This short story is fiction but contains many actual events. Retelling this story in a fictional way helps me process the death of a dear friend. There is a gauze over the lens effect that gives me some distance. The featured image is a cartoon I drew in the 1970s.
“Big Tony radiated excitement when blue-skying. “Band management,” he said. “We both like music and musicians; it’ll be fun.” ”
Big Tony radiated excitement when blue-skying. “Band management,” he said. “We both like music and musicians; it’ll be fun.”
I loved Tony, but I felt emotionally shot. Keeping my production company afloat was a struggle to the point I hardly felt creative anymore. My father died two just months prior. My adult son was fighting chemical temptations. And my wife, Gail, was enraged by her family to the point it was staining all her relationships. Entertaining another of his pipe dreams was more than I could handle right now.
Setting down my beer, I said, “Man! I’m not sure I have the chalupas to get competent and competitive in an entirely new business.”
Big Tony shook his head in exasperation at my reluctance and leaned back in the booth. Instantly, he straightened up with a start.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“My back,” he said, “Around my left shoulder blade. Hurts.”
“Get a massage. Gail knows some good ones.”
I didn’t think he would go. Tony hated any TLC that didn’t lead to sex.
“It’ll be alright.”
“Just go,” I said. “Fix it.”
He took a long tug on his beer and plunged back into his spiel, neither deterred nor distracted. “Denton is a music town. Chock full of young talent. They only need a little guidance and promo. That’s us. They make some money; we make some money.”
As the fingers and thumb of his right hand rubbed together in the international sign for folding cash, his eyes sparkled with anticipation.
“On top of that,” he continued, “We get to hang around music venues with our friends. What could be better?”
I completed his thought: “And Big Tony gets to pick up women wowed by a connection to their show business illusions.”
Tony laughed. “And what’s wrong with a little additional motivation?”
In college, we talked a lot about making a go at a business endeavor, but it never got real enough for me. The thing was, he loved planning and plotting in almost all its forms. I didn’t take it all that seriously, partially because he was a campus activist when I first met him. A Marxist, no less. Scheming was all these people did.
Nevertheless, we bonded over what made us laugh, which was almost everything.
Two years after first meeting, we were walking back toward campus after a lunch with friends on the town square. We stopped to ponder an unfinished office building. It had been sitting like that for months, a skeleton of six floors without any walls on or around them.
“A good place to run a business in fair weather,” Tony quipped.
“Known worldwide as Fairweather Associates!” I said with a laugh.
“Yes!” Tony yelled.
He loved that name. Every time I saw him, he would go on and on about it. Eventually, I made a hi-con of my photograph of the unfinished office building and fashioned Bodoni Bold into an ersatz company logo. Classic and classy.
Since I was having some success selling prints, I could easily churn out a few dozen cards for each of us: Big Tony as president, me as vice president. In my mind, all of this was just a lark.
In the ensuing years, we graduated and followed the employment path. I got into animation and video production, eventually joining a friend who was forming a company.
While continuing to bring up the possibility of Fairweather Associates, Tony passed his CPA exam and opened and ran a successful college bookstore. You know, like a socialist.
Then, work begat work. We didn’t kid around about Fairweather for almost two decades.
But life will sometimes make you look back fondly. After all that time, here he and I were, rehashing our youthful fantasy while sipping happy-hour beers on the patio of a sunny fern bar in uptown Dallas.
It’s possible that reviving a carefree, joyous moment in his life was an escape plan. Maybe he unconsciously sensed there could be more to his longing. Too self-involved, I didn’t pick up on it. I just kept on being mule-headedly practical, a total downer.
My phone rang. It was Marcus, my business partner in real life. He told me that Vision Group wanted to see us about a Doritos spot with an Old West theme.
“More orange snack food,” I deadpanned. Then, with a little more enthusiasm: “I’ll sketch out some ideas. What time?’
It occurred to me that Marcus and Tony were a lot alike. Both were big, hairy men who loved to pitch and sell. Yet, both were softies, the kind of men dogs and small children instantly trust. It worked for me, too. I loved them both.
Hanging up, I turned back to Tony: “We gotta do something about your back.”
“All I need is to ride the range again with my old buddy,” he replied.
“Like old times,” I said, feeling hollow inside.
Gail found a masseur and guilted Tony into actually seeing her. He could refuse me, but not a woman he wanted to have sex with, and he had tried to get into my wife’s pants. In fact, as another entry into the what-we-put-up-with-from-those-we-love ledger, he had attempted to get into the lacy bits of all his friends’ wives, only tolerated because he was a good-natured and gentlemanly jerk. This personal failing of his, coupled with his inability to seal any of these deals, was an ongoing joke among the couples in our social group.
The massage did no good; it was just excruciating. That spurred Gail to contact Langdon, Tony’s general physician friend in Denton, whom he wouldn’t willingly see of his own volition anywhere outside a saloon. Knowing she had power over Tony, Gail wasn’t afraid to wield it. She forced him to make an appointment and insisted that he keep it.
Langdon prodded Tony, asked some questions, and took some x-rays. A few days later, bereft, he recommended Tony to an oncologist.
Throughout his adult life, Tony loved and sought out live music several times a week. Rock, country, chamber, conjunto, opera, polka, and jazz, all were beautiful to him. Most of his friends were artists of some sort. Not too surprising. He lived in a town that was home to one of the nation’s top music schools. Following the money, most of us moved to nearby Dallas or farther, but Tony stayed close to the vibrancy of young talents finding their way. And to coeds.
