otherwise be avoided in the world. These precepts he applied to religion. Terry was a pious and observant Catholic for most of his life. He played Erasmus to my Luther, suggesting that reason and tolerance must mitigate faith and enthusiastic Schwaermerei. Commenting on my Protestant forebears and inclinations, Terry always observed that he had not been raised Catholic, that he had converted to the faith, and quoted Santayana, a thinker that he admired to this effect on the distinction between the Mother Church and its would-be reformers: “Why should I reject a well-organized and logical form of mythology for a mythology that is disorganized and illogical?”
Terry saw no contradiction in commingling staunch Irish Catholicism with obstinately agnostic views. Again, quoting Santayana, Terry was fond of maintaining that “there is no god and Mary is his mother.” The priests at his church were his friends, but not his intellectual equals and, I suppose, they viewed him with a little mistrust. Late in his life, when two of Terry’s children “came out” as gay, he abandoned the Catholic Church out of loyalty to his son and daughter and became an Episcopalian. This was, perhaps, the most difficult decision in his life and, possibly, the most noble.
HERE IS A STORY that Terry often told about me. He liked to tell this story and repeated it frequently. Since Terry’s voice is now silenced, I will repeat this tale, which is, more or less, true for, perhaps, the last time.
A colleague who taught literature at Mankato State University, Bob Redhead, invited Terry to come to his house to discuss John Updike’s novel, “Rabbit is Rich”. Professor Redhead was a sad middle-aged man, very tiny and delicate, a mannequin who looked a little bit like a beautifully crafted doll. Professor Redhead drank heavily and, once a year, he traveled to Paris where he spent a week or two. He thought that Paris was the greatest city in the world and the capital of all civilization and I recall that he had a post-card showing the Louvre and taped to his refrigerator. I didn’t recognize the building or the river and, to me, the picture showed merely a very densely constructed palace with many interior courtyards, something like the compound occupied by the Hapsburg monarchs in old Prague.
For some reason, Terry and I drove separately from Austin to Mankato. I think Terry was probably planning to spend the night at Redhead’s house, but I intended to go home after the discussion. I have a recollection that Terry’s great friend, Jack Herzog, was at the gathering, although this may be mistaken. I think we first met in Dr. Redhead’s apartment, a Spartan bachelor dwelling that smelled of wet carpet and mold and spilled whisky. We drank some hard liquor there – a sip or so for Terry, although Herzog and I had a glass of booze apiece. Then, we went by separate cars to the home where the book discussion was to take place. This was the residence of a lady-professor of sociology whose name I have forgotten.
The female sociology professor lived on the bluffs above the town, where the crumpled ravines and steep ridges flatten out to join the rolling prairie. Her home was in an anonymous subdivision of residences all built around the same time, relatively new and treeless, with side-yards and back lawns opening onto the flat fields from which corn and soybeans were being harvested at that time of year. I had the impression that the attractive middle-aged sociology teacher had acquired the home through divorce, although this subject was never discussed.
At the sociology professor’s home, there were eight or nine people, most of them instructors at the State University. One of the guests was a handsome, belligerent-looking man with a black moustache and flashing eyes – he told us that he had just completed his final quarter of studies at William Mitchell Law School and intended to become an attorney. The handsome man said that he had been a police officer for a dozen years, but tired of that profession since it seemed to him that the judges and lawyers had all the power in the system that he was daily compelled to navigate. It was obvious to me that he was the attractive sociology professor’s boyfriend, although there was a slight hint of scandal about this, and they didn’t present themselves to the others as a couple. I recall that there were three or four scholarly-looking women in attendance, very well-spoken and dim-witted, and a couple of ineffectual men who seemed not to have read the novel that we were supposed to discuss.
