Goldberg writes: “It’s the story of Nell Schwartz, alias Banana Rose, who is a hippie in Taos, New Mexico. She meets Gauguin, falls in love, leaves Taos, moves to Boulder and then to Minnesota, where she marries Gauguin and divorces him. Both Nell and Gauguin study Zen. Nell is a teacher; Gauguin, a musician. It is about the great awakening of a generation, the Sixties kids and what happened to them.”
I met Gary Blake at the meditation hall. It was a place of silence, but Gary Blake was not a silent man. At an evening sitting, he sat next to me and whispered about how his knee hurt, then how he wished he had a ham sandwich, and how he wanted to have a black robe like the Roshi’s. I tried by turns to ignore him and then to put my finger to my lips and whisper, “Shhh.”
“Oh, ‘shh’ yourself. I’m tired of sitting. Come out to the porch with me and talk,” he said in a too-loud voice.
On the porch, he told me that he was a poet from Indianapolis, and that he had lived with the Navajos in Gallup, New Mexico, for several years before moving to Minnesota.
As soon as I heard New Mexico my eyes lit up. “You mean you know New Mexico?” I asked, leaning back against the porch window.
“Yes,” he nodded and looked closely at me. “You understand, don’t you?” He meant about sunset, sage, bare hill, peyote, open space, sky.
Yes, I nodded, and in that moment we became friends.
He continued, but this time he began as though we had been talking for years. “Once I went with the men to hunt deer. The Navajos thought gay men were sacred, so I fit in someplace for the first time. We caught a deer easily that night and returning I sat in the back of the Ford pickup with the deer, the beautiful dead animal. There was something wrong with the way they killed her that night. We all felt it. The deer stared at me with her glazed eyes and I don’t think she ever forgave me.” He scratched his nose. “When something dies, the spirit hangs on. The New Mexico night and the deer’s spirit were harsh. My hands froze. Every time even now when I think back on the deer, my hands grow cold again.”
He stopped and looked down at his open palm. “I tell you, the deer’s spirit is in my hands. I was the only white man with them and I carried the curse.”
The bell rang in the zendo. Evening sitting was finished for the other meditators. Gary and I exchanged phone numbers and then I joined Gauguin to walk home. On the way, we stopped in the Rip Torn Comics Store that was open late on Thursdays. I told Gauguin about Gary and the deer. He was engrossed in an R. Crumb comic and just nodded to me.
The next week, Gary and I met at the Sears cafeteria on Chicago Avenue. It was one of his favorite places. We ordered Cokes and coleslaw and sat at a table near a lawn mower display. It was late fall and already the weather was bitter. Gary liked the lawn mowers. He said they reminded him of spring.
“Let’s pretend we are in Paris at an outdoor cafe. Oui, ma chérie, tu es très belle.” He took off his glasses and placed them on the table.
Gary was forty-three and had a bad heart. He wasn’t supposed to eat rich foods or salt. He loved to talk about dying as though it were his last great poem. That’s why I didn’t quite believe his heart was bad. I thought he said it for dramatic effect.
“Now, if heaven doesn’t have a Sears, Roebuck, and a street with some old condoms and tootsie roll wrappers lying in the curb, I think I’ll just check out of there. Check right into the motel down the street.”
When we left the cafeteria and walked through the store, he moved slowly. He was a big man, almost six feet tall, and he had a large belly. We passed a display of plastic flowers. Gary stopped by the blue ones in a basket. “Nell, come smell this peony. I think we’ve already fallen to heaven.”
He bent his body low over the big-headed flower to get a better look at it. I tugged at his sleeve. I thought he was going to get into talking about dying again and it made me nervous.
Instead he said, “You know how peonies open? They give out a sweet syrup that attracts the ants. The ants crawl inside and that opens the petals. Whoever thought of anything so perfect? You see, Nell, it’s not just your old friend Gary that wants sweets. The ants want them too. It’s natural to want them. Let’s stop at Snyder’s Drugs for a cone. One scoop. How could that hurt anything?” And he turned to me with a big smile.
