Kenneth Rawlins: Becoming Chicoon
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A remembrance by Dave Reagan:
(As a close friend and immediate neighbor to Kenneth Rawlins, known here only by the name he himself ever offered – Chicoon – I had started to write this as an obituary when he died a few years back but my own life circumstances intervened. What follows I think of as more of an ode, a reckoning of sorts, and an overdue acknowledgement of a man I sometimes nearly dismissed as no more than a common source of aggravation, only later to realize he was really just a man, not unlike myself or any other, full of faults and desires, but one with great heart and generosity, and with that rare quality one doesn’t often find around here, a straight-shooter. In short, a pretty good man.)
Near the end, when Chicoon’s life was ending and mine was falling apart, I would sometimes find myself alternately critical and then even wistful that I might be more like him, the way he seemed so content in his small, shut-in world, just him and his dogs, his remote control, weed and whiskey.
But then, at other times, low times, after another day of having done nothing much but sit around with the dogs, shouting at them to quit their barking, maybe watching a ball game or sometimes nothing more than the occassional truck rolling by, all the while checking to see how much time remained before six, the annointed time, beer-and-a-joint-on-the-deck time, one hour earlier than Chicoons self-declared hour of seven… I feared I was becoming that same man.
Once upon a time I lived a life in the hills above a small Humboldt town in a one-room cabin I built from scratch. It consisted mostly of old boards and beams hauled from the dump, salvaged metal roofing and flooring pulled from tear-downs and framing timbers dragged up from the beach. The windows and doors I mostly made myself, having plenty of time but little money for materials.
Across the road from me lived a man named Chicoon. “Chic-Coon”, he ennunciated on one of those first nights of too much weed and whiskey, as if somehow that explained everything.
Chicoon also lived in a cabin he’d built himself, a small, tar-paper shack with an outhouse, a collapsed sunroom, and a pile of siding neatly stacked and covered with tarps that had long ago given way to the elements but that he still believed he might one day put to use.
He had fifty acres, beautiful oaks and a creek running along his east side, lots of places to explore or just sit and listen to the silence. But he forever just stayed in his little cabin, relaxing in his lazy-boy, watching TV and smoking weed, coming outside just to take a leak or let his dogs do the same. Never once did I see him walk further than the fifty yards to his designated “garbage gully” where he would empty his trash and so save him having to go to the dump.
As a suburban kid this all felt pretty raw and appealled to my sense of the mythic, of the hills and Appalacia, outdated ways that felt almost romantic. What I didn’t understand then is that there’s nothing romantic about living alone, just you and your dogs to keep you company as you watch your body and your house slowly sag and collapse back from which it came. Fifteen years after those first drunken nights with my neighbor, I came to find myself similarly beaten down, my own cabin still unfinished, eaves weeping, fences leaning, finally abandoned entirely as I fled the hills seeking refuge from the storm.
After Chicoon took his drunken tumble that led to the panicked phone call gasping out that his chest hurt and he could barely breathe, I’ve learned many things that have aged and humbled me, but mainly this – that people are not just characters in a book. Bodies give out, dogs die, friends rob you, headgaskets blow, and the floorboards don’t give a damn when you drink too much and take a fall down the steps.
You meet a person, spend a day or a week with them, maybe a year or a lifetime, and then along the way, years later, someone might ask – so who was he? What was he like? Was he tall or heavy, bald or bearded? And we answer something like – ohhh, he was a nice guy. Had his moments, of course, but really pretty decent. Or maybe he was an asshole. Or maybe more ambiguously – it’s complicated. And that’s generally as far as it goes.
And yet, if given the opportunity, were the conversation to drift and shift to tangibles, to remembrances and details, funny stories and odd encounters – a life emerges. Like being startled at seeing the road beneath your feet through the rotted out floorboards of a rusted old Nova driven by a man, who, for the next fifteen years, spring summer, winter or fall – you would only ever see dressed as he was then, in a t-shirt and shorts, flip flops or hightop Converse sneakers and gym socks pulled high. Or how in those unlikely first days you might not have evisioned that you would one day be pulling off those same sneakers to massage his feet as he lay there dying in his rat and mouse infested shack waiting for the paramedics to come cart him away. Or that this same man that you would come to curse repeatedly for his exasperating and awe-inspiring bad decisions, forgetfulness, laziness, and monumental particularity, would, in the end, the breathing machines turned off, the dialysis pump wheeled out, lungs surging, eyes unfocused, five minues left, saying goodbye, damn if he wouldn’t make you cry.
You could say Chicoon had a huge heart, and he did. You could say he was hugely opinionated and obstinate, and you’d be right. But for me, more than anyone I ever knew, what defined Chicoon most was nothing more than he was a man who knew what he liked and stuck with it – invariably. Budweiser in a can sucked through a straw from a cozy pulled from a collection displayed in a perfectly stacked pyramid upon the kitchen shelf. Strawberry soda. Jack Daniels. Old hot rod Novas. Crab cakes and civil war literature, Nascar, golf, and any other sporting even that happened to be on. Local news, law shows and Desperate Housewives.
