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Chip Livingston


     It was my first solo trip with the senior poet, and I booked us on the cheapest flight to the funeral, a six a.m. Jet Blue to Denver from JFK. The poet was a large man, and an old man, and I made a note to put his comfort higher on my list of considerations in the future. But he was a good sport, had approved the itinerary before my purchase, and didn’t complain about the tiny seats or discount flight service. He didn’t complain about the crowded ten-minute trolley ride to the rental car office, nor sigh at the wait for our Cadillac. Hardly a murmur even when I slammed his finger in the trunk at his friend’s house in Boulder.
     I lifted his luggage out of the car, not realizing his fingers were gripping inside the trunk for support on the steep driveway, and shut the back with my elbow. The weight of the suitcase and the slope of the driveway caused the trunk to come down much heavier than I intended, a loud clunk that securely pinned the 76-year-old poet to the fender, where he collapsed his weight as I rushed to get the key from my pocket and release him.
     I’d had/caught him by the tip of his middle finger. It looked pale, plastic, dented. But as he rubbed blood back into it, curled and flexed it, he said he thought it would be fine. Then he turned and clasped his hands behind his back to penguin-walk his way up the driveway.
     I followed with his bags, the heavy suitcase and a carry-on of books and travel needs, watching his steps on the incline, thankful when his friend, a woman writer I’d met once in New York, arrived at his side with a warm kiss on the cheek and her steady arm to guide him up the brick steps. We got him in the house, to the restroom, then into a chair at the dining room table. Mission accomplished. But all of it exhausted him. I was exhausted. And, no, he said, he didn’t mind the friend’s two inside dogs that barked at his feet and sniffed around his luggage.
     Mary made a pot of coffee and poured the poet and herself a glass of wine. We toured the house and I took his bags upstairs. He said he would lie down for awhile. Mary would go to the market and begin preparing the night’s big dinner.
     Thank you, I told her, but I wouldn’t be returning to eat. I would be checking into my hotel, taking a shower, and with luck, a little nap before driving back to Denver to pick up another friend flying in for the memorial.
     I would like to have attended the dinner of senior writers, Naropa and University of Colorado faculty and guests who’d also flown in for Lucia’s services. Mary had confirmed some of the guests, among them writers I had studied under and others I admired, but I looked forward to being with my own group of friends, Lucia’s students gathering to remember our beloved professor. We had a similar sort of dinner planned, in the private room of a Boulder restaurant, a get-together of her favorite students, the core she kept close to her beyond our workshops and our graduations.
     Many of us had never actually met one another – for our entries and exits into the university had been staggered – but we all either knew, or knew of, each other, because Lucia was that kind of wonderful gossip who shared the juicy contents of her friends’ lives as she did with her own life in her thinly disguised fictional stories.
     She had a waiting list for pen pals, was a “let’s meet for tea” type (when her health allowed), and a great talker, speaking over the phone in that soft rising voice of hers, echoing geographical accents of Texas, Chile, Mexico, and California. She let us see who she cherished, and so we trusted each other. If someone was good people to Lucia, he or she was good people. No questions.
     Lucia kept up with all of our complicated love-lives; she kept us up with each others’. She gave Tarot card readings over email and telephone to interpret and advise our affairs and dramas. In person she would read our palms, our tea leaves in the bottoms of her cracked china cups. She had even invented her own divination system with regular playing cards so there were only happy endings. And she acted so surprised at what the cards would tell her.
     Lucia tirelessly read our stories and edited them sharply, always thanking us for keeping her involved in our work, regardless that all this reading took so much time from her own writing. Not to mention she continuously fought painful and limiting leukemia, scoliosis, and emphysema. Not to mention that she was also a mother, a grandmother, a godmother, and a favorite aunt. But she said our revisions and manuscripts kept her close to us, and that when we were being honest in our fiction, she could see into our lives as clearly as if she was sitting across the desk from us, our palms open.
     So many people in the world would miss her, I knew, but I thought perhaps the one who would feel her absence most of all, miss her correspondence most, was the senior poet. I don’t know how many years they had been exchanging letters, two or three mailed each way, each week. Long before I met the poet, Lucia had shown me his letters, thrilled by the wacky guises and pseudonyms he invented, the anonymous collages he sent, as well as his unusual poetry and lyrics in the books she lent me in grad school. Lucia had been responsible for getting me the job as his assistant, four years after I graduated: a story that demonstrates as well as any the kind of impact she had on our lives.

