I post this today in memory of one of my dearest friends, a man whose spirit and influence were so immense that they tended to obscure the very real demons he struggled with day to day. I met him in 1977, in the gym at Columbia University, where he tore around the 1/8 mile indoor track, in a beige cotton turtleneck and decidedly un-au-courant running shoes, as if fleeing from those demons. Other runners, fast runners, many of them twice Gary’s size, got out of his way. He’d been an undergraduate at the College, a philosophy major. Now he was an actor, and like so many artists in NYC, he worked whatever jobs he had to as he pursued his art. He was immensely talented, but tormented, gifted but burdened, and he came from a background that placed effort over expression, work over play, obligation over imagination. Every moment he took practicing guitar or memorizing Blake (he introduced me, through spontaneous recitation, to “What is the Price of Experience?”) must have been accompanied by self-doubt, by the question: what can I be doing for others right now, what tangible sacrifice should I be making? He got me my first job in NYC, working on moving trucks with other students, writers, actors, painters, musicians, drunks, addicts, scholars, and assorted scroungers of the NYC margins. Pound for pound, Gary was probably the strongest human I’ve ever met. He carried more weight—more book boxes!—on his unbreakable back than animals double his weight. In my mind’s eye, I see him bent at the waist ascending the staircase of some Lower East Side walk-up, with his fists gripping the ends of the burlap strap circling a stack of a half-dozen or more book boxes. In the summer, when we wore shorts to work, you could see the veins swelling in his calves, step by step, as he marched up the flights. And while you were still marveling at the will and the strength of his struggle, he’d be back down the flights with his strap at the truck, setting up another stack and saying he could probably take one, maybe two more boxes. His last couple of decades haven’t been easy, but he found a measure of joy, a measure of lightness, in the two brightest angels of his life, his beautiful and equally gifted wife and daughter, Christine and Clementine. Without them, he’d have had no reason to keep marching up flights. All of us who knew him and were touched by him--and you couldn't know him without being touched--are heartbroken at the news of his passing. I loved him like a brother. For me, he'll never stop being a guiding light.
A while ago, I wrote a story that was based on a story he told me--something that had happened to him in a counseling session with a psychoanalyst he really loved. It appears in my short story collection, the link to its original online publication appears to be down. I post it here in its entirety.
Rest in peace, Gary McCleery. You've left an enormous mark, and an enormous hole that we have to get busy trying to fill, the way you would.
The Motive for Metaphor
What happened that day in his therapist’s office still surprised Maris years later, years after he’d left therapy, years after his therapist had died.
Theo—he was on a first name basis with this therapist—Theo had asked him to bring a poem into a session, a poem he might want to talk about, a poem that, for some reason, it didn’t have to be clear, did something for him, “made him feel exposed” was how Theo put it, “made him feel wide open.” Maris brought two copies of Wallace Stevens’s “The Motive for Metaphor.” He’d expected to deconstruct it, like in a graduate school seminar, parse its lines, uncover its influences, expose its codes. Theo declined his copy, and asked instead for Maris to read the poem aloud.
Maris hesitated. “I’ll feel like I’m at an audition,” he said.
“It’s OK,” Theo told him. “You already have the part.”
This was New York, Theo worked with numerous actors, he knew all about audition anxiety.
Maris took a breath. He set his elbows on his knees.
“You like it under the trees in autumn,” he began, and already he could feel something happening, his throat thickening, his pulse hammering. “Because everything is half dead.” There he came to a stop—he could hardly breathe.
“I can’t,” he told Theo. His hands shook.
“It’s OK,” Theo assured him, “it’s OK. Now continue, please.”
And Maris tried. But something had a hold of him. It quickened, then robbed, his breath. He got through the first verse, he began the second.
“You were happy in spring,” he read, “With the half colors of quarter-things.”
And at “quarter-things” he stopped, at “quarter-things” it was as if he’d been slugged in the gut, in the solar plexus, and he doubled over in sobs that wracked his body, sobs he couldn’t control, that frightened him in their depth, that took his breath the way a sudden and long fall can, and you wonder not when you’ll get it back but if. And when it returns it’s a huge insucking gasp and you explode in sobs even more convulsively, even though you know that the sobs are sucking the water from the shoreline, as it were, the way a tsunami drains a bay.
