Notes on Grieving Gary

In my cabin there’s this sticky note that reads From Danger Grows What Saves. I can’t remember where it came from. I can’t even tell whether it’s in my handwriting or if it was written by an old friend of mine named Chris. I like to populate my stories with familiar names. Art is a real guy, not my uncle, but I do work for him in the mountains. Gary is my ex’s dad’s name. It is also my dad’s name, and my good friend Kat has a dad named Gary too. I wrote this story in Chris’s attic while our life together fell apart. Art has taught me a lot about grieving. Maybe I’m just grieving Chris, it feels like one of us is dead. This sticky note seems to have something to do with it. I wonder which one of us wrote it.


Uncle Art called from his cabin in the Catskills with a beer in his lap. I could hear the beer in his lap in his voice, and so told him I have no vision; no taste or aesthetic, or even any real aspiration, and in this way hope to absorb some permanence as his apprentice. Absorption by sober observation, I promised him—I pleaded him—though even his laugh had some of his lap-beer in it. He said something about permeability. About how everything has it—like even plastic bottles—but I’d drunk so many beers myself by then, the details didn’t maintain their keep. So I’m starting this journal per Art’s suggestion. Entry #1: Gary’s jar of paper stars. Old love notes Gary wrote and tore first into strips for me before folding each note nightly, or as into stars before he leapt—or how after Art’s call I dreamt of birdsong. Something in that melody resonates in me still, though I’m unsure as to what bird it was. Certainly no city bird; there was salt in the air around its singing, and some sea mist in it, and so in my sleeping I must’ve manifested some missed calls from Mom. She left me several voicemails, most as reminders to start with this therapist Art’s found for me upstate. My childlike life. I leave everything I’ve ever loved in the city tomorrow morning.


Uncle Art’s eyes are the color of cold water. A kind of wincing blue, and so I tell him he’s looking a bit like John Berryman with his big anguished beard and his glasses. Same old rust-tortured truck idling outside the bus station. Beyond the reservoir, then the river bridge, we wound our way up into wooded mountain pastures. These mountains are a billion years old, Art said. Lap-beers in our laps; green bottles gleaming through the blue mountain air. This rock is one of the oldest formations on earth. Tonight—for what’s to be my Entry #2—my hope is for eyes that will blue as durably as Art’s through what’s left of August and this heat. The way all of his homeowners love him—Saint Art!—their homely handyman living all alone inside his holy little cabin in the woods. Art suggests I spotlight just one job per Entry, so as not to overwork it, so tonight I’ve chosen the garden gate we built behind the Glasshouse; sixteen cedar slats cut to size and wired to keep the deer from seeping in—Art’s word. He says deer will seek the paths of least resistance, and pass through yards like water, and he explained that the exciting work—the emergency work—is to come with changes in the weather. Herons lift out from lily ponds and from the depths of these reflections; deepest greens I’ve ever seen, and no time yet to call back Mom. Art’s lent me his star guides, his birding books. He says the essence of weather is change—or is water. As woodsmen we’re to work late and wait calmly for what’s to come, by which he seems to mean the grieving light of morning, or maybe the migrating grace of birds—or maybe he just means winter.


Uncle Art is partial to certain trees, though his preference is for the catalpa leaning outside the Stonehouse. Its leaves are as big as bibles, which make for ample shade, so between jobs Art likes to park his truck beneath it. A lot of talk radio. A lot of neighbor-grown tomatoes mangled onto neighbor-made bread. Today—having caulked a handful of holes in a church’s cedar siding, holes bored back in spring by the carpenter bee—Art formed fists to show off the size of the catalpa’s showy white flowers. Art’s truck radio announced a new space telescope, one capable of capturing the formation of time’s first stars. “The very beginnings of creation,” the chief scientist said. “The first moments of God’s firmament—his handiwork—light from thirteen billion years back—,” but before the program finished, Uncle Art explained how the power steering had gone out on his tractor. An impossible repair alone, he said, and it’s been hung up in the trails since spring. So together we torqued at tractor bolts, hands aching in a half-formed trench, and in the fragrance of ferns and hydraulic fluids and mud, and as Art rode the tractor home—starlings and safety lights flashing in shallow water—I followed behind him obediently, thinking, God, Gary would have loved it here. Barns as permanent as stars; stars as permanent to me as these mountains. Tonight’s Entry #3 ought to be kept a secret from Mom in that this therapist Art’s found for me—her name is Diane—she’s available exclusively through a hotline for suicide prevention. Art’s written her extension on my wrist using permanent ink. He says we’re to call Diane if ever we’re feeling on the bridge.


Uncle Art’s is a mind steeped in scientific reasoning and myth. To showcase the stars through summer’s end, he stowed our twin-sized cots onto the screened-in porch like camping. From our cots we can see Cassiopeia—its mid-peak pointing true-north over the moonlit pines and mountains—and on Sundays Art wakes with a sigh of Sisyphean patience. Somehow our hangovers haven’t permeated his momentum. Potential energy is energy positioned, Art read to me today. Say your tree is standing—say your tree is leaning even—its potential energy is that it’s standing still. So on Sundays, smelling the week’s fresh bread, I sometimes try to stir in time to sit for Art’s radio shows and his reading. This week he was reading old journals—foraging for firewood that’s adequately seasoned—and, summoning last spring, spoke of the two storm-felled maples that smote the Stonehouse well. But those trees aren’t aged enough, Art says. All those trees are still too green. So instead we climbed to where, through the temporary scent of two September evenings, we sawed and split an anguished, fallen oak Art found off the trails above the river bridge. Art says the act of stacking firewood is a sort of self-care, and tonight he opened a package from Mom. Inside was a coat—a small, sandy coat still smelling of the coast—and to end Entry #4: Mom wrote us both short notes. A seasonal release has reddened the sail of falling leaves out here, and my skin still smells of gasoline and oak silt—and according to Uncle Art’s radio, a hurricane is coming. A concentration of hurricanes, he corrects me. So our cots are back inside tonight, and Art’s just switched to whiskey, and now he’s proposed we start autumn’s first fire using Gary’s paper stars as our kindling.