It was November when we looked out his kitchen window to the bare fire escape across the alley and saw the gray birds hopping from stair to stair.
“I love sparrows,” he said. Then he turned to look at me across the kitchen table. “Nell, do you miss New Mexico?”
He poured coffee for himself. Coltrane played on the small portable tape recorder. His apartment was spare. The kitchen cupboards were mostly empty.
“Gary, I miss New Mexico so much it’s hard for me to talk about it,” I told him.
“Nell, why did you come to this white place? Do you love Gauguin that much?”
“Yes, I guess I do.”
“Tell me what it’s like to love a straight man. Does he ever cry? I fall in love with straight men all the time. They never love me back. That’s what I get for being brought up in the Fifties and being a fag. Does Gauguin miss New Mexico? Does he appreciate that you moved here for him?”
“Gauguin wants to make it in music and be famous. You can’t be famous in Taos unless you arrived there that way. He never talks about New Mexico. He stayed there for me.”
“Will Gauguin come Friday night if I invite you for dinner? He’s not afraid to come to my house, is he? I’ll make posole. I’ve saved some from the last time I was in New Mexico. The Indians taught me the secret of posole. A pinch, just a pinch, of oregano.” He held up his hand and showed me a pinch.
“Gary, Gauguin’s not afraid of you just because you’re a raving faggot.”
He smiled. “You know, we’ve become close. Because of you, I find myself noticing women. I love your dark skin. Yesterday at the White Castle — oh, goodness, don’t tell my doctors — I actually turned around and watched a beautiful black woman walk out the door.”
In December, I set up a poetry reading for him at the Zen Center. He made sure that I scheduled it for a night when the Roshi could attend. Gary didn’t drive, so I picked him up. There was a terrible snowstorm, but he wore what he said he always wore for readings: khaki pants, a blue oxford shirt, and his gray jacket. He ran to the car from his apartment-house entrance. He slammed the door and we edged into traffic.
“Nell, I’m reading all my recent poems. The ones about dying.” We stopped at the light.
“Gary, aren’t you going to read anything funny?” I asked, a little nervous. The light turned green and we continued down 26th.
He sat up straight in the passenger’s seat. “Nell, this is a serious reading. I’m reading in front of the Buddha. There must be a sense of danger. That’s when a reading is — Yikes! You just went through that red light!”
“I had no choice. The wheels skidded,” I said, shaking.
“Nell, just get me there in one piece. We can die afterward.”
At the Center, I bowed in front of the Buddha, lit incense, and introduced Gary to the audience. Roshi sat in the back and I wondered how much he could understand poetry. He was from Japan, and even after eight years here, he was still struggling with English.
Gary stood up, thanked me for my introduction, then launched into his poems. His voice was shaking at the beginning, but grew steady as he read. The audience breathed with him. The white gladioli on the altar did not budge. In his poems, he was certainly dying, and in the center of them you could feel his need to live and linger.
I remembered what he said to me in Sears one day. “Nell, do you think even now as I talk to you and as I am dying, my books are being read? Even now am I becoming famous? I want my ashes sprinkled over Gallup. Over the Del Rio Hotel where I brought such sweet men off the red hills and into bed with me. I want to be remembered.”
“Oh, Gary,” I said. “Don’t die. We can’t go to Sears if you do.”
When the reading was over, Gary stepped over everyone seated on cushions on the floor and headed straight for Roshi.
“Well, what did you think?” he asked eagerly.
Standing up, Roshi came to Gary’s shoulders. He reached out, touched Gary’s arm, and looked up into his face. “Gary, I couldn’t understand everything, but I could feel the energy of the audience. I hope you get your wish. I hope you live forever,” Roshi said and nodded.
After the reading, we went to the Rainbow Cafe and Gary had cheesecake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. “After reading, Nell, a writer must either dance, fuck, or eat. Do not say a word about the calories. I am doing what I must.”
