Good-bye, Mark, You Asshole

Mark and his son, circa 2004.

I’d always known wherever Mark ended up it would be in a bad place. He had that aspect to him. He dressed as well as he spoke, had a way with the ladies, but he was also high-strung, impatient, and quite narcissistic. Fundamentally, he was kind, but also had a sense he deserved more than he had, even though he could’ve had it all. And for a time, he did, until misplaced pride sucked the life from him. He chalked up criticism to being misunderstood. Classes were failed because the professors were indifferent to his personal problems. Jobs were lost because the boss had unreasonable expectations or disrespected him. He served time in jail because the po-dunk pigs who arrested him had nothing better to do but cause him trouble.

People don’t understand guys like us, he would say. They don’t know what we’ve been through. We’ve seen the shit. 

I met Mark in college. He was more than ten years older than I was, in his mid-30s, but he wanted to be a writer. He joined The Clarion, our college paper, where we met, and where he’d taken an instant liking to me since we were the only two on staff at that time who smoked weed and shared common interests and history. He was from Colorado, my favorite state. We were both former heroin/opiate addicts several years into recovery. We became best buds. He was married with a son, and wanted to be a writer. He knew he lacked the patience to write, so he eventually decided he’d teach literature. But this dream, too, wasn’t realistic, since he lacked the patience required for reading the books he’d need to teach.

It wasn’t long before Mark and I both were relapsing, feeding off of each other’s weaknesses. He’d met a fellow student who was prescribed too many oxycodones monthly. Although the student genuinely needed them for pain, he was also poor with four daughters and sold many of them to supplement his meager benefits. Neither of us fell into all out relapse in the sense it damaged our schooling, but we consumed copious amounts of candy those two semesters. Then Mark transferred into UW-Madison, and the candyman dropped out of school due to his illnesses and stopped selling his pills.

Off the candy, our futures again seemed ours for the taking.

But things really went down hill for Mark that first and only semester at the university. That autumn he began suffering a shortness of breath and came down with pneumonia. During a routine check of his chest x-rays, a keen-eyed radiologist detected an abnormality that turned out to be an aortic aneurysm dilated to six, a lethal stage. During surgery, doctors discovered an array of other problems with Mark’s heart. But he pulled through.

Surgery was rough, but the recovery was rougher. He suffered severe memory loss. You might visit or call every day, then for whatever reason he’d be unable to remember any of it. Then the depression hit. Age, mortality, the end of his academic dreams, and his increasing dependence on the candy, took a tool on his marriage, which in time fell apart. During this time he became increasingly distraught, convinced his wife was having an affair. He’d discover lingerie and other intimate clothing she kept hidden. He also found receipts for waxing and tanning sessions.

I can’t handle it, he’d sob during many 3 a.m. phone calls spurred by his severe insomnia and desperation. I keep seeing her mouth on some other guy’s…. She doesn’t even let me touch her. 

It’s probably nothing, a phase, I said, knowing full well it was probably as it seemed.

Nate, she’s never waxed in seventeen years.

As far as I know she never admitted to an affair, but for all intents and purposes the marriage was over. Soon she was coming home later and was spending a lot of time with her sister on weekends. To her, I suppose, it was none of his business. She’d had enough and moved out with their son. I couldn’t fault her, really. Mark, as far as his vices were concerned, was never honest with her. She’d find his stash of pills and dope and he’d say he was holding it for me. Or some bitch he’d been buttering up at school would blow-up his phone at bar time looking for drugs or a booty call.

She was looking for Nate, he’d tell his wife if the call woke her.

A series of bad decisions later forced Mark from the home he’d made a life in after he and his wife separated. A bad reaction one night between his heart medication and the wine (Mark wasn’t much of a drinker) led to a black-out. He went on a drive during which he broadsided a number of parked cars before crashing through his own garage door. A tactical swat team found him passed out inside. He was court ordered to leave the house, which was on the market, and was given several years of probation. When his sentenced ended, he returned to Colorado, where his brother Dave, who killed himself many years earlier, was buried.

