by Geer Austin
When Russell Glickman died, sometime in the mid-eighties, he and I were completely out of touch. I’d seen him once or twice after we left college, even returning to campus with our mutual friend Daisy and him for an alumni weekend.
What does it mean when a lover says, “Let’s just be friends?” I’ve used the phrase a few times, and I usually say it to soften the rupture of a sexual liaison, as if to say that everything will remain the same except we will no longer have sex with each other. When Russell unleashed the phrase on me, it meant less than that: no kind of friendship bloomed, partly because he moved to California while I stayed in New York. I heard he quit dancing and worked as a physical therapist. Daisy gave me updates. I learned about his passing in a telephone call from her. I think she expected me to cry at the news, but I didn’t. “That’s so sad,” I said, and I started talking about something else.
Daisy brought the subject back to Russell, suggesting that we drive up the Taconic Parkway to Bard where a memorial service would be held in the college chapel, an Episcopal church used mostly for poetry readings and concerts. Actually it wasn’t a suggestion. It was an order from a self-appointed grief counselor. I was suffering from AIDS aftershock; the deaths were piling up and leaving me numb. That was my reason for not crying over Russell’s demise, Daisy explained.
At the service, Russell’s parents sat in the front row dressed in severe black clothing that looked specially purchased for the day. Most of us wore our usual bohemian garb, which included a lot of black. I had decided it would be absurd to wear a business suit to memorialize someone who always wore overalls, so I wore a pair of blue jeans, thinking denim would be a fitting homage.
The service began with a brief introduction by Russell’s best female friend, Amy, who had dressed for the occasion in a black sheath and pumps. Her bleached hair hung down to the small of her back, and she kept sweeping tendrils of it away from her face as she laid down the ground rules of the memorial service: anyone who wanted to speak, read, sing or play an instrument should approach the altar in turn.
The first speaker talked about Russell’s overalls, saying how perfectly they suited him, and how she had always wondered if he wore the same pair every day or if he had multiple pairs. Someone else sang and played the guitar, a song composed for Russell. Daisy told a story about performing in one of Russell’s dance pieces in which he made her bite into an uncut head of cabbage and how she’d been afraid her teeth would break on it, but had been too cowed by his perfectionism to object, how he had been a rigorous yet inspired choreographer. I wanted to tell everyone about Russell teaching me how to give a blowjob when I was twenty years old, but eying his parents in their pew, some of Russell’s former professors and bunches of my college friends, I kept my mouth shut. Still, remembering Russell being an exacting choreographer of that intimate dance, I chuckled somewhat too loudly, just as the teller of a tale, one of Russell’s many women friends, choked up and burst into tears, holding her face in her hands. Daisy elbowed me so hard in my ribs that I wondered if there would be a bruise. “I’m sorry,” I whispered, “but Russell loved to laugh. He’d be laughing right now if he were here.”
After the speaker left the altar, Amy took her place at the front of the church and told a story about her and Russell binging on a box of Whitman’s chocolates that one of her boyfriends had given her for Valentine’s Day. It had occupied a place on top of her bookshelf for months before Russell spied it, ripped it open and gobbled a chocolate. Amy joined in eating and they polished off the entire two-pound box and felt sick to their stomachs. “So Russell, the supreme vegetable-eater, could go way off track at times,” she said. “That was him. Dashing from one extreme to another, never boring.”
Mrs. Glickman, the final speaker, followed. She looked much the same as I remembered her from twelve years earlier, but her face was more worn and she seemed exhausted. Mr. Glickman played a secondary role, sitting in his pew with his head lowered. Mrs. Glickman’s first words were, “We are Jewish, and we don’t believe in an afterlife. So we won’t be seeing Russell again.” She paused and looked around the chapel with its crosses and stain glass scenes of Jesus in mid-crucifixion and almost seemed to shudder. “Russell loved this place, this college, more than anywhere he ever lived, including our house in Maryland, where I brought him home from the hospital after he was born, and where we still live. I have to say he was always a little different. In high school he wanted to be a dancer instead of a football player. He loved many of his friends intensely, but never found a partner. He was intellectually curious and quite brilliant, but never was a high achieving student. I think he came here and found others like him. That’s why he loved this place. That and the natural beauty. I like to think he was part of that beauty, because he was such a gorgeous boy. I know there are many people here who loved him, and please be aware, we loved Russell as much as any of you. We were his parents. He was our son. We were very proud of him, and we will always miss him.”
Mrs. Glickman stepped down from the altar, sat next to her husband and stared straight ahead. She didn’t cry, although some members of our congregation were crying. She didn’t acknowledge her husband.
At that moment there was an enormous flash of lightning and a crash of thunder that seemed to rock the chapel. Several of us screamed. Then there was a torrential downpour.
Amy stood up and shouted, “That was Russell saying you will see me again. That was Russell telling us not to be so maudlin. That was Russell shaking us up. That was Russell saying, gorge on chocolate and fall over laughing!” And a lot of people did laugh because Amy jabbed her index finger at the ceiling like an evangelist, and her blond hair swung wildly around her head as she shouted. Everyone started talking with their neighbors, opening up and offering informal recollections of time spent with Russell, and we all loved each other for the moment.
When the rain stopped about twenty minutes later, we walked down a lane to the Hudson and spread Russell’s ashes on a bluff overlooking the water. I choked up a bit when I saw his ashes, intermingled with tiny bits of bone, hitting the ground. “Goodbye Russell,” I murmured. Daisy slipped her arm through mine, and we both started to cry.
Geer Austin’s poetry and fiction has appeared in anthologies, print and online journals, including Big Bridge, Poet Lore, Potomac Review, and Manhattanville Review. He is the author of Cloverleaf, a poetry chapbook (Poets Wear Prada Press). “Russell” is excerpted from a novel-in-progress.