The Unseen and the Seen
The beginning of the end
He saved one bullet. Just one -- that’s all it would take. He practiced, he aimed, he studied the path it would go. This plan had been formulating since he was ten. He showed me the bullet once, but I had no idea where he kept it, nor did I know where he kept the gun. He didn't want me to know.
I finally saw it, about nine years ago, but don't know if the gun was loaded or not. He was lying on his side in bed, staring at the wall, holding the barrel of the gun in his mouth. I sat down to talk, but he wouldn’t say a word. When I got up to leave he put the gun further down his throat. He did this every time I moved. So I sat there all day.
It seemed that he just wanted control. His life hadn’t been going very well, and he’d been feeling awful. So pushed beyond words, I suppose, he engaged in this drama. That's what it seemed, anyway, so there I stayed, and I would have stayed forever if I thought it would help. But I knew in the long run, it would not.
By the time he got up the sun was drifting slowly down to rest. I took the phone outside and called the leader of a support group I’d joined on his behalf, since he had adamantly refused to go. She told me to wait by the phone. Within a few minutes, I received a call from the doctor who was the medical advisor for the group. I didn’t know him, but was grateful he’d responded so quickly.
“I suppose what he really wants to do is to sleep,” he said. “Ask him if he wants to go to sleep.” By now he was in the back yard, throwing dirt clumps at the fence. He responded by nodding furiously, and throwing all the harder. The doctor said to tell him he could really knock him out, but that he’d probably feel like shit when he woke up and was that okay. The dirt flew again. It was.
We picked up the prescription, and then went to see a re-release of Fantasia. By the time we got home he was ready for bed. So the doc saved the day, and many days and years that were to come. He really knew his stuff. Or so I thought.
Clark was a personable chap. “Chap” is a word my father would have used to describe him, and although I don’t use the word myself it seems appropriate. Something of an anachronism himself, I always thought Clark might have done better if he’d been born when there were more frontiers. Though eleven years younger than I, he had characteristics of a man many times his age. Knowledgeable in most things, with an interest in history and world affairs, he found it easier to relate to older, more serious adults than his peers.
Focused, creative, quick-thinking and intense, Clark had been seen as a rather odd child. He saw classmates as shallow and immature, out-thought most of his teachers, learned quickly, and was easily bored. He was active in student affairs, though as with most things he approached them with a fervor that drove many away. But he had a quick sense of humor, bright eyes and a winning smile. And so he got by.
His name was not really Clark, by the way. Clark is part of a pen name he created -- a name he thought might be well suited for an author of science fiction. He didn't write very much back then, but did enjoy thinking about it. Since he was unhappy with who he was in later years, I’ve decided to call him by a name that evoked, at least for him, an image of success. He deserved that happiness, as do we all.
I met Clark when he was twenty-six years old. Male-pattern baldness had already set in -- something he expected was karma for his childhood resentment at having been born with wavy hair. It wasn’t so much the hair he objected to, but rather the attention it drew. Older relatives liked to play with it and comment how any woman would love having it herself. So for him it was a mixed blessing when he started going bald.
His eyes, though -- those dark brown eyes -- they made the most impression on me, though the rest of his features were pleasant as well. He didn’t have very thick eyebrows, so his eyes really stood out, intelligent and deep. They were set at the broadest part of his face, revealingly shaped like a heart. His chin, at the base, had a tiny clef; his mouth looked a bit like a bow.
Clark was a gentle and sensitive soul, though he tried very hard to be tough. He didn’t like people to know about his softer side, as it compromised the imposing image he wanted to convey. But his refined features and those beautiful, thoughtful eyes gave him away.
The next road
It was February of 1987. I was traveling to home shows across the country, as part of a three-person team, selling a product that seems so unimportant now. It wasn’t really my line of work, but I knew the owner, who'd had success with the business in Canada, and said I would help him get started in the U.S. In those days I was more willing than I am now to invest more in someone else’s dream than my own.
I’m not much of a salesperson, or at least don’t like to see myself as one. The truth of it is, however, that I tend to “sell” whatever I love. I can be enthusiastic, convincing and convinced, yet quickly reform my position if shown I am wrong. This became relevant in Clark’s life, because I did sell him a course of action that I strongly believed was right. I ran with what I thought, without really understanding or seeing the man as a whole.
My belief and his faith in me changed our lives forever and ultimately brought his to a close. The thing I tried most to avoid, came to be. I have no idea what his life would have been had I not turned the corner and met him that day. I didn’t know to leave well enough alone, nor did he. Perhaps we simply walked to a place we had to go.