During this time Mark and I had less frequent contact. I was moving to Philly while he was killing time in Wisconsin trying to be a presence in his son’s life. He seemed shocked the boy was by then a teenager he loved dearly, but didn’t know very well, as he’d become a young man. Mark worked odd jobs to supplement his disability payments. For a while, in 2008 and 2009, we talked regularly. His probation nearly complete, he was looking forward to beginning anew in Colorado. By then I was a published journalist with several awards and honors to my credit. Every conversation ended with him saying, I’m so proud of you, Nate. Don’t forget me when you’re famous.

Please don’t forget me. 

If I had a biggest fan during those formative years writing, it was Mark. He believed in me so completely and talked me up so unabashedly I’d turn red as a beet when he did it in front of strangers. One of those strangers, a guy he worked with briefly at a nursery, was a guy I pulled a gun on in high school. The guy apparently still held a grudge all those years later, telling Mark every gory detail, embellishing many to make it seem more than it was. I didn’t even have a loaded clip, for chrissakes. Besides, he was with seven others who wanted to beat up my friend and I. Self defense, anyone?

Though Mark was an open book, there was a lot I never shared with him, because by then I was a budding journalist, not some fucking gangsta. At times he seemed hurt by this. Why didn’t you ever tell me about that?  His son, listening to the conversation, perked up: You pulled a gun on someone? From that moment, Mark referenced the gun incident constantly. It was the only time I felt judged by him. Pull a gun on anyone lately, he’d joke, adding I just can’t see you doing something like that.

His favorite story I wrote was one chronicling his mental anguish and fears during the run-up to his heart surgery. In the years following, he’d once in a while call after catching my name on the cover of the local alt-weekly or in one of the dailies, proud of how far I’d come. In one of our last conversations he expressed his disappointment I hadn’t written a book yet. You’re full of stories, he said. Don’t squander that talent, don’t waste that second chance. You’ve got it, man!

Don’t forget me when you’re famous.

I didn’t hear much from Mark after 2010. I knew he was back in Colorado, but each time I’d see him on Gchat, my greeting was met in silence. He called that summer while I was on a road trip. He checked out my website and seemed genuinely happy. At the time I planned on visiting Colorado to see him. He spoke vaguely about how things weren’t great for him. His health wasn’t good and he was running out of money. He was happy to be back in Denver, though many of those he used to run with had either overdosed or, like his brother, committed suicide. Before the rise of social media, it wasn’t easy keeping tabs on people, especially those like us who led distracted lives.

The last time we spoke was in September 2011. I was in Denver and was surprised the number I had for Mark still worked. I was even more surprised he answered, since he’d let dozens of messages go unanswered. He was surprised to hear from me, and seemed a little disappointed to hear my voice. You don’t want to see me, he said, explaining he was sick, living out of his car, and begging for change. He said he was ashamed and didn’t want me to see him like this, back on the chiva, but he appreciated the call. Before hanging up he told me, I’m really dying this time, as if it had been his goal all along. He never sounded more broken.

Two years would pass before he passed on. During that time, I left him several messages after moving to New Mexico, just five hours from Denver, but all went unanswered. I watched for his Gchat icon to light up, which it no longer did. Occasionally I’d check the Denver obituaries. I called again around Christmas, but his number this time was disconnected. I decided not to contact him again. He had my email address. He could reach me if he wanted. I was tired of trying.

Two days ago I found his son, now a young man in college, on Facebook. I asked how Mark was doing and how I could get ahold of him. That’s when I received the grim news. He informed Mark was found dead in mid-October in a Denver motel room. His son said an autopsy report said he bled out after hitting his head and neck. No one really knows what happened, but foul play isn’t suspected. I’ve thought a lot since then about what those final moments were like for Mark, what he was doing, thinking about—whether he had any plans for tomorrow. I wondered just how far he’d sunk.

