by John Crutchfield
Towards a Remembrance of Elliott Paul Orr (1970-2002)
A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.
1. Hallowed Ground
A Catawba legend tells of a great battle fought against the Cherokee atop a densely-forested mountain, which left most of the mountain treeless and the rhododendron bushes dark with blood. The place is known today as Roan Mountain Highlands. It lies along the border between Carter County, Tennessee and Mitchell County, North Carolina, and is traversed by the Appalachian Trail. If you park at Carver’s Gap and follow the AT northeast, you’ll wind out along several miles of grassy balds, roughly tracing the crest of the ridge, with Tennessee to your left and North Carolina to your right. You’ll pass over Round Bald and through Engine Gap and then, just past Jane Bald, where the trail swings north toward Yellow Mountain, you’ll notice a secondary trail peeling off southward, climbing towards Grassy Ridge Bald, which ends in a rocky outcropping almost like the prow of a ship. It’s a good place to camp, with a spring just down the slope on the northeastern side, and towards the southwest an unobstructed view of the Black Mountains, including Mount Mitchell, at 6,699 feet the highest point east of the Mississippi.
Just below where you’re standing, on the western face of the cliff, there’s a small, scooped-out shelf in the rock, almost like a drawer someone has left open. It would be difficult to find if you weren’t looking for it, though easy to reach once you had.
Something is buried there.
2. Declaration of Intent
There’s no reason you should have heard of Elliott Orr. As far as I can tell, he was unknown outside his family and the small circle of his friends in North Carolina, among whom he counted me. Perhaps a few others remember him too, though doubtless in a more fragmentary way: classmates from Trinity High School or from East Carolina University. Or maybe from the School of Art and Design at Southern Illinois University – Carbondale, where he got his MFA in Sculpture. I know of a few people who still remember him from the North Carolina Governor’s School West, where he and I met in the summer of 1987. But it’s unlikely his memory will persist much beyond this generation. He never married, though at one point he was engaged, and he never had children. And of his art, what remains? I doubt he sold anything during his lifetime. In all likelihood his few completed sculptures, and his drawings, sketchbooks and journals, are all in boxes at his parents’ place in Archdale, North Carolina. Maybe in their garage, or in the attic, if their ranch house indeed has one. Possibly his younger brother Zach has held onto a few things. Traces of a life, footprints leading off into the snow. But the snow keeps falling.
On the surface, then, there’s not much to distinguish Elliott from the untold generations of other young American artists who for one reason or another begin to lose their way in their late twenties, who get discouraged by the lack of recognition for their work, who gradually spend less and less time making art and more and more time making rent, or rather, not quite making rent, or car payments, or health insurance premiums, who begin to feel foolish and angry and ashamed, and who eventually give up and choose another career.
Elliott never gave up on his art, but he certainly lost his way – in the world and in himself. I could say that his early death sets him apart, or at least that the manner of his death does, but this wouldn’t really be true either. In the end I have to admit there’s really nothing all that remarkable about him from a biographical point of view, and certainly not from a demographic or statistical one. Nothing that would make headlines. And while those who knew him well are not, I think, likely to forget him, the reasons for this would be difficult to communicate, though perhaps worth the attempt.
All of which probably raises the reader’s suspicion that I might presume to rescue Elliott from oblivion, to “discover” him for you and draw public notice to a genius unappreciated during his lifetime, a mute inglorious Milton of the visual arts, who toiled away in the obscurity of central North Carolina until his life was cut tragically short. That’s not my intention. Besides, I don’t actually know if he was a genius. I liked his work. I was troubled by it. I still think about it. But I think about it in a way that has never been separable from who he was as a person, who I knew him to be. In other words, I can’t see his work in terms of some grand Aesthetic Judgment, or whatever it’s called when things are viewed against the backdrop of all that has gone before, as art that succeeds or fails on that vast, world-historical scale. His work interested me because it was his brain that dreamed it and his hands that brought it into being.
But apart from the merely personal fact that he was my best friend and a man I loved and admired, what about him is worth the trouble of memorialising, of piling up a little public monument to, however clumsy and misshapen? What is it about that particular young man, who lived and walked around and said things and ate his food and drank his beer and loved a certain woman and made art and whose life ended exactly two decades ago today – what is it about him that I think worthy of anyone’s notice?