There were hors d’ouevres and drinks and Professor Redhead became very intoxicated. He denounced America’s culture as bourgeois and philistine and said that Updike’s intent was to persuade us to hate our own civilization and that this was fair and just because we were without education and without taste and without good manners either, ignorant savages without a history. It seemed to me that Dr. Redhead was exaggerating but he made his points with fierce vehemence and was quite articulate, at least, until the booze impeded his speech. Herzog and I drank heavily. The pretty sociology teacher winked at the ex-cop and licked her lips and seemed anxious for the colloquium to come to an end. The police officer was out of his depth, but he periodically joined the conversation, mostly to agree with his girlfriend who became, as the discussion advanced, increasingly upset with Professor Redhead. I advanced a theory that was spectacularly perverse, if ingenious. At the climax of “Rabbit is Rich”, the hero, Rabbit Angstrom urinates on one of his lovers who sprawls beneath him in a bathtub. I said that this was a “golden shower,” and the materialization of the book’s themes of sex and money – that is, sex as gold. The idea was indisputably correct but the polite and harmless people assembled for a polite and harmless conversation about a book they had not read, or had perused the way you might scan a mystery novel, were horrified. We had a few more drinks and the hostess vented her wrath on Professor Redhead who was now ranting in an indignant way about the deficiencies in American education, citing as an example the errors and omissions that had created the kind of exegesis that I had just argued to the group. It was obvious to me that the pretty sociologist was anxious for us to leave her home, the booty of her recent divorce, so that she and her ex-cop would have the place to themselves. Efficiently, she showed us all to the door.
Terry and Jack and I took Redhead back to his miserable, lonely apartment and put him to bed. Then, we went down to Mettlers, a bar that featured stripteasers, near the downtown Holiday Inn. We sat some distance from the stage, eyeing the naked girls who were padding back and forth on the little runway like caged animals. The girls had livid c-section scars across their bellies and, I think, the music was mostly songs by Prince. Jack and I drank some more. Terry, tolerant of our folly, sipped a glass of white wine. Jack said that we should go back to the party and argue my interpretation of the novel to the cop. I agreed that this was necessary since he had objected to that interpretation. Terry told us that he thought it would be a mistake to go back to the lady sociologist’s house. We debated this for a while and, then, Jack Herzog said that he thought we should check on Redhead to see if was okay. I think we left the bar around 9:30 and stopped briefly at Redhead’s house where the little fellow was snoring on the couch. Herzog abandoned his idea of remonstrating with the former police officer and went back to Bloomington where he lived. Terry and I argued some more on the street outside Redhead’s place about the advisability of returning to the lady sociologist’s house for a nightcap. I don’t know how I accomplished this feat, but, for some reason, Terry agreed that we would stop at the woman’s house on our way out of town.
We drove up the hill and, although I was pretty drunk, found the woman’s home without too much difficulty. It wasn’t quite 10:00 pm. Terry parked curbside and I pulled my car up behind him. We stood on the driveway to the lady professor’s house for a couple more minutes while Terry tried to talk me out of going to the front door. The house was mostly dark, although I glimpsed a flicker in one of the windows that looked like the reflection of candle-light. “I think it’s a mistake to bother them,” Terry said. “Nonsense,” I replied. “It’s not even ten-o’clock.” I walked up to the front door with Terry trailing a half-dozen feet behind me. I stood for a moment on the front stoop with my hand poised over the door-bell. Maybe, I thought, this was a bad idea. I paused.
At that moment, a dozen teenage kids charged out of some nearby shrubs and rushed the door where I was standing. They crowded around, jostling me so that I was flung forward against the door. The kids shrieked and pounded on the side of house, then rang the doorbell a half-dozen times. Howling like banshees, the kids scattered and, as swiftly as they had appeared, they were gone. I was left leaning unsteadily against the door. Terry, aghast, stood behind me on the edge of the lawn.
The lady sociologist opened the door and screamed some kind of curse at me. Then, the ex-cop, in his underwear, charged me like a bull. He knocked me back down the stairs, caught me before I collapsed on the grass, and, then, hauled me toward my car. He had twisted my arm behind my back and was muttering threats in my ear. At the front of my car, he knocked me flat against the hood and groped wildly at my wrists – I think he had forgotten that he was no longer a cop and so didn’t have handcuffs with which to fetter me. In the default of handcuffs, he punched me a dozen times in the kidneys, neat precise little blows delivered with perfect aim. His fists felt tiny, like needles pricking me in the back on both sides of lower spine. Then, he knocked me down and told me to get the hell out of town. He stalked back into the house.
I got up off the ground. “There were kids,” I said. Terry’s eyes were wide with amazement. “They came out of nowhere,” Terry said. “They just came out of nowhere.” The neighborhood was shadowy and no one was visible. The streets were silent. There was no trace of the crowd of kids that had mobbed me on the front steps to the lady professor’s house.