I was so angry with him when he refused to meet me when I was in Denver last. He refused my offer of lunch and hotel room.  People don’t understand guys like us. They don’t know what we’ve been through.  I am even more angry with him now. Goddamn angry.  I don’t know what Mark went through in those final years of his life, but I can only imagine how miserable it must’ve been for him to have once had everything—a beautiful wife, wonderful son, a promising academic career, a nice home. He had, for a little while anyhow, lived the American Dream.

I never forgot Mark and thought of him often. I like to think that last phone call pained him as much as me. I hope he felt terrible afterward. I could hear in his voice the shame, the sense of having been reduced to a gutter rat, and maybe had I pushed harder he’d have relented. He knew he had become the disappointment he always feared becoming, like his other brother, Frank, in-and-out of prison the better part of 15 years. He didn’t want me to see him in his rags, to witness his complete loss of dignity, to have me remember him as a drug-addicted bum scavaging on the streets of Denver. I get that. But it doesn’t make him any less of an asshole in my mind. He knew me enough to know I’d always been a paycheck away from joining him on the streets.

I have no doubt Mark, whatever went down in that hotel room, would have been disappointed had he pulled through. He and I used to half joke about how life takes so fucking long and how it often seems more trouble than it’s worth—a beautiful agony we called it. The drugs. The bitches. The bullshit. We lived for those things, though they hurt us more than anything. He admired the courage it took his brother to hang himself with a guitar string. Better dead than a  fuck-up, like Frank. He hated what Frank had put the family through. He lacked the courage to check out on his own, but he sure could whip up a set of circumstances to help him along. Like Frank, Mark became a fuck-up—a waste—a vehicle to alienate everyone who cared for him until he truly had nothing.

I imagine him, in those moments after striking his head—as those last glimmers of consciousness flickered like bad television reception, his vision narrowing into a fine, final, point of light—a wave of peace swept over him as he knew this time he really was dying, the mental darkness taking hold until there was nothing but the thing he always claimed to have wanted—a way out of this beautiful agony.

In that sense, Mark, I’m happy for you, asshole.

10 Comments

  1. Russ says:

    One hell of an article, man.  An amazing bit of courageous self exposure on your part.  I am glad that you seem to be clinging to other side of the line that led to your friend’s destruction.  May you remain alive, healthy, and productive.

  2. Jaimi says:

    Thank you.

  3. Stephen says:

    This is one of the saddest things I ever read. But wow, I felt it. BTW, my girlfriend says she’s happy u finally wrote again.   

  4. Nicole says:

    OMG! This is terrible. I haven’t stopped crying since reading this. Mark and I had classes together at MATC. We lost touch but there were a lot of times I wondered how he was. Thank you Nathan for this beautiful beautiful send off. You’re right that Mark had his problems but he was in heart a really good person. You two were hilariaous together! He told me a million times how brilliant you are. A secret: I came real close to asking you out once, Nathan, but you were attached at the hip with that pretty girl who always wore black whenever I saw you. I forget her name. Those were great years at MATC, werent they? Good luck Nathan! I’m happy you’re still writing. And Mark, you were more loved than you realized. My heart goes out to his son. 

  5. Robert Meyerowitz says:

    That was a great read.

  6. Heather Kempley says:

    This is so well written. He sure was a witty guy with a huge heart!

  7. linda says:

    i love the way the internet carries me on little journeys to the unknown. from Best of small town wyoming to Theferalscribe to this stunning story. thanks

  8. Jimmy Carl Black says:

    “Besides, he was with seven others who wanted to beat up my friend and I.” That should be, “my friend and me.”

  9. Michael Luca says:

    You should have saved your friend. 

  10. Katie Lewis says:

    Well written!  I didn’t know him, but know many like him.  Made me cry…

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