Across a crowded room
I have to laugh when I think of the romantic concept of seeing a stranger “across a crowded room,” since this is exactly how Clark and I met. My booth at the home show was on the mezzanine. On this particular day, business was slow. I had arranged and rearranged everything possible, and finally just stopped to watch the hundreds of people walk by.
I had, in my pocket, a little card with a picture of a person surrounded by light -- part of a spiritual path I was on. I fingered the card while contemplating the faces passing by. I was bored and up for a good conversation. Any subject was fine with me.
Finally, a man stopped at the edge of the booth, but after studying the display for a moment he turned and walked away. To my surprise, as I watched him blend into the crowd I was overcome with a strong impulse to follow him. I told my team I was taking a break and quickly set out in pursuit. As I dodged and wove through the hundreds of people on the mezzanine, I finally was able to get close enough to see the man’s face once again. I froze, for now the instinct to stay away was as strong as the impulse had been to follow him.
The stranger moved on, and I remained, confused and unsure of why I was there. As I continued to handle the little card in my pocket, I turned to look at the sea of people around me. And then the sea parted, and I saw Clark, arms folded, looking down at me from a pedestal in the booth where he worked.
I walked up to him, handed him the little card, and said, “I guess this must be for you.” To my surprise, he studied it carefully, read every word, and said he was familiar with things of this nature. We talked for hours, oblivious of the crowd.
Chains on the door
I walked back over to see Clark later that day. It was easier for me to get away than it was for him, as I my partners were able to handle business when I was gone. Characteristically, Clark manned his booth alone.
Clark sold knives. Although he looked at first glance like a pitchman, I never saw him make either a sales pitch or an effort to reach those walking by. I later learned that the knives he sold were a specialty item. Buyers usually sought him out. He’d done quite well selling these imposing “folders” and straight edges over the years, but had blown through most of the money he earned.
That afternoon, with crowds somewhat slow, he decided to take a break so we could talk outside. We walked around the mezzanine towards the escalator leading to the lobby. How revealing some moments can be. In that short walk, I saw traits in both of us that affected our relationship for years to come. Had I known to read the signs, I wonder if what I saw would have caused me to walk away.
Clark steered us towards an emergency exit on our left. The double door was metal, with a heavy chain woven through the handles. “You can’t open those,” I said, as soon as his intentions became apparent. “The exit is for emergencies only.” Clark smiled and began to remove the chains.
I told him I’d meet him outside, then headed alone for the lobby doors. The escalator was crowded and slow. I found him in front of the building, sitting on the edge of a waterless fountain, his breath making clouds in the February air. We’d mentioned getting coffee, but never moved from that spot, consumed by an instant debate on politics, convention, and social responsibility. Clearly, we had two different points of view.
I don’t remember seeing Clark much after that. I talked to a number of vendors at the show and wound up with a stack of business cards in my hand, including his. This show was, for me, the first stop on an itinerary that would take me across the country and back, for many months and 33,000 miles.
The shows were, for the most part, quite busy. My product was on a trial run in the U.S., after having done very well in Canada, so I was continually on the phone with the company owner providing feedback and monitoring sales. At a show in Toledo, I think, or maybe Detroit, I finally found enough time to go over the stack of business cards I’d collected since the tour began.
I’d met some interesting people along the way, but hadn’t made as many connections as I had at that first show. These vendors had not only been friendly and helpful, but shared common interests, so I wanted to keep in touch with those I hoped to run into again. Clark’s card was among the ones I set aside for a time when I could write a short note, but I didn’t have time for another week or so. The show picked up, and then it was time to break down and move on.
After Detroit we went to Buffalo -- a show that will go down in my personal history as the time I had to master backing up. We usually took turns driving, but when it came to navigating small spaces Lawrence was always at the helm. The van pulled a trailer about 1.5 times its size. It wasn't difficult to drive forward, but backing up required a practiced hand at the wheel. Lawrence took a day off to visit friends, then flew into New York to join us, but he didn't make it in time to get into the building. I had to back our trailer up a narrow ramp onto the loading dock with a line of experienced truckers waiting (it seemed) for me to make a wrong turn.
Thankfully, the trailer and van made it safely to the top. Most of the display was on wheels, but it was heavy to move nonetheless. Lawrence arrived in time to drive the van away. Exhausted, I took a break until he returned, using the opportunity to get some correspondence done.
My note to Clark was along these lines: “It’s said that in polite conversation, people should avoid politics and religion. Since we already delved into politics, we might as well cross the other line. What do you think about God?” This was a different type of note than I had written anyone else, but then my conversations with Clark had been different as well. I put a stamp on the envelope, dropped it into the mail, and thought nothing more of it for quite a while.
What about God?