     In the summer of 2002, I had returned to the mainland from living in the Virgin Islands, where I’d been working as an assistant professor. Unaware of the lagging stateside economy, I’d quit my steady job and moved back to Colorado. I missed convenience. I missed a change in seasons. I spent two months looking for employment of any kind – teaching, journalism, waiting tables, even catering. Any day now, I kept telling myself, something would come through.
     My only offer was a copyediting job at a newspaper back on St. Thomas, the very place I’d so recently left, a paradise of inconvenience I was three-years sick and tired of. I didn’t want to return to the remote island, but my money saved was running out, so I tried to keep my mind open.
As the day approached when I had to give the editors my decision, my mother advised me to accept the position at the newspaper, and then to offer up a “non-denominational prayer” that if it was not the path I was meant to take, an interruption would prevent it. Midnight was my deadline on the job offer and it was ten minutes until. I hung up with my mom and called the editors on St. Thomas. I told them they could send me the contract and I would start making plans to return to the island.
     There were worse places to be than in the Caribbean, I consoled myself. Hurricane season was over, winter heading to the mainland.
     After the phone call I did my own fashion of praying, lit some wild Colorado sage I’d picked and dried, and sent out a willingness to move in the direction that opened before me – interruptions acceptable – pretty much following my mother’s instruction verbatim.
     After a night of tossing and turning disrupted sleep, ten hours later the telephone rang. I assumed it was finally one of the catering companies with a part-time, ten-bucks-an-hour opportunity I’d proudly dismiss as too late: I was now a professional copyeditor. But it was Lucia, my old teacher, who hurriedly told me there was too much to catch up on – just where had I been and did I know how many people she had to call to find me? First, though, and most important of all, she said, she wanted to know what I was doing for work.
     I explained my desperate situation.
     She asked if I’d consider moving to New York City and helping out her poet friend as his personal assistant.
     Lucia was more excited than I was at this potential opportunity. She was thrilled that I was actually available, and interested, and she wanted to call him immediately and call me right back. And within the afternoon, I’d been offered the position of his live-in assistant simply based on Lucia’s judgment and recommendation. I told the poet it sounded like a good idea to me, but that I would like to meet him first and discuss the requirements, and the next week I flew to New York to work out the details.
     Within five minutes of meeting him, I would have taken the job for free, if he wasn’t discouraged by my lack of “city legs,” but the position also came with an “honorarium.” He said I’d be expected to work no more than four hours a day for him – Monday through Friday – but that my first priority as a writer was to write. He said if I found myself having to work more than four hours in a given day for what he requested, to let him know and we’d rearrange the duties. These included providing two meals on those work days, breakfast and dinner, and doing the grocery shopping and errands as needed. I’d live in his Greenwich Village mansion, the second floor to myself with a level of privacy, and we’d share the master kitchen on the first floor (his bedroom was on the third of the brownstone). I was made sure to understand I would be welcome to sit down at any meal and eat with him, and with his guests if he was entertaining.
     It wasn’t just the excitement of New York City and this entry into a particular world of art and letters that drew me to the position with the senior poet, however; it was the fact that the poet was almost a twin of Lucia herself. He had the same calm spirit, same sharp focused intelligence and same comforting, loose demeanor – same duende (to borrow a word that Lucia used often to describe an unusual depth of authenticity and potential for feeling in someone or a situation). I noticed the poet used similar chipped antique tea cups and funky mismatched saucers, a similarity in the careful arrangement of artistic mementos, and that both of them collected these odd sculptured hands.
     My first dinner with the poet in New York, the first night I flew out to meet him, he wore a navy blue sports coat over gray cotton sweatpants to the fancy Belgian restaurant down the street. He wore big white tennis shoes. Lucia would have dressed in more style, comfortably, and understated for sure, but with a true sense of fashion and some subtle adornment that suggested a drama like smoky perfume. Some dark hint of glamour that drew attention away from the oxygen tank she pulled behind her. But otherwise they were alike in slow humor and determined soft-spokenness.
     Even their big cats reminded me of each other: Lucia’s fat, deaf Cosmo; the poet’s big yellow tabby, Rilke, and the runt of the litter, Rilke’s identical but smaller brother, Satie. In grad school, I had house-sat for Lucia and taken care of her Cosmo many times. Part of my job with the senior poet would be to take care of his Rilke and Satie.