And that was it. Really, nothing else. Without exception. I remember watching a six pack of Budweiser in bottles – not cans – sit and gather dust for weeks until the person who had brought it as a gift returned and took it back home. Another time, on his birthday, I brought him a bottle of whiskey – Jamisons, not Jack – and again, he wouldn’t touch it. Even his dogs – Basset hounds, every one. Like the many rusted old Chevy Novas lining the perimeter of his property, when one died he’d just bury it and go get another.
I’ve long found myself in awe of the simplicity of his life and the contentment he seemeed to derive from it. So what if it wasn’t the zen ascetism of a bowl and a spoon, a bag of rice and green tea. Instead of sitting quietly on his zafu striving for enlightenment, he sat quietly smoking a joint with his dogs at his feet while watching TV in his easy chair, the same he had sat in for decades and even now retains his form.
He left the house only when he and the dogs had to pee, to start the generator, or climb into his Nova to drive to town for breakfast and replenish his provisions, mostly beer and whiskey, white bread and cheese, fresh kibbles for his dogs.
The only variation in the routine came after the fall harvest, when the weather report showed I-80 clear of snow and no big systems to cut him off on his way to Florida. He’d have his crop wieghed-out, bagged and triple-sealed, and the night before he’d hit the road, he’d take his screwdrier and remove both front door panels from his current running Nova and pack each cavity tight. Seven pounds even. Heading to the Keys for the winter, selling off eighths and quarters before finally returning in the spring to do it all over again.
Once there was and now there isn’t. It comes as a surprise, when that which you would sometimes wish might simply vanish from your life, does so – and you miss it.
Chicoon had a presence. Each of us occupies more or less physical space, but some emanate beyond. With Chicoon, no longer will the neighbors and I hear him bellow up and down the valley at his basset hounds with that desperate, pissed-off, hollering for “JAKE, you ASShole! Get over here!”, “SCOOBY god damn you, get back here! DO YOU HEAR ME?!! GET! BACK! HERE!”
We’d hear it every morning, as regular as the mail truck or school bus. He’d wake from his drunken stupor, gagging and hacking, relieve himself in the yard and then look around and see his Bassett hounds start to wander off and he’d let loose. It startled and unsettled you the first time you heard it, set the ears back on our own dogs in alarm. 500 times? A thousand? Way more. Morning and afternoon for more than a decade. And so in an odd way that familiarity can bring, it created its own rythym and defined the space of our valley. And then perhaps even stranger still that when his time finally came and he took his tumble and we heard it no more, we felt his absence.
And I miss him. I even miss his yelling. For what I came to learn was that he did so not out of anger, but fear. Fear for the ones he loved most, that they might wander off and get lost or hit by a car. Love. Nothing more. For his dogs. “The only reason worth living,” he said more than once.
Sometimes I wish I were more like Chicoon.
Sometimes I think I am becoming Chicoon.
I drink my beer at six. Turn on the game at seven. Yell at the dogs when they bark at a deer. Pass out at nine. Get up and do it all over again.
This is how it starts. A habit becomes a routine becomes an addiction, becomes a life. Some fight it, others accept it. Chicoon knew what he liked and stuck with it ‘til the end. Does it matter that it would also be the end of him? Wouldn’t we all like to die doing what we like best? That’s not to put too simple a nut on it. I visited Chicoon regularly that last month he lay in and out of consciousness and I know for a fact he was not ready to go. The Indianpololis 500 was coming up, football season not far off, Jake still young and healthy with a good shiny coat, and he had a cooler full of beer and a grocery bag full of shake back home. “You gotta get me outta here,” he pleaded from his hospital bed.
I talked with a neighbor about maybe putting up an altar on his land consisting of just his lazy-boy, remote control, a pack of matches and a joint, a pint size bottle of Jack and a can of Budweiser with a straw and a cozy. Maybe hang one of his blueprints he had saved from his earlier days as an architect and engineer. We could haul it up the hill and build a glass box to preserve it from the elements. Bring his basset hound around occasionally to visit. Maybe we’ll still do that.
But if there’s ever really an end to anyone’s story I think it might have come that last winter. His only lasting possession of any real value, financially but especially sentimentally, was Chicoon’s remaining Chevy Nova. Like the long line of Basset hounds, each succeeding the next, Chicoon had left maybe half a dozen carcasses of his previous Novas on his back lot. This was the last one running–until an oak tree, weighed down with snow, toppled and crushed it flat, his freshly laundered shirts still draped across the back seat, a can of strawberry soda in a beer cozy packed with straws in the cupholder and aviator sunglasses resting on the dash. It was perhaps a perfect end as it came only a couple of years after his previous Nova had suffered the same fate. And in a classic hippie redneck moment that seemed to so completely characterize Chicoon, I remember him standing outside in his converse and boxers, shaking his head as he looked at the wreckage and said, “Well, guess that’s what I get for dumping my used motor oil on its roots all these years. Karma, Karma.”
(I started writing this shortly after Chicoon died nearly three years ago but had to put it aside as my own life began to fall apart. I did flee the hills and now live up north, with a new set of neighbors, much closer and much more quiet, but with not a one have I had as many interesting conversations or ever had a good night of too much beer, weed and whiskey.)Obituary by Dave Reagan