I first met Dave in Spanish class in Patzcuaro, Michoacan. Although Dave’s Spanish was much superior to mine we ended up in the same group. After class we usually strolled down to the main plaza and sat down in one of several cafés under the gothic arches of the colonial palaces surrounding the plaza. We would sip coffees, play cribbage and tell stories.
Dave and I took an instant liking to each other despite or maybe because of our completely different backgrounds. For Dave life was one big practical joke with endless variations. He was a natural story teller and most of his yarns were about his crazy family. Dave’s fantastic family history included a saint of a mom, a knife wielding schizophrenic ex-wife, a lovable, alcoholic twin brother, a golf-pro lesbian sister, three dysfunctional kids and a myriad of other odd ball relatives, all of whom he dearly loved. Dave’s family history was the modern equivalent of 100 years of solitude in Minneapolis.
Like a child I wanted to hear the same stories again. “Dave, tell the one about your senior gay tenants wanting a reduction on their rent due to bats and ghosts in their attic or the one about how your aunt used to terrorize the neighborhood on her Triumph and now does the same in her handicap scooter.”
Dave would throw his head back and laugh and with his booming voice tell the stories as if it was the first time. He had a knack of picking out the center, the heart of life’s stories and he saw it all through a humorous prism. He could turn tragedies into comedies, every time. One story would lead to the next one and time passed by unnoticed, afternoons slipping into evenings and coffee evolving into wine.
Dave’s best stories were about himself, his own faux pas or misadventures. One stands out in my mind and it’s about Dave’s knee. He first told me about his slight limp when I asked him if he would like to join me for a morning jog. He sadly shook his head. “Can’t do it buddy, that old knee won’t let me.” Instead we opted for a walk through the antique cobble stoned streets already bustling with vendors and shoppers.
“What happened to your knee,” I had to ask.
“Let’s go in here,” he said, ducking into the narrow entry to the covered Mercado, “I know a place in here where they serve the best Sopa Tarasca.”
When we were comfortably seated at the tiled counter, next to some curious locals, with a steaming bowl of the famous bean and tortilla soup in front of us, Dave pointed at his left knee.
“I have Beefy Larson to thank for that,” Dave said. “I used to be a junior A hockey player and a few times every season we faced off against Beefy Larson’s team. Beefy was a giant and made up for his lack of skating skills by throwing his considerable weight around the rink but as is often the case with hockey players of his ilk he wasn’t the fasted skater on the ice and missed his target more often than not. On this particular occasion his intended mark for a body check – me – slipped out from under him which resulted in Beefy slamming into the boards behind the goal then loosing his footing and sprawling onto the ice with his head in the perfect position on the side of the goal to have his ear cleanly sliced off by the goalie’s skate who was doing the splits to ward off a slap shot. Remember these were the days before anybody wore a helmet. The referee gingerly scooped up the bloody ear while a howling Beefy was escorted to the dressing room with a bloody towel over his head and the game continued.”
Dave nodded, smiling at the memory. I sat there beaming into my breakfast soup, mesmerized like a little kid.
Dave continued. “The next time we met Beefy Larson’s team rumor had it that Beefy was going to settle some scores. This did nothing but incite our squad and we were pumped and ready to meet the big bruiser on his own turf. Even the crowd heard of the rumor which notched up the level of excitement to a steady vibrant hum that filled the bleachers around the civic ice rink. But when Beefy Larson skated onto the ice the hum suddenly stopped. What was that on the side of Beefy’s head ? Could it possibly be ? Surely that’s not a jockstrap ! Everybody knew about the ear but a jockstrap to protect the sewed and stitched on lobe ? Nobody could take anybody serious that has a jockstrap tied to his head, definitely not the opposing players. We could barely skate we were so overcome by the giggles. It was as if Darth Vader had an arm in a sling or the Devil himself had his hoofed leg in a cast.
I faced off against Beefy early in the game. Crouched next to each other over our sticks II couldn’t help myself and touted Beefy : ”Can you hear the roar of the crowd inside that head gear ?”
Beefy’s face turned beet red. ”I’ll fucking get you,” he hissed under his breath just when the puck dropped.
A few minutes later I stole the puck off Beefy and tried to go around him. Beefy raised his stick like he was teeing off on a 400 yarder but at the last instant I deeked to the right and Beefy’s stick came down full force onto the side of my left knee. That was the end of my game, and for that matter of my hockey career.”
Dave laughingly shook his head: “But I still wouldn’t trade my bum knee for Beefy’s cauliflower ear.”
Dave came out west a couple of times in the summer and we spent some splendid afternoons playing crib or walking along the beach and through the rain forest and we would always tell stories. There was no end of silliness and quirky personalities within our very different social environments.
When Dave left, always too soon, we would plan the next get together and we stayed in touch by e-mail and phone. “I have this cheap internet phone plan,” Dave said, delighted with the magic of modern technology.
We met again in the Yucatan and lounged around on beach chairs, reading, talking and playing crib. Dave was on a strict health diet which sounded rather boring but he saw it as an interesting opportunity to try new ways to cook and eat, just another adventure of sorts and also a possible way to sooth those annoying, persistent migraines.
I went to see Dave in St.Pauls. We toured the classy old patrician neighborhoods, played crib and he took me to the fantastic Guthrie Theater to a performance of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Importance of being Earnest’. I don’t remember much about the play but Dave wanted me to see this magnificent, ultra modern theatre with a bar and terrace overlooking the mighty Mississippi and the new bridge linking St. Paul and Minneapolis.
A few months later, around Christmas, Dave informed me that he had been diagnosed with a stage four brain tumor. “No worries, I have the best health plan in the world,” he said, “they can fix anything.” Being a veteran Dave did indeed receive the best possible care.
Dave called me regularly, always upbeat and full of beans. “This tumor sure has fucked up my travel plans for the winter,” he commented in typical Dave fashion. Always the optimist he wanted to come out west the next summer, when he would be feeling better. Instead he embarked on a whole different journey, being shepherded through a labyrinth of chemo and trial drugs, diets and holistic therapies. Dave made it back to Yellowstone, his favorite place. “I had a grizzly bear encounter,” he said, as if he had met an old friend downtown. “Just this big old bear and me. We faced each other off and then we turned and went back to our kin and den, both too old and tired to fight I guess,” he chuckled.
Dave called one more time in the spring and informed me that he had had enough of the chemo and all the drugs. “They don’t make me feel any better and I can’t even play a decent game of crib because of all these fucking drugs. I quit them all and I’ll be up your way in the summer.”
I wanted to believe him. One month later they moved Dave into a hospice. I planned to go and say good by – for myself mostly – maybe play one more hand of crib but I never made it.
After I had my own knee operated by Dr. Papadopoulos due to a torn ACL and MCL I had to return to the hospital to have it checked out. I lay in one of about 20 beds behind a curtain with my knee exposed waiting for the good doctor. When he drew the curtain aside with a flourish he looked at the knee and nodded as if recognizing an old acquaintance. When I blithely asked how his day was progressing he looked up surprised, not expecting a voice attached to the knee. He shook his head and answered laconically: “Busy as usual,” shifting his attention back to the knee. It was obvious to me that he recognized the knee but not the rest of the person attached to that leg.