     I literally owed my “assistantship,” my “apprenticeship” in New York, as it was, to Lucia, but that night at the restaurant in Boulder, each of her former students who I’d see felt Lucia had guided them to where they’d ended up. She was that kind of teacher who defined who we’d become, and we adored her. I thanked Mary for her dinner invitation, and I promised I would check-in with them in the morning, then be back by ten to drive the senior poet to the gravesite.
     The Boulderado Hotel had been one of Lucia’s favorite places to meet for breakfast. She always ate the trout, I had the grits, and we always laughed at our predictability. I hadn’t told Cecilia, the friend I was going back to pick up at the airport, which hotel I’d booked us in, and she literally screamed when I pulled into the parking lot. “I used to meet Lucia here for breakfast!” she said. “And I always wanted to stay here.”
     That night, in our reunion and memorial, Cecilia and I both vowed to eat the smoked trout the next morning in her honor, but the next morning came too early after many toasts to Lucia, and neither of us could stomach the idea. We sat at the Boulderado and nibbled our ways through hard-scrambled eggs, dry toast, and crispy bacon. The grits went down the easiest. And when the coffee and cholesterol revived us, we went back to our room, showered and properly dressed, and I was ready to pick up the poet.
     Mary answered the phone when I called to make sure he was ready. She told me they had “had a most interesting morning, beginning in the middle of the night.” I shuddered at what could have happened while she passed the phone to him.
I recognized that sheepish tone of voice. “Tell me,” I told him.
     He said that from a deep dark sleep, he’d heard a scratching in the middle of the night, and he started to curse the dogs outside his bedroom door. But the sound grew louder, and more insistent, and he realized it was coming from inside the room. At this thought he got up to investigate. “On come the lights and the room is empty,” he tells me. The scratching was coming from his luggage.
     "Not Satie!”
     The one and only, he assured me.
     I had the same first thought, astonishment that the cat survived the air-pressure and sub-freezing temperatures of the airplane’s luggage compartment. But the poet said Mary’s veterinarian had made a house-call first thing that morning and checked out the miserable creature. Satie appeared to be perfectly fine if just a little bewildered. Of course, the dogs had gone wild once the cat was made public, he told me. Mary’s husband had gone to a pet store that morning and bought a litter box, litter, and food for the stowaway, but he would need me to pick up a cat carrier at some point before our return to New York.