It is about 80 miles from Mankato to Austin. I drove behind Terry. His car guided me home. About every twenty miles, I would flash my high-beams onto the rear of Terry’s car so that he would pull to the side of the road. The two-lane blacktop was windy and the fields had all been harvested except along distant horizons where big farm implements were moving in the darkness. I walked up to Terry’s car where he was seated behind the wheel. “That son-of-a-bitch,” I said. “I’ll see to it that he never becomes a lawyer. I’ll make a morals charge against him. That adulterous son-of-a-bitch.” Terry tried to calm me down. “Let’s just get home,” he said. He was completely sober, of course, and I was drunk. We went another twenty miles and the wind battered my car and tried to knock me into the ditch and, then, I used my high-beams to flag Terry over to the side of the road. Constellations were spinning overhead. I didn’t have anything new to say to him. But it didn’t matter: “that adulterous son-of-a-bitch,” I said. And that was how we drove home after my beating at the hands of the amorous ex-cop.
I WASN’T TERRY’S CLOSEST FRIEND, that privilege belonged to a sweet man named, appropriately enough,Tom Bliss. Tom’s was Terry’s age and they had both grown-up in Pierre, South Dakota. Tom worked as a programmer at IBM in Rochester, Minnesota, forty miles away. He died about six years before Terry after complications from heart-valve surgery. Terry loyally sat at Tom’s bedside when he was dying. An hour before Tom’s final spasm, Terry drizzled a little Scotch-whiskey between his friend’s lips. Tom was former sailor and a great lover of good Scotch. Terry told me that he thought that Tom smiled very slightly when he touched his lips with the whiskey.
I like to think of Tom and Terry together. Of course, it is naive to imagine an after-life and so I will picture them growing up as boys in South Dakota. Terry played drums in a swing-band and toured the Dakotas and, perhaps, Tom sometimes rode with him on those trips or sat in smoky bars in tiny desolate hamlets where Terry’s band played for lonely rancher’s wives and Sioux truckdrivers and boys and girls pretending to be old enough to drink. Terry said that he and Tom sometimes explored the squalid slums in Fort Pierre, across the Missouri from the more prosperous capital city, and that they sometimes people-watched in taverns where real cowboys and real Indians drank together. On occasion, they went swimming in the country, splashing around in lagoons that ranchers had excavated in the barren, treeless hills for their herds of cattle.
Terry felt protective about Tom. Tom had a cruel, alcoholic father and, I think, he was raised in the most bitter poverty. Tom looked up to Terry. When Terry became a Catholic, Tom Bliss followed his example and joined that religion as well. This conversion proved to be problematic thirty years later when Tom was trapped in a bitterly unhappy marriage and was forced to consider divorce. Tom talked to Terry about his dilemma at length and, of course, the Roman Catholic Church forbade divorce so that Tom felt that he couldn’t take that measure without abandoning his faith or, at least, obtaining Terry’s permission. Ultimately, Terry persuaded Tom that the Church rule was arbitrary and that he should divorce his wife if this was necessary for him to have some hope of happiness. When the divorce was concluded, Tom met another woman and, I think, lived happily with her until he died.
Tom Bliss was a very kind man and, when I knew him, he sported a white beard and looked like a slender version of Santa Claus. Each year, he traveled to Haiti where he worked for a week or ten days as a hospital orderly caring for poor people dying from HIV AIDS. He had a small, fast sports car that Terry admired. When he was a young man, Tom left arid South Dakota and joined the Coast Guard. When we read Joyce’s “Ulysses” in our Great Books reading club, Tom told us that he had acquired his copy of the novel in Cape May, New Jersey, just before departing on a sea voyage. (Tom had an anchor tattooed on one of his biceps.) Tom said that he had entered a used book store in the harbor town and asked the old man who was the proprietor for a recommendation as to a book to read when he was at sea. The old man said to Tom that he should read “Ulysses” since the novel was “the greatest in the world” and concerned a seafaring man traveling the seven seas before returning to his home. Tom took the novel with him on his sea adventure but didn’t have the time, or patience, to read the book.
At Tom’s funeral, people mentioned the unofficial motto of the Coast Guard’s Search and Rescue units with reference to the deceased’s life. “He always helped others,” people said. The motto of Coast Guard Search and Rescue is “You have to go out – but you don’t have to come back.” Terry translated those words into Latin and made them into a slogan. When he told me about that motto, there was a catch in his voice and tears in his eyes.
