Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Devil's Punchbowl

My heart raced.

I regularly suffered from anxiety that something bad would happen to Joseph, that I’d be widowed young.

It scared me that I thought those things, but as I went to the phone, the pounding in my chest got stronger.

Of the few people who knew where I was this weekend, who would be calling so early?

“Hello?” I asked the cordless banana.

“Jessica. It’s Therese.”

[Onset of full blown panic.]

“Oh my God. Oh, my God. What’s wrong?”

There was no way Therese would have been out of bed so early on a Saturday morning if it wasn’t serious.

“Campbell’s gone,” she said.


“It’s John. He’s dead,” she said.

“What? When?”

“Yesterday. He drowned.”

“How the hell did he f*cking drown?” I demanded, angrily.

“He was up in the mountains with his roommate’s dog and some friends.”

“But John can swim! Was he drunk?”

I was incredulous.

“I don’t know.”

“Well, what happened?” I insisted.

“A friend of his from Aspen called this morning. He has John’s address book. He’s calling all of us.”

“What did he say? Was he there?”

“No. He wasn’t there, but he said that the dog fell in the water and John went in to save him and drowned.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I don’t either," she paused, "he’s gone though.”

“Does Joseph know?”

“No one knows where Joseph is.”

“What do you mean no one knows where he is?”

“He’s not at the house.”

“Did you call him?”



“I got the machine.”

“He’s probably at the hospital. I think he was on call,” I said.

“You’d better call him,” she said. “He’d probably rather hear it from you.”

I agreed.

“What’s everybody doing?” I asked.

“There’s a funeral in Montana on Wednesday for the family and his friends are having a service in Aspen on Saturday.”

“Are we going?” I asked.

“I can’t go to Aspen," she said regretfully. I can’t afford to go to Aspen.”

“Well, is anyone going?” I asked, worried.

“Chicago's going.”

“They’re all going?”

“A bunch of them… I think.”

“F*cking Campbell.”

Therese started to cry.

My eyes felt like they were on fire and a huge hand kept squeezing my heart.

“Alright, I’m going to try to call Joseph at the hospital and then I’ll get on the road home,” I told her.

“He’s gone,” she said quietly.

“Man, I’ll see you later,” I said hanging up the phone.

I felt like a cartoon character in a deep freeze.

I wondered if I was still asleep.

I dialed Grady Memorial Hospital and actually got a helpful operator who paged Joseph, but got no response.

I told the operator I was his wife and that it was an emergency. I held the line while they looked for him.

John was Joseph’s college roommate and had just been a groomsman in our wedding a few
months earlier.

John cried when he said goodbye to us in Atlanta.

I remember wondering why he was so upset. He had acted like it was the last time he’d ever see us.

The operator returned to the line, “Your husband has left for the day, M’am.”

“Thanks,” I said and hung up.

I dialed home.

“Hello,” his voice answered.



“Did you hear?”



“A friend of John’s just called.”

“Are you o.k.?”

“I don’t know.”

“Therese said Chicago is planning to go to the service in Aspen.”


“I’m coming home this afternoon. We should go too.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“But… why not?”

“Everyone will be depressed and upset. I don’t want to remember John that way.”

“That’s not how you’ll remember John," I said softly. "Going would just give us a chance to be around other people who will miss him."

“I don’t need that. I’m too mad at him. What a stupid f*cker! F*cking drowned! F*cking &sshole!”

“Babe,” I started.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

There was a silence.

“Okay, listen, I said. "I was up late last night with Lori and David. I’m going to get some food and coffee and then I’m coming home.”

“You don’t have to come home. You needed to get away. There’s nothing you can do here.”

“I want to be with you.”

“I’m fine.”

“Okay, but I’m coming home.”

“Fine. Whatever.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too. See you later.”

The line disconnected.

I felt bewildered by Joseph’s reaction. I couldn’t understand him not wanting to go to the service. John had been one of his best friends.

Joseph grew up in a small town in Illinois.

John’s mom had also grown up there and her parents, John’s grandparent’s, still lived there.

John’s grandfather was an historian who knew all there was to know about Abraham Lincoln. Joseph had grown up knowing him.

When the two families learned that John, who grew up in Montana, and Joseph were both going to the University of Illinois, they suggested the two young men look each other up.

Joseph and John met early during their freshman year.

They became fast friends, hung out together constantly and developed a crush on the same girl in the dorm cafeteria (a friend of mine from high school as it would turn out.)

During sophomore year, John and Joseph roomed together and built a common group of friends.

Like many U of I graduates, most of the crowd moved to the city after college and the few of us in Atlanta called them, collectively, “Chicago.”

A few moved to Aspen, Colorado in a quest to remain young and free of responsibility.

To please his parents, John took a job as a recruiter for a college in Winter Park, Florida.

He suffered through a year of wearing a tie, keeping a respectable nine to five schedule and the insult of failing to get laid despite the sun, sand and abundant availability of fruity cocktail beverages.

In the end, John traded the career path in for a ticket to Aspen and a job bartending at a place called Cooper Street.