     The cat’s surprise and safe arrival lifted our spirits, took the focus off Lucia’s funeral, and Satie seemed like such a comfort on the poet’s lap, when I went to pick him up. He stroked the cat, and I noticed his black suit pants were a magnet for the yellow fur. I locked Satie in Mary’s bathroom and we drove to the cemetery in Chautauqua Park. The clouds were low, snow capping the flatirons.
     I looked over at the senior poet. “Remember on the way to the airport, when I said it sounded like a cat was in the trunk?” I asked him.
     “It’s the brakes, I told you.”
     “‘It’s the brakes,’ you convinced me!” I laughed, recounting for Cecilia how, the previous morning, I’d even thought I heard a cat crying on the way to the airport. I’d even kidded the poet, “You didn’t accidentally pack one of the cats did you?”
     He turned to her in the backseat. “I said we only heard the sound when the driver hit the brakes.”
     It was true the only time we heard the strange whine was when we slowed down, I admitted. I told them I’d spent the first part of the early dawn drive to JFK thinking what I would do if a cat was in the suitcase. I had figured I could send the poet on the scheduled flight, call his friend and ask her to pick him up at the Denver airport, take the cat home myself in a taxi, and then come back to the JFK for another flight, buying one on the spot if Jet Blue didn’t have a later trip on the same day or they couldn’t rebook me.
     I had said I even thought, when I picked up his luggage the morning before, that the suitcase seemed heavy for a weekend, and oddly unbalanced, but by the time we arrived at the airport, the cat had obviously quieted down, settled in, and as sleepy as I’d been I didn’t think any more about it. Our luggage was scanned, checked-in, and stored in the bottom of the plane. We picked it up from baggage claim in Denver and threw it in the trunk of the rental car.
     “Satie used up one of his lives,” we repeated.

     At Lucia’s internment, we sat with her sons in the Chautauqua Park cemetery. It had been a month since she’d died, but the burial of her ashes postponed until the many people so important in her life (and scattered from California to Mexico City to Rome and everywhere between) could travel to Colorado. Low, wet clouds pushed down from the foothills and though it wasn’t actually raining, some people stood beneath umbrellas.
     Her sons each spoke briefly, placed lilac tulips, a Jim Beam bottle, and pack of cigarettes in the small pit dug for her urn. I considered death’s permeation in so much of what Lucia wrote, and how she fearlessly recounted her own griefs and losses. She had witnessed and survived all manner of heartbreaks, and she’d prepared each of us for this one, describing how hard it was getting to breathe, the pain whipping her bedridden, all but immobile. Her one comfort was her laptop, she told us, her ability to stay in touch with friends via email.
     Driving to Norlin Library for the reception after the funeral, I admired the poet’s heroic sort of loneliness. He looked so thoughtful, like such a classy, stoic gentleman, and I imagined him remembering the many loved ones he had seen buried, the growing isolation of getting old, outliving out-living friends and colleagues.
     “You all right?” I asked him, and he nodded.
Then he bit his lip and pouted. “I’ve been so mad at myself,” he said. “I’ve been beating myself up all morning.”
     I remembered Lucia’s last emails, asking me if the poet was angry with her. She said she felt like she was becoming so boring. She worried that she had no more culture or insights to share, and maybe he was tired of her small-town complaints; for his letters had become less frequent, only one every few weeks, she wrote, and they were so disconnected, distracted, they felt impersonal.
     I was prepared to put his mind at rest, let him know I had covered for him, that I had written Lucia of how extraordinarily busy he’d been, rearranging and rewriting lyrics for his off-Broadway show about to open. I thought I would placate his guilt, remind him how busy he had been, and what a good friend he’d been to Lucia over the years. (But I also felt like saying, “Why didn’t you pay attention? This woman you loved and who loved you was dying!”) But they’d known each other long before I came along, and that train of thought wasn’t even close to where the poet was going with his confession.
     “I’ve felt so silly and senile about the whole cat business,” he said. “But now I realize: I didn’t do it! It was Satie who crawled into the suitcase.”

     Denial is the death of short fiction, Lucia told me once in a workshop. She said that authors must be unabashedly forthcoming if they wanted to achieve any sort of duende, the Lorcan spirit of emotion that animated and authenticated a work of art. Lucia gave me the example of how exhibiting a private behavior might produce this kind of authenticity.
     “I talk all day to my deaf cat, Cosmo,” she said, noting that “disclosing this pitiful detail” of her biography in first-person did nothing but reveal her poor mental health. It was boring, she said, but if that idiosyncrasy was assigned to a character and presented in third-person, it would deepen the understanding of the character’s nature and create an honest, intimate bond with the reader.
     Her cat Cosmo died a year before Lucia had, and I imagined what a comfort a conversation with the white feline might have provided her those last painful weeks, especially since her computer went down. When it was repaired she wrote me of losing pages and pages of letters to friends. She wrote that she was lapsing into a “peculiar kind of loneliness,” and that silence was agonizing. She wished she’d tape-recorded Cosmo’s funny meows. She said she wished she had written more down.

