As I signed for the shipment I wondered if I should have paid the Mortuary in Florida the extra $50.00 to have the last little bits of Solomon Hellman dropped into the Gulf of Mexico. In the end I elected to have his remains shipped to me, reasoning that in the near future I could take his ashes back home to New York.
After I racked the books and the CD’s I opened the parcel from Florida and wondered where I should keep the urn. It was a little terracotta sculpture with his name embossed on the side. I held it for a while with both hands. I then decided to place it by the postal scale where I could both reflect on Solomon’s life and lean my outgoing mail on it. So for a short time my dad would be part of my daily life at Gourd Music.
As the first few days passed I would gaze at the urn and think about the man who was my father for 40 years. Not a demonstrative individual but in his shy and quiet way, loving and kind. I remembered with fondness how my father would walk around our home on Sunday mornings. Dressed only in his boxer shorts, an old button shirt, a well worn fedora on his head, and an unlit half smoked cigar in his mouth he’d amble around our home with a coffee in one hand and part of the Sunday New York Times in the other. This will always remain one of my favorite images of him..
He was extremely dedicated to his work and it broke his spirit when he had to give up The Hellman Sowing Machine and Motor Company. A business and a way of life he had inherited from his father which stood proudly on New York’s lower east side for over 60 years.
We had our own funny language. When I said I had to leave he’d say, “Go, Man, go”. He’d usually finish a sentence to me with “ok bub”. He had this funny habit of counting the number of my friends I would have over. We would be upstairs playing board games; my father would enter and then just silently count the number of bodies in the room by pointing his finger at each of my friends.
Sol only made one visit to Santa Cruz but he was impressed. He was fascinated by the number of people who would sit behind The Bookshop Santa Cruz and drink coffee all day. As we’d pass through the Café Pergolesi he’d say “it’s 2:30 in the afternoon, how do they make a living?” “Dad”, I’d say “this is Santa Cruz and it’s sort of a laid back community.” To which he’d always reply in his New York way “well bub, nice work if you can get it. Maybe I can retire here and drink coffee in back of the book store, too.” “You can dad” I’d reply “ You can start right now with a double latte.” And then we both would laugh.
After a few days of contemplating my father’s urn the happier memories faded and the reality of his last few years took over. A series of operations, two failed suicide attempts, and then a brief rally as he pulled what remained of him together, and rented a small condominium on Pensacola Beach.
Just as he attained an island of sanity, the years of poor eating, alcohol and depression caught up with him and he found himself living from procedure to procedure at Pensacola Baptist Hospital.
In the last year of his life I began flying between Santa Cruz and the panhandle of Florida every few months. The doctors would always call at 4am and say if I wanted to see him before he went on I should hop on a plane as soon as possible. My father somehow kept himself breathing but with each flirtation with death he grew weaker. Then they moved him to a smaller facility where they put individuals who are about to expire. The hospital was antiquated and extremely disorganized. Two of the three times I visited my dad, they sent me to the wrong room. My father once had another patient’s chart hanging from his bed.
His skin had a yellow cast from a liver bombarded for decades with Scotch. His heart was giving out and he had colon cancer as well. Half of his teeth were cracked and there was a musty putrid smell about him. Scales were spreading across his scalp among the last strands of his thinning white hair, and crooked red lines crisscrossed through blue gray eyes.
During my last visit to the Pensacola Baptist hospital I made plans for my father’s imminent demise. I contacted a local funeral home and signed all the papers to release his body after he passed on. I never saw his body after he died
On November 5th 1988 I spent my last morning with my father. He was in and out of consciousness but we managed to exchange a few words. He asked me to hold his hand and as I did I knew that we both were accepting the fact that his time on this planet was coming to an end. I hadn’t remembered ever holding his hand. I promised to come back but I knew this was the last visit.
“Well dad I have to go back to California but I’ll be back in a few weeks.” He uttered out a faint but audible “Go, Man, go.”
Two weeks later as I was working on a paper in my family student-housing apartment at U.C.S.C. an attendant called me from Pensacola Baptist to let me know my father had died of a cardio pulmonary collapse. He suffered so much that I felt a sense of relief when I was told he was dead.