One member of my team decided to leave the tour after the show in Tampa. The booth wasn’t earning enough for us to cross from salary into commissioned sales and she was tired of being on the road. This left Lawrence and me to tackle the large Miami show alone. We set up easily enough, but the crowds kept us busy. An added challenge was filling the month between this show and the next. The owner decided we should try to set up our booth in a shopping mall.
Bookings and product research were up to me, so every free moment was spent pulling a display together and looking for places we could go. We set up for a week in one mall, and two weeks at another. For the first time in a while we were in one place long enough to receive our mail.
The note from Clark was polite and short, thanking me for writing to him, and hoping we could keep in touch. I was pressed for time, as usual, so I shot off a quick response: “You haven’t answered my question. What do you think about God?”
In a little over a week I received his reply. It was handwritten on an 8½ x 11–inch yellow pad, about ten pages, both sides. Having taken my challenge to heart, Clark's writing was interesting and very well thought out. The days of the quick response had gone by.
I looked forward to a break, taking my first real “lunch hour” of the tour. Clark’s letter was so full of information that I underlined as I read, taking care to not miss a word. When finished, I took my own yellow pad and crafted a response, point by point, as if we were in conversation. It felt good to ponder the issues he raised, although I can’t remember a one. What was most important was the process of engaging in thoughtful discourse; something of real substance.
When my letter was finished, I hurried to get it in the mail, looking forward to his reply from the moment it left my hands.
These were the days before laptops and e-mail, of course. Correspondence took longer, but I wonder if it wasn’t more integrated and real than words that fly over the internet with a click. It took longer to write, longer to send; then delicious time spent in anticipation of a reply.
In the years that followed, I never ceased to look forward to the mail. Clark’s letters were always full and engaging. When he traveled he would send maps, postcards, mementos, stories of interesting people he met along the way. I learned of his history, his problems, issues unresolved – all things we discussed and worked through.
Clark wrote back. That was one thing that distinguished him from everyone else in my life. I corresponded with others on occasion, but the interchange always dropped off. Clark, however, was always there with tales of an adventure, support, interest -- he was always there.
I was not to see him again for a number of years, but he was more real than the people I saw every day.
It was 1991. I don’t remember the month, but it was cold enough to wear a jacket, and I recall having to drive through some snow.
I was back on the road, this time on a promotional tour. My partner Rose and I had been out for six weeks, traveling across the south, and were now headed home via Colorado. Clark lived near Denver, but since we'd both been travelling and it took mail longer than usual to go back and forth, I didn’t have the slightest idea where he was.
Rose and I thought about having dinner and then finding a place to stay for the night. With Denver on the horizon, I pulled out Clark’s business card on the odd chance he was in town. We stopped at a steak house – one of those places where they cut off men’s neckties if they happened to arrive “overdressed.” I called Clark from a payphone by the door and was surprised to find him home.
I invited him to join us, but he said we were too far away; that by the time he arrived we’d be finishing up, and wanting to find a motel. He said to call when we were settled in for the night. I asked if he knew a good place to go, so he suggested something in town.
When we left the restaurant, we discovered that Clark had been right. Denver was farther away than we’d thought. By the time we arrived in the city, we were happy to find the motel he’d recommended in site of the main road through town. As we pulled into the parking lot I saw a distinctive figure. It was Clark, standing next to his truck.
I hadn’t seen Clark in four years, but I recognized him on the spot. He wore a large-brimmed hat and safari-type jacket, well suited for the outdoors. Rose found him charming. He helped carry our suitcases to the room, then put a package wrapped in brown paper on the table for me to unwrap. It was a framed photograph that he’d taken of some rock formations in Utah, with spires pointing up toward the sky.
I thought the three of us would enjoy spending time together, but Rose said she was ready for bed. Clark and I walked to an all-night restaurant nearby. I’m not sure how many cups of herbal tea we consumed, what we discussed, or exactly how long we were there, but I do know we talked well into the night.
Conversations were effortless with Clark, as long as they required thought. He didn’t tolerate “wasted” time, but when discussing subjects he found worthwhile he was a good listener and always had something interesting to say. His mind was incredible. He integrated information gleaned from books on countless subjects, and was able to recall facts and details with ease.
I had a different type of intelligence – one that had frustrated me for years, as I could barely retain facts from day to day. I did, however, have something of a gnoetic sense, able to draw knowledge and understanding deep from within. So despite Clark’s mental prowess, I could easily follow and contribute to the conversation.
Mark Twain said, "Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered--either by themselves or by others." I suspected that Clark was a genius, in his way. I don’t know how genius can be measured, or if it’s even possible to fully know a person’s potential before it has grown. But I do know Clark was gifted, at the very least, in more ways than most. That is one reason that losing him was so profound.
[Continued in "The Unseen and the Seen" parts II, III, and IV]