     The thirty or forty friends who’d shown up at the gravesite quadrupled in the library. Beautiful photos of Lucia flashed on a wall in an ongoing slideshow, nearly seventy years of her smile and blue eyes. Prepared and impromptu speeches were given at appointed times. Several people read her work or shared her letters.
     The poet sang a song a cappella from his upcoming musical, a lyric with the refrain “Who’ll prop me up in the rain?” The yellow cat fur on his coat sleeve and on the thighs of his black pants suggested to me its own sort of desperation.
     More former classmates and teachers I hadn’t seen in years reunited at the memorial. I was able to put more faces to names that grew legendary from Lucia’s stories. Her sons, her nieces from Mexico, her motorcycle gang hippy from San Francisco. Her fiction and her true life intertwined even more that afternoon. Duende?

     I was able to purchase a small pet carrier the next morning for Satie to safely return with us to New York. He cried quietly but consistently from the backseat all the way to the airport. I told the poet I thought it was best if we just took the box up to the ticket counter, said we needed to bring the cat home with us, and not to go into his arrival with the airline staff. The poet agreed. “A new pet,” we would say. “A gift.”
     We returned the rental car, rode the shuttle bus to our terminal, and went to confirm our check-in. As we stepped to the counter, I gave the attendant our IDs and itineraries, and said we’d like to carry on our new tiny passenger. I held up the blue crate and Satie meowed on cue. The poet opened up. He told the clerk everything about the cat’s mad plan to travel. She was entertained by the story, charmed by the poet, but informed us the pet carrier I bought was too big to go on board. It had to fit under the seat in front of us, and this one was an inch too tall.
     Déjà vu of the first morning’s mental race: I’d have to put the poet on the scheduled flight, call a friend in Denver to come get me and the cat from the airport, find and buy a smaller pet carrier, and return to the airport to take a later plane home. But just as we were about to walk away from the counter and discuss my ideas, another agent overheard our conversation and told us he thought there was a pet crate in the Jet Blue office. After a short search, they found the approved cat box, and we were able to purchase it, transfer Satie, and check the slightly larger cat box along with our suitcases, empty.

     Back in New York the poet’s housekeeper hadn’t seen the little cat all weekend. “He never showed up to eat,” she said. “The big one, he eats everything, but the little one I never see.”
     She was so relieved when I rattled the cat food bag and both cats came running to the kitchen that she hugged me. I told her about the cat and the suitcase and the airplane. She scolded Satie and laughed. Then she stopped laughing and turned to me. “Maybe is good for the man that the cat go with him. Maybe he’s not so sad.” Then she laughed again and said she was scared to death to tell us that Satie was missing. She thought he crawled off somewhere to hide and died.
     The cats meowed beneath our feet until she grabbed the bag from my arms and poured two plates of food for them. She shrugged as we watched them eat. “He must be lucky. But I don’t know, maybe he still could die.”

     A few years later, as advancing age and decreased mobility limit the poet’s plane travel, the cats’ antics are confined to the New York townhouse in winter, and summers they’ve only got window seats and screen door views of the Vermont mountains. I rent a large luxury car and drive him and his pets back and forth from the city. I am careful closing trunks and car doors. I double-check suitcases.
     The little cat curls up each afternoon to nap with the poet. I can see them in the sunroom, how the cat hair gathers on the Pendleton blanket. The bright light through the windows makes Satie’s fur seem white, and I think of Cosmo. I call Satie’s name and he comes to the kitchen. I think of Lucia, the poet, Cecilia, and other relationships, how they deepen with years. Of all the gossip and gravesides we will share, and our dependency on telling each other’s stories. I also think of the kindness of time, how it wizens and authenticates us. I take comfort in the idea of knowing someone long and familiar, in the friends who stay beside us all our lives, as certain as family, as constant as yellow fur.