The next week, Gary called me from the hospital. His heart filled up too quickly with blood and he was rushed into the emergency room. The hospital was near Sears. I visited him every day for a month, after I finished teaching in the afternoon.
One Tuesday morning, I had an hour’s break at school and dashed over, but he wasn’t in his bed. I panicked, but the nurse told me, “Oh, he just went for a little walk.”
I found him down a long white corridor, sitting in a window seat. He had on his gray terry robe and brown corduroy slippers. I could see his pale calves sticking out of the robe and pressing against the white plaster wall.
“Oh, hi, Nell,” he said casually when he turned and saw me. “Look over there. That’s the house I have fallen in love with.”
I looked out the window. The house was across the dark alley. It was faded green and I could see only the back of it. It had two stories and a rickety wooden porch on the second floor. Wood steps in a crisscross fashion led up to it from the ground. The roof was black tar paper with bits of red slate. It was one of the last houses that held out against the new industrial zoning. It looked like the last cow in India. There was a parking deck, an entire block long, across the street. We both looked at the house and watched the rain beating down the Minnesota snow that had fallen the week before.
“I want to live there, Nell, in that house.”
“Yup, it looks like your kind of house,” I agreed.
We were silent then. After a while, Gary turned to me slowly. “You know, Nell, my mother and I had so much fun when I was young. I was thinking about it this morning. I remember the summer before I had to go to school for the first time. We made paraffin hollyhocks. There was always a tin pot on the stove with melted wax and I ran around the neighborhood collecting hollyhocks. I don’t think there was a hollyhock left in all of Indianapolis when I was finished. You dipped the hollyhock in the wax and let it dry. In the evening, my mother and I sat on the porch, swatted mosquitoes in the humid heat, and sipped green Kool-Aid. I think it was lime-flavored, but I didn’t know what ‘lime’ was then. I liked the color and drank it out of a tall glass. We put goggles on our dog Max and we laughed. My mother already was an old woman and my father was dead. I had no bedtime. At five years old, I stayed up until 11 at night. When September came, my older sister, Mary, who already had children of her own, pulled up to the house in her Chevy and dragged me screaming to the kindergarten a block away. My mother would never have made me go.”
He sighed. “I loved my mother so. And it was heaven to have her all to myself.”
The next day, his friend Larry brought his mail to the hospital. His last book of poetry, The Ecstasy Of Eating, had been accepted for publication. When he read the letter, he wept. That book contained the poetry about his dying.
“I’ve won,” he told me later when I arrived for a visit. “I’ve won! They don’t publish poetry by queers unless it’s really good.” He took a deep breath. “I’ve won.”
A week later he was able to leave the hospital and return home to his apartment. Ten days after that, he died, alone in his bed with cool jazz on the radio and a book opened on his lap.
We had eaten in a deli the day before. He was in good humor and said, “I hope there is a cafeteria in heaven with sandwiches as good as these.”
Two days after Gary’s death, Gauguin came with me to the funeral. I knew Gary only a few months, but he was my first real friend in Minneapolis. I wept so hard in the back pew of the church that I was as limp as a black iris after ten years without rain. Gauguin put his arm around me and couldn’t understand my grief.
Driving home after the service, he said, “I didn’t realize you were so close. I’m kind of glad he was gay. I might have been threatened otherwise.”
I turned to him in disbelief. “Gauguin, I loved him. You knew that. He’s the first person I ever knew who died.”
That night, I had a dream. I walked past a big department store. I’m not sure if it was Sears. I looked up and there were three old men on the roof playing cards. One of them was wrapped in a flannel blanket like the Pueblo Indians in Taos. When the one who was wrapped saw that I saw him, he nodded and disappeared. I knew it was Gary Blake.
Three weeks after the funeral, I drove down 28th Street near Snyder’s Drugs, one of Gary’s favorite places because they served good ham sandwiches, and in my rearview mirror I saw the sun setting perfectly down a long row of elms way in the distance. It was beautiful and I wanted to show it to Gary. I pulled my car to the curb, bent my head over the steering wheel, and cried as though rain were pouring out all over the desert.