Or is it that I feel I owe him something? But what debt could possibly be owed the dead, from whom no more is to be expected, not even the reassurance of a stamped invoice: PAID.
Last communication: fall 2000, maybe spring 2001, still in grad school, living in the little apartment on Thurston Avenue (#2B) in Ithaca. A message left on the answering machine while I was out (doing what?): strange, slightly incoherent, long but with lots of silence, cut off at the end.
(By then already years on medication, a bad alcoholic, living in a trailer with his younger brother Zach.)
(Found out later.)
Never returned the call.
Zach’s story about the bolt he found in the ashes: the most durable part of his brother – something doctors put in to stabilise the knee after chronic skateboarding injuries. The rest just dust.
His hands. Even as a teenager: articulate, strong-sinewed, laced with white scars. Masculine hands. Hands that knew how to grasp things, turn them over, work them into new forms. Hands that understood the mute dialects of tools and materials. Needle and thread, a broken zipper, a piece of wood, a knife.
And yet: his handwriting itself oddly girlish, printed in large, careful letters, very clear and even and easy to read. A sense of decorum.
I’m confused about the first day’s schedule and arrive late to dinner. By the time I finally pass my empty tray back through the service window most of the other kids are already hanging out up on the quad, kicking the football on the grass, sitting on the white wooden benches, talking and laughing, sorting out the new social hierarchy. I’m on my way up there as well, feeling lost and irrelevant but with nothing better to do, when I notice a group of boys off by themselves, down in a barren concrete area between the refectory and the physical plant. I step from the pavement onto the patchy grass under the trees and amble a bit closer, until I’m standing on top of the brick retaining wall above them. But the boys either don’t see me or they simply take no interest in my presence, being absorbed in the unfolding pattern of their own movements. They’re sweating profusely. One of them bleeds from a large scrape along the meat of his shin. Others have small abrasions on elbows, forearms, hands. They do not speak to each other.
The year is 1987 and I’m sixteen years old. I’ve spent most of my life in a small town in the North Carolina mountains, and although I know theoretically what a skateboard is, I’ve never actually seen skateboarding done before. Not like this anyway. Nor have I ever seen anyone dressed the way these boys are dressed: cargo trousers, white v-neck t-shirts and strange, black sneakers. One of the boys has both ears pierced. Several have tattoos. Later, I will come to recognise these as characteristic signs of a certain segment of white urban youth. Skate rats I will hear them called. Punks. Fags.
But for now I am aware only of the effect their appearance has on me: vaguely menacing, but also exotic and fascinating in its coded seriousness. Which of course only adds to my sense of being an outsider here, a hick from the highlands, ineloquent and scared, unfashionable beyond redemption, socially awkward to the point of autism and beyond, vague as a mist hanging over the creek. Unlike me, these boys are defined by something. Their edges are sharp, even jagged. They could cut. You look at them and you know instantly who they are, or rather, you know that they are someone. The way they look corresponds to something substantive and real. And you know what that real thing is too. Anger. These boys are very angry – they are in fact furious, and their fury focuses them, brings them into focus, etches them sharply against the bleak background of concrete and brick. It explains the blood; it explains the dust kicked up by their exertions in the red afternoon; it explains their imperviousness to the dense, tobacco-stained heat of summer in the North Carolina Piedmont; it explains the screech of hard rubber wheels on asphalt as they whip their boards around impossibly tight circles, launching their weight now this way, now that, catapulting themselves into lethal curvatures; it explains the merciless wrenching of ligaments as they hurl themselves into the air, attacking the very atmosphere they breath; it explains the bone-shattering crack as the boards slam back down to the pavement; it explains the sweat slung like bullets from their fingertips in the blur of sun-kissed arms and long hair; it explains the relentless swoop of them, one after another, around some hated centre only they can see, returning again and again, exploding into fantastic mid-air contortions, flying like mythological beasts, something half-boy/half-raptor, momentary angels slashing at the sky in a beautiful defiance, pure of every hope of answer. I can’t look away.
Two of the boys are taller than the rest, tanned and wiry both of them, with sun-bleached hair. The others give them room and study their manoeuvres with furtive eyes. They are the most fearless, the most relentless in their striving after a dangerous perfection. But now I see something else: one of the two has a peculiar grace about him, a kind of inner stillness. On the surface, his movements are as explosive and harrowing as those of the other boys, but at the centre of it he himself seems to remain calm, as if he were merely observing the fury from an inner distance. The others, by contrast, and the other tall boy in particular, move as if locked in a violent struggle of negation, every curve a rebuke flung in the teeth of some secret, unforgivable insult to the soul.
