Written on the Death of William J. Preston, Friend and Mentor
ow does one take the measure of a man? Of course it cannot be done, not really. It is at once too grave and too ephemeral. One ponders for a time, waiting, and a memory surfaces—an anecdote, a serendipity—a waft of deep cool on a summer night that stands the hairs on end, just for a moment, only to recede again into heat and haze and the ashen cobwebs of advancing middle age. The trifles of memory are not so much—not against the great expanse of life and love, youth and romance, loss and yearning, and sweet mornings of fresh eggs and bitter coffee. And yet, they help. They are true enough.
After the eruption, it is only the stones that remain. We scan the rakish black slopes for belches of steam and pebble, strewn about like so much of that coffee, and draw lessons about the volcano. Imperfect, to be sure, but accurate enough—you can learn a lot from a stone. And so it must be for me, who in the end has known so little about him, but who has been gifted with so many of those precious stones. Some of them are heavy, yes, but the burden has given me strength. Some are small, but well-placed—Socratic irritants lodged deep under the silken cushions, hindering sleep. And some are yet invisible to me, tiny as a grain of sand, lost under my hardening exterior, waiting for time and the telling; waiting for that day of serendipity to reemerge as pearls of wisdom—now mine, but once, and still, his.
I want to speak of one such pearl—a moment lodged so deep in my psyche that it will surely accompany me to the next life as among those moments in this life that shaped me ever after.
It began as I turned the corner in full stride, heading to the right. On my left was an open door, a cafeteria of sorts, refrigerator at the ready, plastic forks and an old hand towel scattered on white formica like the shapes on a cotton print dress; aluminum awning windows half open, possibly stuck, and beyond, the lot, the street, and the cemetery. One or two voices faded in and out over the course of a few seconds—something about canned fruit, or peanut butter. Behind me it was dark, with shag carpet the color of an industrial accident, and last cleaned early in the twentieth century. Between metal door jambs, and extending down the hallway, wallpaper could be seen of the sort used at the MGM Grand Hotel, or possibly the Flamingo; a patchwork of rude red and green, whose purpose could only be to direct the eyes away elsewhere; down, away from the exits, and back toward the Baccarat tables.
Within one of those doorways, just beyond the private bathroom, was my desk, my office, and my colleague Richard; quiet to a fault, heavily bearded, bright in the eyes, and whose name was not, in fact, Richard at all. Ten years my superior, and at least twenty in mileage, he remains one of the strangest human beings I have ever known. But I suppose I mean that in a good way, and I was, after a fashion, fond of him.
I had left for some incidental sunlight, as Richard preferred that we keep the windows and shades entirely shut. This had the effect of rendering our otherwise small, dark, dusty, dirty, paper-strewn shoebox positively claustrophobic, conjuring the ghosts of double beds, late-night trysts, and slumber—now long past, and lost to time in the secret history of this poorly-converted old motel. The benefit, if any, was that the Flamingo was nowhere in sight.
Those were the heady days of green-lit alphanumeric terminals, basement mainframes, FORTRAN, and the vague, but not so terribly ancient memories of Hollerith punch cards. We would sit, Richard and I, ensconced deep in that office, faces lit green on gray, lost in coding bliss and the occasional four-letter rejoinder—five if you include the exclamation point. Clickity-click; lean back, rub the eyes. No spectacles then—not for another fifteen years. At length, we would emerge for lunch, or sleep, or the machine room, or more often, for sun. I would, at any rate. Richard is probably still there somewhere. Bill is not.
His office was down the hall, around the corner, well past the cafeteria, and lifted up the hill slightly, or so it seemed to me on this morning. I was heading up—for light, and air, and respite from the darker demons of my office and my conflicted inner posture. I was young then, but life was already replete with financial struggle, incidental insomnia, and blood-red thorns lodged deeply, and as it would later transpire, irrevocably, in the side of suburban marital bliss. I was fresh-faced, stupid, and green with nonsense ambition, but Bill had taken me under his wing, and I was beginning to believe that I might actually make it to adulthood.
As I rounded the turn, there was a shift. Time slowed to a crawl, and I remember floating forward toward an impossibly rich shaft of yellow sunlight that split the mustard-green hallway in half, fecund with dust and swirl and the siren promise of warmth. It was saying something—vibrating with the staccato voice and cackle of abrupt conversation, or the muffled rasp of an old table radio, or the soft din of breeze and paper, caught through an open window—I wasn’t sure which. It would prove to be all of these.
The sounds grew in volume, but not in clarity, and I turned into his office and sat down. Bill was seated at his desk, erect, white of face, somber to the point of grief. Here in this sun-filled room, full of breeze and wit and bad furniture, something was terribly wrong. I said nothing. He said nothing. We listened.
The radio came to life again, abruptly dispatching my mental haze and waking slumber. A tremor in the voice, a softness. Something about flight. It seems they had departed a few minutes earlier. Seven in total, five men and two women. Our best and brightest, riding the rocket’s red glare, bound up in the dreams of all our children, headed upward and out, shot through the morning blue like light itself, eyes on the second star to the right, and straight on ‘till morning. One moment of that light, one shining moment, and they were gone. An eruption high in the heavens, volcanic, white, and instantaneous had ended the magic arc of the Space Shuttle Challenger.
We sat for a time without speaking—long enough to corral the details, and to note a sudden weariness of mind and spirit. We departed in silence, out through that golden shaft of light and into the dusty hall, noting the newly unimportant notices tacked high on the left, and the crosshatch glazing on the exterior door window, somehow reminiscent now of prison bars and razor wire. We walked, found a nearby watering hole, and ate a small lunch.
There was little to say, and we lunched in silence. Somehow, wordlessly, he had given me permission to remain silent, perhaps for the first time in my life. And it was exactly right. In saying nothing, this man of such towering intellect—such wisdom and experience—taught me that silence can be as golden as that swirling shaft of sunlight, and that less is sometimes, and possibly always, more. Truth emerges not from our words, nor from our wisdom, but from the moment itself, grave, ephemeral, always close at hand, and so difficult to grasp.
Across twenty-five years, and amidst thousands of conversations about everything under that same golden sun, we never again spoke of this. It remains one of the great lessons of my life.
What now remains in the wake of the volcano? White wisps of cloud that dim the sun and steal and our dreams; stones and shards and small nuggets of memory. Life and the living of it, newly emergent from the black rock, fresh and green, still young, but a little less so. And that is a good thing.
Bill is gone now, laid to rest this week after a four-year bout with cancer. He was my great friend, and I loved him.
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