The stone bottle of aged Dutch gin was the last alcohol in the house, stowed in the garage on a high wooden shelf between a container of used motor oil and a jarful of nails. We’d gotten it more than 20 years ago in that strange town on the French-Spanish border where everything was duty free, a European Costco of sorts: stacks of cigarettes and liquor, hand-painted planter pots from Italy, fruits from North Africa, melons and bags of dates in cardboard boxes, palettes of French mustard, cheap steak knives in clear plastic tubes.
We’d drive the twisted road down from France across the border and into the crowded dusty parking lot in Spain then return home with cases of wine and if they had it, the Bols oude genever. The bottles were clay colored and made from stone, heavy like weights you could curl, ornate enough we saved the empties.
John kept the gin in the freezer and when he poured it it was viscous and silver. We drank from tiny shot glasses after dinner and I’d walk the dirt path home from their house in Port-Vendres down the hill to my condo, in neighboring Collioure. And fall asleep with the balcony doors open, the sound of the tide the same at night as it was the next morning.
I had a journal that summer, a summer that started in May and didn’t end until mid-October. What I did each day, new words I learned, what I ate and drink, where we went. I only read it once but after I did, I set it down and thought gosh, I sound like Keith Richards here, all this drinking and galavanting! It’s perhaps that summer I became “bohemian.” And it followed me back to Capitol Hill, Wallingford, West Seattle, and Issaquah. Perhaps it was all contained in that stone bottle in the garage, and it was time for that to go.
John was about the age I am now when we met in my mom’s apartment in 1992. He had long silver hair, long nails, a thick beard and Hawaiian shirt, lots of jewelry, English. Oversized khakis and the kind of sneakers you bind with a Velcro strap. He used a cane and played guitar, the finger-picking kind, and could make the sound of a trombone with his lips when he played. His voice was deep and filled the room.
Over the next 16 years we lived together and traveled together and I remember the end of it, the last year in Germany, when he was really sick and I was able to see him one last time. He was on dialysis and had not been himself for a while, had cut himself off from most everyone else except for Eberhard, was even cold and distant at times with my mom and me. He’d cordoned himself off in the old German house in his wheel chair with the remote and the mini fridge, the meat pies mom got for him at the English shop and the bottle of Beefeater he’d asked me to pick up at the duty free in Frankfurt.
One of the last times together we watched the Townes Van Zandt documentary and cried at the end, his life was so tragic and sad. John couldn’t play anymore because of the neuropathy, he couldn’t feel the way he needed to in his hands or there was too much pain. He’d grip one hand with the other, shake both, then put the guitar back in its case and look away. The African robes and necklaces, the knock-off Cartier love bracelet each of us had from the Italian jeweler in New Jersey. The Rolex: one for me, one for our French friend Laurent, who was with John in the hospital the night he died, on Halloween.
Though I hadn’t drunk the Bols in a while knowing it was there had an unusual effect on me. I could put it in the freezer in the garage and have an occasional nip before going to bed. Or share it with my friends next month when I turned 50. The bottle was on a shelf above the CD collection, and I found myself cycling back to that corner of the garage not realizing why, and had to will myself away.
Lily wanted to watch the Tolkien films, all 89 hours worth, and we started with the first in the Hobbit trilogy, “An Unexpected Journey.” We meet Gollum, formerly Sméagol, now reduced to a primitive creature who lives in the dark with the magical ring he found and killed his best friend over, which Bilbo Baggins unexpectedly pockets and uses to turn invisible and escape Gollum’s cave. Gollum is possessed by the dark power of the ring, a problem both Bilbo and his kin Frodo will suffer from in stories to follow.
And there’s a scene in the second film that reminds me of my last visit with John in the dialysis center. The party comes upon a village where the king is decrepit and dying, too sick to rule. We come to learn it’s the Iago-type advisor to the king who’s in league with the evil wizard Saruman, they’ve put a dark spell over him. They use an effect on the film where the king’s face appears blurred out, wrapped in a cocoon. When the spell is broken, you see the king’s true features, and he rises from his stupor to expel the slimy advisor, then goes off to battle.
That’s how John looked when we said goodbye, as if he’d snapped out of his spell momentarily, long enough to be present with me. His spirit shone through.
My mom often quotes someone who said, let me either be an inspiration or a terrible warning. We can be both in our time.
I looked, but there is no record of that Spanish border town on any maps I found on the internet. None of the names ring a bell. Mom probably won’t remember either, and the journal I had from that summer in France is long gone.
Legends help us interpret the features on a map, a key. Legends earn the name legend well after their time has come and gone, and live on through the magic that reincarnates them, in story.