On occasion, although less and less as the years went by, the old college gang would meet Big Tony in Denton for a night of drinking, reminiscing, and enjoying music at the local spots. Everywhere we went, it seemed everyone knew him, wanted to shake his hand, and wanted to trade sweet nuggets of organizational gossip.
He just might be a natural for A&R. To me, however, he remained a Denton icon, plotting and planning with politicians of varying shades and ensuring that young composers and musicians knew there was a reason to savor the trials of becoming an artist.
Alas, the oncologist had nothing good to say. The initial x-rays showed a constellation of tumors across his back, obviously melanoma. The CAT scan confirmed and doubled down, revealing more tumors in his lymph nodes, lungs, and lower organs.
Big Tony obliquely filled us in on his conversations with Langdon and the oncologist. Later, Gail and I called Langdon. He said all that could be done medically was to make him comfortable as possible.
Tony had just turned 54. The ache of profound personal loss set in when we realized he would not see 55.
Flavio, a professor of psychology at the school, was a good friend of Tony’s. He shared a quaint but worn house on West Oak with his wife Sarah, a painter dealing with MS. Lovely people. Steadfast. They offered up their home for his hospice.
Many times a year, Flavio and Sarah hosted Sunday brunches that attracted a swarm of local artists and musicians. Big Tony, naturally, was a regular. Flavio and a couple of volunteers would make a boatload of fried rice and Bloody Marys. Meanwhile, the house would swell with enlightening conversations, kids darting from room to room, and, in the afternoon, homemade music.
With Tony in hospice, Flavio and Sarah’s home became a place of pilgrimage. People began showing up every weekend, some bringing food and drink, many carrying their instruments. Those of us from the big city made the trek, too—almost every weekend for the remaining too few months.
Tony had touched an army of hearts that now gathered in this place: college administrators, professors, cooks, bartenders, waiters, waitresses, bikers, physicians, therapists, those in the building trades, actors, truckers, post office workers, delivery people, students, alumnae, local politicians, clerks, jocks, artists, and many, many amateur and professional musicians.
On this holy site at this sacred time, old friendships renewed, and new ones emerged, with this giant man-child acting as the node that connected us all.
We could talk with him one-on-one and in small groups for a while. As the morphine doses increased, he would nod off more, and we would take turns sitting with him. In that state, he heard our family and work stories, listened to our poetry, heard us sing, and received the very best of whatever we did.
The big gatherings on the weekends lessened, evolving into a steady flow of volunteers assisting Flavio and and Sarah, and taking shifts sitting with Big Tony.
Julianne, the best-known cello player in the state, returned from a European tour late in the game. She came by to visit Tony for the first time on a Monday when Gail and I were sitting with him.
Sarah was not moving well that day, so Gail met Julianne at the door. The two women walked and talked to the kitchen, filled the kettle with water, and lit the burner. Then they retreated to Sarah’s studio and caught up a little before the kettle whistled. Gail made us elderflower tea in four hand-made ceramic cups from Flavio and Sarah’s extensive collection. She placed two cups on a red lacquer tray and led Julianne to Tony’s room.
I quietly greeted Julianne as she placed her cello case against the wall under the lace-covered window facing the foot of his bed. Gail handed us our teas before rejoining Sarah.
Julianne sat silently beside Tony’s bed for at least fifteen minutes before rising to uncase her instrument. She then sat in a chair backlit by golden afternoon light filtering through the window. Cello in front of her, she took a deep breath and eased into Fauré’s Élégie.
As she played, I admired how Julianne’s precision and inflamed emotion expressed how all Tony’s friends felt and what we had been more ineptly trying to say to him. I saw how his face grew more serene as the piece progressed.
During the most tragic passage, Sarah and Gail appeared weeping in the doorway, overcome by the music.
Julianne continued playing the elegy to its concluding acceptance of the inevitable before, in the ensuing silence, tears began streaming down her face as well.
A moment of silence, then Tony moaned.
I said, “Good,” because I thought that was what I heard him say.
“I heard it, too,” Sarah said. Gail and Julianne nodded.
I offered my chair to Sarah, who sat and held Tony’s hand.
Julianne, Gail, and I joined hands at the foot of the bed and reflexively bowed our heads.
Seconds later, we heard Sarah whisper, “Oh, Tony.” Opening our eyes, we witnessed his massive chest sinking as his last breath wheezed from his body.
For a measureless moment, only soft occasional weeping gently interrupted the soundless tranquility.
We cremated Tony that week. The following Sunday, most of the network of friends met at Flavio and Sarah’s in a more somber gathering. As had become usual, I helped Flavio in the kitchen. Not nearly as usual, Gail led the division of Tony’s ashes between those of us designated to spread them in the places he loved.
Overcome with sadness, I spiraled into an emotional wallow of self-recrimination and pity. My best friend was dead, echoing my father’s death. My son had disappeared again with no word, and Gail was rightly determined to testify against her reprehensible brother despite her family’s wishes. Through it all, I continued to fill my days making loud, silly commercials to sell brown fast food and unnaturally orange cheesy snacks.
I felt that I had denied Tony his last chance to dance, that I should’ve hopped at the opportunity to put together a little music management and publishing firm with him. Instead, I had acted the gloomy work drone and snuffed out his dream. At that moment, I wondered if I had killed not just his hope but also his will to live.
Waking from my thoughts, I still stood at the kitchen counter before a pile of half-chopped carrots.
Flavio, moving from cook to psychologist, stared at me with eyes haggard from his immense grief.
Faithful to his calling, he asked: “You need to talk?”
My head shook a little as if I would tell him I’d be all right. Instead, I voiced my heartbreak: “Flavio, just what kind of a friend was I?”