LIKE JESUS, when Terry willed himself to die, he felt anxiety and, even, perhaps, a moment of panic. No doubt, he wished that this cup of suffering would be taken away from him. But, after a tremor of hesitation, he put those emotions aside and prosecuted his death with impeccable valor and gallantry.
Three days before he died, I saw Terry in his hospital bed in the living room of his home. A stream of visitors came and went. Beyond some sliding glass doors, rain soaked the golf course and streams overflowed their banks and dark limbs and boughs fallen from the trees during the winter’s blizzards looked soft and swollen like sponges. Next to the hearth, Terry had a “Red Rider” BB gun that he had used recently to shoot at cardboard targets of gophers. Perhaps, he remembered hunting prairie dogs on the amber prairies of South Dakota. Terry was a good shot and one of the cardboard targets shaped like a prairie dog had a round hole through where the little rodent’s lungs would have been. Through its buck-teeth, the prairie dog target propped next to the gun by the hearth grinned at Terry.
When I spoke with Terry, his eyes were moist. He told me to disregard his wet eyes. “It’s a physiological reaction,” he told me, “something I can’t really control.” A friend entered the room and stood bedside, obviously appalled and speechless at Terry’s condition. Terry put him at ease by telling several Yiddish jokes. Terry apologized again for the moisture in his eyes. Certainly, he felt no self-pity at that time and any tears that he shed were for others and not himself.
I told Terry that after he was dead, he should return and haunt me. And, I have half-expected to see him again in the days intervening since his death. Such things are not unknown. When Terry’s wife, Ann, died, her body was cremated. Terry kept her ashes in a kind of coffee can and invited us to his home so that we could drink a couple of bottles of wine with friends before scattering what remained of Ann in her flower gardens. Ann had been an avid gardener and her backyard was bright with carefully mulched flower-beds. Among the blossoms closest to the home and its back patio, there was a large boulder of glass slag. The slag had been retrieved from a glass factory somewhere in the West and it was heavy and bright and many-faceted. A friend had given Ann the big chunk of melted glass and she displayed it among her flowers. The night before, the woman who had given Ann the glass boulder was sitting on the patio in the evening and she made a comment of a sort that Ann might have disapproved. Ann was resting on the table in her round aluminum can, reduced to pale white ash with a little coagulate of gummy looking bone. Terry said that he heard an explosive crack. He turned and saw the big chunk of glass slag bursting into a thousand fragments. It was a most extraordinary thing and an event for which Terry had no explanation. (He asked a colleague who taught chemistry at the Community College if there was a scientific reason why the glass had suddenly exploded in that fashion – “Oh, yes,” the man assured him, “glass is inherently unstable and it can spontaneously fissure and break.” But this explanation explained nothing: why had the boulder of glass slag blown apart at precisely that moment and in those circumstances?) The night we scattered Ann’s ashes was humid, but fairly cool. Night-flying moths fluttered through the blue gloom. When Terry overturned the coffee can and spilled Ann onto the lawn in a white spurt, the ashes pale as a jet of moonlight in the twilight, I saw shards of broken glass hidden among the plants with their heavy flowers drooping on wet stems.
Ann was a robust haunt. By contrast, Terry is more feeble. Since his death, he has come into my kitchen several times and knocked a stained glass medallion from the window over the sink. I bought the medallion at the Morgan Library in New York City and the translucent, colored glass depicts a medieval manuscript, a page, I think, from a Book of Hours showing a man with pointed Gothic shoes walking a big white dog in an emerald forest. I know that Terry went to the Morgan Library on several occasions and that he enjoyed touring the place and, I suppose that his ghostly fingers touching the little lozenge of stained glass had disarranged, and loosened it from the suction cup by which it was attached to the window, so that it has dropped, not once, but two or three times onto the window sill. This always happens at night when I am reading in my chair fifteen feet away and disturbs my dog, Frieda, who sits at my feet. Terry liked medieval art and the dead, it seems, are drawn to colored glass, but he has been gentle enough to merely dislodge the souvenir and not break it. A couple times, he has knocked books off my shelf and, even, hidden himself in plastic grocery sacks to make a mischievous, rustling sound in the garbage. But, beyond these apparitions, I have not encountered him. Several times, he has entertained me in my dreams but, always, embodied in the form of Garrison Keillor, an avatar of which Terry would not have approved.