He saw Theo twice more after that, they never made any sense of the incident, at least not to Maris’s satisfaction. Then Maris left the country to make a film, his first shoot abroad, in Laos, a low-budget indie feature directed by a woman with a reputation in the margins of the business and a star who’d once actually been a star. He was gone longer than he’d expected—the shoot was a nightmare of mishaps that prolonged everyone’s stay well beyond their visas’ allowance. When finally they wrapped, Maris decided to travel, first into Cambodia, then Thailand. He’d left half his luggage behind in Vientiane, he couldn’t go back for it, it felt like he’d left half his life. It didn’t feel bad to lose half his life. He felt both lighter and nearer to destitute.
Half his travel involved laundromats, or washerwomen beating his clothes. He started drinking again, beer at first, then local rice and palm wines as he sat on crates in a wife-beater, watching women with weathered skin wring out his soiled shirts. The wines aggravated his ulcer. One night in Bangkok, he helped a Swedish student who was getting mugged on a dark avenue alongside Lumpini Park. He traveled with her by train to Chiang Mai. They waited a week for visas to China. Her family was wealthy, she paid for everything, out of gratitude, she said. The Thai people were accustomed to seeing women like the Swedish student. But the Chinese stared at her as if they were seeing a vision, a visitation, a miracle. Some nights in bed, Maris looked at her that way, too—the length of her, the yellow radiance—in disbelief. He’d reached a point in his deterioration—a hardening of the destitution he’d cultivated for two decades—that elicited sympathy from beautiful young women. They found him intriguing, romantic, woebegone. He was a cross between Tom Waits and Gary Cooper. Since leaving America, he’d punched two new holes in his belt, and still his trousers sagged.
He spent his first two weeks back in New York staring at the phone. He’d wanted to call Theo to say, let’s just have coffee or something, he’d wanted to say he was fine, that he was beyond therapy. But he knew he wasn’t, even if he didn’t know why. It wasn’t as if he heard voices, or stared into the void, say, of his refrigerator, which he used as shelving for scripts. It was just this gnawing anxiety, and the burning of his ulcer that kept him always within ninety seconds of a toilet. It was autumn, everything half-dead. He received a card from the Swedish student. She wrote of rhapsodies under the stars that night on the Yellow Mountain, he had to struggle to come up with her name. She’d become a quarter-thing.
When at last he called, he was told of Theo’s passing.
“Of AIDS?” Maris repeated, stunned.
“Complications similar to,” the receptionist said, “but no one knows…”
Maris said, “Theo was gay?”
But he hung up even as the receptionist explained something that he couldn’t hear.
It was immaterial. It was all immaterial.
He took a job as an understudy in an O’Neill play. He could always rely on something drunken or Irish. He renewed his guitar playing, restored the calluses on his fingertips. He thought about how much he’d loved Theo, how Theo had saved his life without writing a single prescription. He wondered what it meant to love a man so much. And was it reciprocated? Theo was actually younger than Maris by about three years—he found that out after Theo’s passing. All along he’d thought Theo was at least ten years older. Choices can age you, Maris thought. Choices and responsibilities, two things Maris had scrupulously avoided.
One day he was playing guitar on a bench in Tompkins Square Park. “Rex’s Blues.” A red-haired woman approached him.
“That’s Townes Van Zandt you’re playing, isn’t it?”
She had an Irish accent.
Six weeks later he moved to Los Angeles where the red-haired woman belonged to a repertory company that welcomed Maris. The New York edge, they told him, that’s what they’d been missing. Maris told them he was from Montana, which was half true, but he didn’t remember which half. You reach an age, he told them, when the lies become the truth and the truth, it never mattered anyway, at least not as much as you thought it did.
Unofficially, he became the company’s artistic director. The young actors wanted to know what he knew, which, they believed, was quite a lot. He told them about “The Motive for Metaphor,” and on the basis of his story, the company scribe wrote up a one-act with the same title. It ran for six weeks to capacity houses and critical acclaim. Maris directed himself. One night, he saw the Swedish student in the audience. On another, he could have sworn he saw Theo. He remained in character until he believed he didn’t have another tear left in him for as long as he’d live.