I called Mark’s older brother yesterday, the day after his text that Mark had been found dead of a cardiac event of some kind. He was in New Mexico with his middle brother, at Mark’s squalid ranch house, going through the vast accumulation of things. Signs of serious depression, he reported, the place was a garbage heap, Mark apparently never threw anything out. On the overflowing desk the two surviving brothers collected and opened envelopes containing $30,000 worth of uncashed business checks. Mark ran a food business, with several employees still at work to fill ongoing orders, and the brothers are trying to figure out how to keep those poorly paid green card workers employed (Mark made a little extra by paying them half by check, half in cash) while they arrange to sell the little food company.
Turns out Mark hit gold by investing, early, in an arts company called Meow Wolf, an investment that apparently paid off many times over. “He died a wealthy man,” his brother told me. We exchanged a few short observations about Mark’s famous tightness with a dollar. “When he was a kid he’d hide his candy bars, he was afraid we’d steal them. At restaurants he always ate fast, to make sure we didn’t get anything off his plate. When he was older he’d go through the bill and say ‘I didn’t order that, I’m not paying for that.'” I reported having to top off the tip every time I split a bill with him. His 12% on his end, calculated precisely to the penny, never amounted to anywhere near half the tip, but that was how it was.
He also mentioned that Mark hadn’t spoken to him in three years. They’d had a fight and that was that. His brother reported that it was his fault, that he’d blown up at Mark, wound up screaming at him, and that he felt terribly guilty now. Natural to feel that way, I told him, but everyone has a breaking point. Mark broke virtually everyone who ever met him, if given a chance.
They found a box of letters between Mark and his father, Al. They’d only read one or two before they felt like voyeurs and closed the box. In one of the letters Al, seemingly broken like everyone else by Mark’s stubborn resolve, chided him about wasting his great potential and telling him it was time to rouse himself from his lifelong solipsistic self-pity, or words to that effect. Neither of us had any idea that Al had exchanged many letters with his unhappy youngest son. I told his brother an iconic Mark and Al story he’d never have heard.
Mark composed an opus for the piano on the grand piano he had in his living room. This piece was perhaps forty minutes long and had several movements, going through a gamut of styles and emotions. Mark was nothing if not ambitious. The piece showcased everything Mark had learned about music and playing the keyboard. He’d probably worked on it for a year or more, learning to perform it perfectly with his gigantic, surprisingly nimble, fingers. On a visit to his parents in New Jersey he described the piece to his father and arranged to perform it for him at the NYC apartment of a cousin who had an electric piano. Al was an organist — the family had an organ in the den, though I don’t recall ever hearing Al play it.
They drove over to the city. Mark sat at the piano in the small room, with his back to his father, and Al sat behind him as he played. Within a few minutes Mark heard a clack and another clack. Al was apparently glancing through a collection of CDs on a shelf. Mark’s spine stiffened as he continued to play, his blood chilling in his veins. He was instantly filled with the old rage of being dismissed by his father, and he played the entire opus to the end, with great emotion. The incident proved to him everything he’d ever believed about not being taken seriously, not being respected, not being recognized for the great talent that he was.
What it really illustrated, as his brother grasped at once, was that Mark was incapable of ever putting himself in anyone else’s position. Only his needs were real. Was Al supposed to have sat, hands folded, eyes closed, paying rapt attention to every nuance of the entire recital? Mark and I used the “clacking of the CD cases” as a shorthand for the indifference of the world to even one’s greatest attempts. The world, truly, and I say this almost without bitterness, generally does not give a rat’s armpit about the things we create, no matter how otherwise wondrous.
There is another Al story that is a mystery to me to this day. The clacking of the CD cases is easy to grasp both sides of — why Al could hardly have been expected to do much differently (he could have perused the CDs silently, I guess) and why Mark felt the way he did. This other story remains a mystery to me almost twenty years after I played my little part in it.
Al was terrified of death when he got old. So frightened that he’d breathlessly wake his wife several times every night out of fear that he might slip away while she slept. Within a short time she was exhausted and at her wits’ end. Their sons arranged to have Al taken to a nearby, nicely appointed rehab center where he was treated for depression. Sophie was able to sleep, between daily visits to Al. Sekhnet and I visited him there, and went out to dinner with Sophie afterwards. I wrote Al a letter he was very grateful for.
In hindsight, my letter was asinine, comparing the dysthymia of a healthy thirty year-old (me) to the death-inspired depression of a man almost ninety, but he told me he loved the letter. He said it gave him hope, reminded him that depression passes, as it seemed to have in the end in his case. He had a few good years after that and, thanatophobia apparently at bay, stopped waking his wife every night.
They moved to Florida where he was eventually hospitalized for something serious and fell into a coma. Mark came from New Mexico to sit by his bed. On the wall was the Do Not Resuscitate order that Al had signed before slipping into the coma. He was in a comatose state for a long time. One day he woke up, and speaking to the doctor, told him urgently that he wanted to revoke his DNR, which they did. Shortly afterwards he fell back into a coma. Mark sat by the bed, day after day.
He called me one day to tell me his father was awake and semi-alert and asked me if I’d like to speak to him. He said his father was pretty incoherent, but that he’d hold the phone next to his ear for a minute or two if I wanted to say anything to him.
When Al heard my voice he practically chuckled. “Eliot!” he said, “oh, man, it’s great to hear your voice. How are you? Any chance you can get down to Florida to see me? I don’t know how much longer I’ll be around but I’d love to see you…” I told him unfortunately I’d just been to Florida a couple of weeks earlier and wouldn’t be back for a while. He sighed philosophically and began to say something.
Then Mark was back on the phone. “See what I mean?” he asked, “totally incoherent… well, it was nice of you to talk to him…”
As many times as I think about this, and I have returned to it several times over the years, I barely have a theory about what the hell that was.
His brother and I spoke for a while (I didn’t bother to tell him the second Al story), both concluding that Mark’s life had been a tragedy. A complete fucking tragedy and a waste of a brilliant and talented mind. There was an undocumented Moroccan woman in the house, Mark’s roommate, thirty years younger than Mark. “He was her sugar daddy, apparently,” his brother said. Very sympathetic, apparently, and expressing gratitude to Mark, saying she loved listening to his stories. “And you remember what his stories were like, they never ended…” said his brother. Fatima said she learned a lot of English from Mark’s stories.
“He could certainly teach you English,” I said.
She’d called at 5:30 when she was on her way home last Tuesday and Mark said very good, he’d see her then. When she arrived at 6:00 she found his corpse. The Medical Examiner had called the brother Mark hadn’t talked to in three years.
“The Medical Examiner,” said the brother, “just like on TV.”