At least that’s what I thought.
On the fourth night following the arrival of my father’s ashes I dreamed of him. We were in a rowboat in a small lake in the Catskills in upstate New York. It was a beautiful day and the sun danced on the water creating a cathedral of broken light. We were fishing for perch somewhere near Bear Mountain. In my dream I hooked a large one and when I turned to show my prize to my father he wasn’t there. I was alone in the boat. I could feel my heart beating rapidly in my chest as I searched the water around the boat but could not find him. I heard his voice calling me from the dock, and ordering me to row the boat in. I grabbed the oars and rowed towards the shore. Just as I got there he disappeared. I then heard him say “hey bub” and there he was sitting behind me in the middle of the lake.
The next morning I gathered all my business correspondence, Which I neatly stacked between my fathers urn and my Pitney Bowes postage meter and climbed into my car to take it all downtown to the post office. The day presented itself with my favorite Santa Cruz weather— bursting sunshine but a little cool and a sky filled with towering cumulus clouds. After mailing my packages I stopped halfway down the post office steps to speak with a friend about a music project he was doing. As we said goodbye I felt a tap on my shoulder. In all the years I’ve been alive very few folks have ever tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention. It’s usually an “excuse me” or some eye contact, maybe a hand on the side of my arm but hardly ever an actual tap on the very top on my shoulder.
I looked left and then right and saw no one but felt the tap again. Whoever was trying to get my attention was standing behind me two steps up. Figuring it was one of my friends having fun with me I turned around with my hands on my hips and said in a joyful but somewhat loud voice “yeah, what’s up?
I wished I had never turned around. I felt like Scrooge seeing Marley’s face in the doorknocker, however this face didn’t fade away. It simply stared, and frozen to the steps I stared back.
Just two steps up me stood a replica of my father, looking exactly as he did just before he went into the hospital for the last time. He also smelled that musty old man smell that I remembered from our last visit. He wore a gray fedora hat tilted towards the back of his head
He smiled and I quickly noticed he had the same two cracked front teeth dangling from his gums. Lifting his head up towards the blue sky he said “What do people do around here? This is really some town you have, it seems very interesting.” His smile was so bright it almost seemed like his entire body was dancing.
As I listened in bewildered silence the only reply I could muster was “You want to know what people do?” As I spoke I could feel my self being split in two, like the lyrics of the old blues song, “The Two Trains Running” Well now there's two, there's two trains runnin'Well ain't not one, (ho!) goin' my way.
The first train was my rational self, saying “Ok Neal, he’s got those cracked teeth exactly where Sol’s were, he also has the blood shot pale blue gray eyes and yellow skin and the smell. He’s Sol’s height, and his voice is the same timbre. Take a breath, take a breath, I’m sure there are many old Jewish males of German extraction who would look a lot like your dad once they have reached his age. It’s just an amazing coincidence. It’s probably just the smell of him influencing your other senses. That must be it.
The old man continued to grin and said, “Well, what kind of things go on here?” And as he spoke he bobbed ever so slowly as if he was following a melody somewhere in his head. I licked my lips. “Well” I said “A lot of talented artists live here and there’s the beach, a giant roller coaster and many places to get a cup of coffee.”
He smiled and as he did he never let go of my eyes. I felt frozen as if I was captivated by some beam of energy coming out of this, out of this, of this what? Who is this man?
As I was forcing words out of my mouth the second train took off and said “you never saw his body, you haven’t heard from the mortuary, remember how that hospital put the wrong clipboard on his bed? What’s more, the nurse who called you did not once mention his name and the State of Florida has never sent you a death certificate.
The specter then said, “How long have you’ve lived here? What do you do here? Are you one of these artists who hangs out and drinks coffee?”
Now my mouth was completely dry and I felt like I was getting off on some kind of mind-altering substance. I too wanted to yell out like the Dickens’s character:
Mercy…Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?
The first train spoke again: “Come on Neal, breathe, this is not your dead father coming back to haunt you. It’s probably just another old man with a liver condition that for some reason looks like your father. Just relax, look at your watch and tell him you have to leave. Tell him any lie just go.”
