By David Daniel
In his younger days my cousin Curt traveled widely and he’d tell amusing stories of his adventures. He always had fond names for people and things. Like his high school girlfriend, for whom he carried a torch for years. Apparently (this was before they split up), she was detained once coming back from Jamaica when an airport security dog at Logan sniffed at her suitcase. No contraband was found, but she became forever after, in Curt’s affectionate telling, Funky Luggage.
Garlic Gringo was a guy who used to deliver late-night pizza to his dorm at the small liberal arts college in Northfield. Minnesota where Curt was a star wide receiver. He had soft hands that footballs loved to float into. Trapper Johns, he called his hands. At our annual Thanksgiving Day family touch football games back here in Massachusetts, he was an MVP.
Wordplay always came naturally to my cousin, but it was how his mind began more and more to work as, in his early thirties, the dark curtains started to descend upon him. I visited him when he wound up for a stretch in a locked ward at the old Met State Hospital in Waltham.
Medicated, mediated with therapy, he could hold a job and remain stable and independent for indeterminate stretches. Every week, on the same day at the same time, he’d drive over in his faded black VW Jetta to visit me. We would sit in my writing cabin, sometimes with a glass of wine (one glass, which, over time, he cut out, like he cut out coffee, formerly having been a dozen-cups-a-day guy). He would stay for one hour, respectful of my schedule and denied by his inner clock to let the time flow outside the lines, or for the bottle to be tipped a second time.
Eventually the visits ceased because driving got confusing. He referred to negotiating the highways around Boston as Reading Kafka’s Notebook. He allowed his operator’s license to lapse, let his car sit untended in the driveway at his mother’s, my Aunt’s, house, dissolving over time into rust. Wolfsburg Handkerchief, he called it. Like a piece of art being shaped slowly by time and entropy. He predicted it might become either a tall silk hat, or an antimacassar of lucid dreams, for both of which, he confided, there was a vigorous market in Thailand. I haven’t checked to see if any of this happened.
Phone calls have been a staple now for, gee, it seems like years. Twice weekly at four p.m. my cellphone chirps and for the five minutes Curt allots for the calls we talk. His language is rich with imagery and allusion, and as he speaks I try to remember the phrases, the names, random-seeming as they spill from his mind, which appears to have forgotten little from the years of adventure and travel before the madness.
Madness is his word; he insists upon it. The clinical diagnosis is Paranoid Schizophrenia; or, as he once interpreted it to me: Old Butterscotch Caviar.
Recently, he runs through litanies of all the books and plays he has written, many published before he was born. One of his best, he says with pride, is Le Petit Prince. And the rock and rolls songs he’s penned! Some of them oddly attributed to people named Lennon & McCartney and Bruce Springsteen. And there are the paintings and drawings that hang in Louvre.
Despite the medications, which have caused a lot of weight gain on his once athletic body, his energy remains vast, like a core at the heart of a nuclear reactor. The stories are in a state of constant change. I try to keep track, though never interrupting him to write anything down; that comes when we’ve finished the day’s call.
My phone rings now. It’s barely two o’clock on a May afternoon with apple blossoms blowing outside like snow. It’s Curt’s mother, my aunt. She apologizes, then tells me, a note of weary concern in her voice, “He’s off his meds again. He won’t listen to me.”
“I’ll go right over,” I say, pausing at the door to get my notebook.
David Daniel’s new book is Beach Town, a collection of stories. He is scheduled to teach ENGL.3020 Creative Writing: Fiction on campus at UMass Lowell this summer. Info @ https://gps.uml.edu/catalog/search/2023/summer/engl.3020/021/