At our wedding, John bragged about his relaxed life, the skiing, the women and the decadence of Aspen.

He could mix and match party favors like a wardrobe, partying harder and longer than anyone.

He lived outrageously and gave out hugs and kisses like candy.

Before our wedding, John flew to Florida to visit his mom.

He drove up to Atlanta in a rented convertible and arrived with a severe sunburn.

“Who’s the really pink guy?” people asked us.

There was a party the night before the wedding and though John wasn’t the host, he ran the party.

He challenged everyone to drink more, do more.

He spent the final hours of the night driving his rented convertible around and around I-285, Atlanta’s perimeter.

Joseph had to give John eight glasses of water to get him up to get ready for the ceremony in the morning.

He washed his hair with one hand while the other held his weary body up, braced against the tile.

By the time he got to the wedding, I suppose he was restored.

He was beet red in all the wedding photos, but grinning from ear to ear.

I remembered his red face as I trudged back to Lori’s guest bedroom and fell back onto the bed.

Lori’s puffy morning face and fuzzy pink robe appeared in the doorway for the second time that morning.

“Everything okay?” she asked.

“Did you meet John Campbell at my wedding?”

“The guy with the sunburn?”

“Yeah. Him. He drowned yesterday.”

“Oh, my God. I’m so sorry. What happened?”

“I’ll tell you later. I need a little more sleep so I can drive back to Atlanta.”

“O.K.” she said, leaving me.

I closed my eyes and opened them two hours later.

Lori was in the shower.

I smelled coffee, so I dressed and went to the kitchen.

David was in his underwear at the kitchen table.

“Morning. Want some coffee?” he asked.

“Yes. Definitely.”

David got up to get me a cup.

He was almost forty, which seemed pretty old to me at twenty six.

Although he was almost ten years older than Lori, I had liked him immediately when she introduced him as her fiancé.

He was a photographer, musician, nightclub owner and full time graduate student.

He had degrees in things like anthropology and sociology and was particularly interested in Mexico's culture, history and people.

He spent a lot of time traveling, gathering data for his thesis and writing articles for magazines.

To me, David was unpredictable, creative and perfect for Lori.

“I heard about your friend,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

“Is this the first friend of yours that’s died?”

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

“That’s rough,” David said handing me a cup. “I’ve had a couple die on me already. It’s hard. It makes you think about your own mortality, the meaning of life and all that. It makes you wonder if you’re living your life the best way you can.”

I took a sip of coffee.

“I had a friend who over dosed,” he said, “another drowned and another died of liver failure. Each time, I couldn’t f*cking believe it. The guy that over dosed… well, I guess he was the best off because he was too messed up to suffer. The guy that drowned was drunk and fell off a boat. Pieces of him floated up to shore the rest of the week. The last guy was the hardest. He died slowly and we all had to sit up there in that hospital room and watch. Man, that was awful. He knew he was going to die and he was so mad because there was so much he still wanted to do.”

I finished my coffee, packed up my things and started the long journey home.


Gretchen said...

I don't quite know what to say. Terrible spot to be in.

Avitable said...

I feel lucky that I have yet to have that happen. It has to be difficult to "celebrate" the anniversary of a dear friend's passing, each year.

Kara said...

This made me cry like a baby. My heart goes out to you and your friends and family. I'm so sorry for your loss.

Death makes you realize a lot about yourself and your life.

Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah said...

I am so sorry.

n said...

been there. damn. i am so, so sorry.

Aimee Greeblemonkey said...

I totally cried too. xoxox

Toddler Craft Onna said...

How awful. I am so sorry. What a terrible tragedy.

Karen said...

We are never ready for the deaths of people we love.

WkSocMom said...

That was so touching, so well written and heartfelt. I am so sorry.

Secret Agent Mama said...

I'm so sorry for the loss of your friend. :(

Amanda said...

Oh, I am so sorry.

Cold Spaghetti said...

I am so, so sorry. Thank you for sharing it so honestly.

CJP said...

He was such fun to be around for the few days that I had the pleasure. I'll never forget him. his life was short, but Campbell LIVED it.

UPrinting said...

Oh God. Sorry to hear about this...
Condolences to your friend's family. :(

Kim said...

Wow. So sad.

As usual, you write beautifully. Unfortunately this time it was about pain and loss. Visually I was immediately taken to a place in Colorado that we explored three years ago. It, too, was called "The Devils Punchbowl". The trek up the mountain was dangerous for us and I chose to walk. As I looked down the steepness of the side there was a beautiful pool of water there in the middle of sharp edges. People were swimming and diving and it seemed so out of place in the roughness of the surroundings.

I believe that life, too, also seems out of place in the roughness of our surroundings....and then at times, it seems so completely at home.

Again, your writing is beautiful. I hope it helps to ease the pain and the hurt.

foop said...

Wow, J. I just found this and sent it to his mom. She'll love it - it's beautiful.

That picture breaks my heart all over again.

Fkn Campbell! Next time I see him, I'm going to knock the Spaghetti-o's right out of his hand... and then I'm going to hug him.