Uncle Art has me micro-dosing apples. Ripe-red windfalls from an abandoned orchard behind the Glasshouse, and tonight he says these slivers he sliced for me are the same method he suffered for stone fruit. In preparing our properties for the storms to pass—all our weekenders had already fled to Florida—Art and I spent several evenings servicing generators. One night, as the sunset reddened the rust at the edges of Art’s truck, a herd of thick-necked deer trickled about the garden gate we built behind the Glasshouse. That generator’s engine is enormous; it’s fastened to brilliant, blue formations of rock. “The observable universe comprises a fraction of what is there,” a radio scientist said. Art replaced the generator’s spark plugs, changed the oil. He connected black cables to its battery, and charged it with the idling energy in his truck. “Dark energy, dark matter—our universe is expanding faster than the speed of light—,” and wandering off into the crisp, mid-autumn cool of that orchard, I watched a flock of waxwings feeding. According to Uncle Art’s birding book, cedar waxwings will regularly regurgitate chokecherries into the open throats of their youth—and I really like Diane. Her voice is like the silhouette of some great mountain. I have climbed through it into my memory, where through eight cold, gray city winters, Gary and I absorbed each other’s heat beneath the orange cotton comforts of his childhood sheets. Diane has found symbols to solace my grief. For Entry #5: Art says heat isn’t really a visually observable thing; he says heat’s wavelengths are vaster than visible light. “October can be a brutal month,” Mom wrote to Art in her note. I folded mine into a star; I keep it in the pocket of my coat. “Take care out there with your Uncle.”


For Art, work is a form of ritual. These patterns and repetitions—the observable days, their dawns in sequence—a kind of meaning-making. “When you arrive at the pattern before it’s repeated, you arrive at yesterday,” Diane said to me this morning. It is November now. I can hear the pinched crinkle of Diane’s plastic bottle every time she sips her water. “The present moment then, is what permeates—it’s the ways these patterns are not repeated that will make a moment apparent.” So when after the hurricane winds had passed, and a dislodged catalpa limb had fallen through the Stonehouse roof, it was the homeowner’s insistence we fell Art’s favorite leaner—this tremendous, dangerous difference—that made the present moment more permanently apparent. Let Entry #6 be this diagram Art’s drawn for me. A dull carpenter’s pencil on a four-by-four; lap-beer after lap-beer after lap-beer in his lap—it’s supposed to show how a tree is felled. Turns out great trees are just like bridges, Art said grievously. Take the Tacoma Narrows—Puget Sound—1940. Great bridges get felled for their resonance with great winds, too. I told him, Art, maybe you ought to call Diane. He calls his whiskey hooch—moonshine—an owl’s nocturnal call. We’re both of us looking a bit worse for wear. On Art’s birthday, I dressed like an owl for Halloween. An Eastern Screech. I glued Uncle Art to eggshells and sticks. I called him my Big Uncle Nest. We went into town together, but decimated a deer on our way back up. It pulled itself to the shoulder—streaking—choking on its last cherry-colored breaths. Art did what he had to do to end it. His rusted truck leaked green. I screeched.


Uncle Art plans for the catalpa tree to be felled on Christmas Day. He says it’s to be dismantled, then stacked safely to season outside the Stonehouse, and so I’ve practiced on several hollowed trees—ash trees bored-dead already by an invasive emerald bug. What if at its edges, time reverses? What if once seen—captured, processed—time just ceases? Art replaced the truck’s ruined radiator already, though sometimes I still find tufts of fawn fur mangled to the grill in green. According to the radio, tonight’s to be the season’s first frost. Into every light he ever leapt, Gary’s body always hovered. You should think of your tree as a door, Art said beside his fire. A big dangerous door—and your cuts are to function as its hinges. Inside the Glasshouse, the big hand of a big clock trembles in tremendous, celestial circles. But no one is ever inside to see it. In the night sky outside it, constellations streak clockwise beyond our telescopes and satellites, and Diane says, “Grief—with time, with work—will ease. Will cease.” Tomorrow will be Sunday. Uncle Art will be reading. I will be eating bread and birding through binoculars—another chorus of waxwings through the cabin window—and Art will say something about the cedar trees. About their berries being birdseed. About how the migration habits of waxwings have changed with the warming earth—and into the sunlight Art will stand. Art will leap. Look, Uncle Art will say. Look—come look. Morning’s mournful light will maintain a single shadow inside that room. At its edges, the shadow will tremble and shake. That’s energy—look, this hovering you see is making heat. Art will press his hand against the glass; his hand will absorb the observable heat. And Gary will be there too. Gary will be everywhere.

Dylan Smith works in Accord, NY, and is currently working on a novella. Twitter: @dylan_a_smith.



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