THE SOPHIST is an obscure and lengthy Socratic dialogue and it was the reading on which, generally, our study of Plato would founder. Terry and I read Plato with “J” Keyser at his apartment in Austin for several years, generally meeting on Sunday evening. “J”’s girlfriend served vegetarian casseroles before our conversation. We picked at the food a little reluctantly because it was generally not very good, a sort of ratatouille layered with eggplant and mushroom and lentil beans, overseasoned with Tabasco sauce. We read through “The Republic” twice and most of the major dialogues and our arguments were vigorous and, sometimes, lasted late into the night. There were children in the house and babies and the babies cried and the little children hid on the stair steps to watch us debating the ancient writings.
The reason that discussion of “the Sophist” proved to be contentious was that Terry approved of that school of philosophy and thought that Socrates and Plato had systematically, and maliciously, misrepresented their ideas. “J” Keyser was inclined toward metaphysics and he spoke rapturously of the “one and the many” and he thought that when speech was carefully ventured and discourse modestly tailored to the needs of the community, words could partake in the Truth and express the being of things. Terry doubted this proposition and, of course, this led to long and bitter disagreements – bitter on “J’s” side, but without any rancor as far Terry was concerned; it was a controversy that he regarded with mild amusement.
Terry said this: “The reason that the sophists were right is this: words, you know, noises you make with your mouth, at least have the advantage of being real.” Terry didn’t believe in Truth or Virtue as abstractions. But, of course, he was truthful and virtuous in a lower-case sort of way.
LESS THAN FOUR DAYS after Terry’s death, I traveled to Minneapolis to attend a settlement conference. By the end of April, at this latitude, days are already long. In the morning, I drove for two hours in grey rainfall. The rain was very cold and the ditches in the bare fields were brimful of icy, lead-colored water. The settlement conference lasted until almost 7:00 pm. I drove back to Austin through the wet gloom. Sleet like pale, shaggy hyphens fell from low-hanging clouds and the dim light in the sky stretched out across the cold, muddy land never changed. Daylight was struggling to die, but could not.
Glancing through my rain-streaked windows, at 70 miles an hour, I saw two landscapes that impressed me as somehow significant. In the early morning, in the no-color dawn, I glanced across a scuffed brown field. The land was bare to the horizon, a bracket of naked trees in a shelter belt marking the far-away edge of the earth. A plow had stripped the field of stubble and surface vegetation and so the great empty tract of land was curiously abstract, not so much an actual place as the idea of a barren place. In the center of the field, there was a truncated river, an oblong puddle draining down a fold between two indistinct knolls. The stream was a gash in the dark brown earth that reflected the dull grey sky, a sort of pathway the color of drenched concrete. The little stream was foreshortened to my view from the speeding automobile and I couldn’t see how long it was. At the upper end of the field, the flow of water began in some misty finger-shaped puddles and, then, oozed along a declivity so slight that it would not have been visible except for the elongated lagoon marking the contour of the field. A hundred yards from the freeway ditches swollen with water, the little stream inexplicably split into several narrow threads and, then, just vanished in the dark, upturned soil. For some reason, that little temporary Styx etched in the dark, muddy field seemed inexplicably poignant to me.
On that evening, when the falling snow and sleet signified an earlier season, mid-winter, not spring, when, by all rights it should have been dark, I saw a grove of trees near the interstate. The trees were old and they huddled together like great primeval beasts, horned and brown like bison. Tongues of sleet licked the trees and they seemed to shiver in the colorless gloom.
I thought that those trees had survived Terry Dilley and that they would still be standing alongside the freeway with their trunks black as night when I am dead as well.
A TEXT LIKE THIS is always either too much or too little.
WHEN HE ANNOUNCED HIS PLAN TO DIE, I sat at Terry’s bedside in the hospital. His room was on the third floor, intensive care. A close female friend, whose counsel Terry valued, was sitting on the hospital bed near Terry’s feet. After Terry had spoken, she burst into tears and, for a few moments, wept inconsolably. I looked away, out the window to the grey parking lot below stabbed in innumerable places by white lances of rain. As the woman wept, I said: “You know me. I don’t do well with tears.” Terry turned from the weeping woman and flashed a smile at me.
Terry was an important part of my life for more than 30 years. He was the Best Man at my wedding. When he died, my wife asked me: “How can it be that Terry is gone? Where did he go?” I said to her that I didn’t know.
Proofreading these words, I find that, here and there, the pages are moist. I don’t have a good explanation for that. But it has been a cold and wet Spring.
April 26 - May 5, 2014