I couldn’t leave. It was alarmed but at the same time entranced. He then said what to me was his coup de gráce: “Those folks in back of the bookstore, don’t they have jobs to go to or do they just sit, read and drink coffee all day?”
The second train whistled, “They might have gotten the charts mixed up, perhaps he went into remission and then just got dressed and left the hospital. He wouldn’t be the first person to do that. He then hiked over to his bank, and withdrew his remaining money. After all it was his dough. He probably got a hotel room, rested up and then he flew to San Jose and presto, here he is.”
The first train then asked the second train “Well, why didn’t he call?” And the second train replied, “He’s probably not being very rational. After all the last time he saw his son, he was leaving him for dead in a run down hospital in Pensacola, Florida. I then announced to both trains that I did what I could for him and I don’t feel guilty.
I wanted to bust out of myself and say to this ghost, this spirit, this eidolon “Listen, man, I just lost my dad and you look a lot like him and it’s really starting to get to me so, please enjoy your visit here in Santa Cruz but I have to leave now, OK? Goodbye.” I wanted to say it, but I didn’t.
Just then the old man started pointing towards the street and began silently counting. “What are you doing?” I anxiously asked. “Oh I’m counting the number of people who are drinking large cups of coffee in those take out containers.” All I could do was nod.
“Hey Neal,” a voice called to me. It was my friend Elise, leaving the post office. Just seeing someone I knew was a relief, “Thank goodness” I thought, a friend. Elise made a beeline for me and immediately gave me a hug and said she just heard that my father had died and how sorry she was for my loss. “So how are you holding up Neal?” I was tempted to say, “Well Elise, I’m somewhat faint and approaching a massive anxiety attack but before I collapse I want you to know that my father has come back from the dead and by the way he’s standing right next to you.”
What I did say was, “well I’m ok.”
Elise glanced in the direction of the old man who politely nodded to her. Could she see him? Did she feel a presence? For three seconds there was a deafening silence. Elise dropped her car keys, she quickly retrieved them, reached out to me and said “I’ve got to run, call me, let me cook you dinner.” She made her way down the steps to her vehicle waved and drove away.
The old man then said: “Is she your girlfriend? She’s very pretty. Do you ever sit in back of the bookstore and drink coffee with her? What kind of coffee does she like, do you both like the same kind of coffee?”
“Were just friends but yes sometimes we have coffee together.”
He smiled and nodded and then lifted his head up at the sky and said, “What a beautiful day. Nice day to be out on the water, what do people fish for here in Santa Cruz?” “Oh sand dabs, cod, albacore and sometimes people like to go out on the water to look for whales.” “Have you ever seen a whale?” the friendly apparition asked?” “Well yes I did. I once was on a boat out of Moss Landing and I saw two grey whales.” “Moss Landing, what’s that like? Are there green and grassy banks there?”
Oh Jesus I thought he busted my chops when he was alive and now that he’s dead he’s still toying with me. Perhaps he just showed up on his way to the next dimension to say goodbye in his own weird Sol Hellman fashion.
I then realized what day it was, December 21st, the Winter Solstice, the day of the longest night. A day that ancient cultures viewed as the time when the veil between worlds becomes translucently thin, a time when a deity would escort the dead from the underworld.
I didn’t notice any deities standing with my father. The idea of some type of Drudic spirits leading an old Jewish man form Florida to the next level of existence somehow just didn’t work for me. However the resemblance was so strong, I could only look at his face for a few seconds at a time. It was like staring into the sun. I was now convinced that this was my father’s spirit saying goodbye to me. I had an urge to heave logic to the wind and just embrace him. But I didn’t.
I finally mustered up enough courage to say “ I really have to go” and he replied, “Well, go, man, go” and sort of saluted me. I sort of saluted him back and said, “Enjoy your time here in Santa Cruz” and began to descend the steps. After I crossed the street I turned around figuring as in most ghost stories he wouldn’t be there. But he was, and he waved to me again. I waved back and smiled, he waved back and called out in a raspy voice, “Take care of yourself bub, and buy that pretty girl a latte for me.”