As I discover the next morning, both of the taller boys are in my art class. One is Dan Murphy, who plays loud death metal on the communal tape deck in the studio late at night, and who will later be kicked out for vandalising the Moravian graveyard that adjoins the campus. The other is Elliott Orr, who will become my best friend, and who, fifteen years later, on April 4, 2002, will kill himself with his father’s rifle and a home-made bullet.
What does it mean to be a friend? What are the “rights and responsibilities thereunto appertaining”? (C.f. Erwin Schrödinger’s claim to have had only one true friend, whom he saw less than half a dozen times in his life.)
How do friends find each other? What combination of chance, temperament, answering pain? (In my experience: a moment of recognition, a vision or epiphany – almost like falling in love. Not sexual, but indelibly erotic. Embodied. The friend is; he is there; the expression of his face, the movement of his limbs, the sound of his voice, his smell: these are things we experience as beautiful.)
What is that spirit whose absence means the end of a friendship? Or is it something present, something that becomes present, that comes between, a repellent magnetism?
What does Time do to friendship? More importantly: How does having a friend affect one’s experience of Time? How does losing a friend affect it?
Does the manner of losing make a difference? (The Rupture, The Drift, The Sparkle and Fade, The Blackout).
6: De Signatura Rerum
How to describe him. He was tall (compared to me), maybe 6′ or 6’1”, sandy blond, blue eyes. Wiry of build, but graceful, not gangly. At the same time, tightly wound; he gave off a certain heat, a hint of contents under pressure. Not a relaxing person to be around. His gaze was uncannily steady, both while listening and while speaking, which latter he did with a sometimes (for his listeners) painful slowness or hesitation, the opposite of glibness, wit, loquacity. The effect was intense, and very authentic. (For a long period after we met – say, most of my junior year of high school – I strove to imitate this manner, which in me was mere mannerism; and the inevitable effect was neither intensity nor authenticity but something resembling chronic depression, or perhaps mild stupidity.)
But he could be silly too, goofy, boyish. Scraping peanut butter from the inside of the jar with his index finger. Making up ridiculous lyrics to popular songs. Swinging from the lintel by his fingertips and farting resonantly into the air.
The counterpoint (which I rarely saw, but later heard about): bouts of drunkenness, violence, self-destruction. In the end, a pretty damn tormented person who did not seem to know how (safely) to relieve the inner pressures on his soul. Even making art did not suffice to hold things in balance for long. Skateboarding mortified his body like a form of penance, but it brought him into contact with other angry, maladjusted young men, and, worse yet, with cops, who seem to have done everything they could think of to nurture in him a bitter hatred for the law and all “vested” forms of authority. A hatred further fed by reading certain material and listening to particular music. A palpable dark in him.
But was he sick? Was his self-slaughter the final throes of a disease, like tuberculosis or cancer? Or was it a fairly rational response to the experience of unbearable, incurable spiritual pain, which no amount or combination of pharmaceuticals and “self-medication” seemed able to alleviate? Prozac failed, booze failed, even making art failed in the end.
Unendurable spiritual pain. Does such a thing exist? The horror of it would be that, unlike a cancer, it would be coterminous with the Self. It would simply be “who one is”. One could not “detach” from it the way, with enough mental discipline, one can sometimes detach from physical pain, which usually has a specific (and hence circumscribable) locus in the body. Or even emotional pain, where one can at least locate a source somewhere out there in the world: He lied to me. She let me down. And one can say to oneself: It will get better.
This is different. And terrifying in its wrongheadedness, its inversion of all values. “Myself am hell,” says Satan in Paradise Lost. A torment that cannot be escaped, because: escape into what? Myself again. On the surface, an insoluble and crushing paradox. It’s not possible for me to escape from me. I can shed the trappings of a life – my tastes and interests, my friends and family, my possessions, my career – I can renounce all of it, but the one doing the renouncing is still there, still suffering, perhaps even more so than before. There I am, waiting for myself again at the end of the tunnel. I have not escaped. At most I’ve managed to forget myself for a while. But myself always comes back. The pain comes back, with a vengeance. The only real possibility would be for myself to cease to exist altogether.
But if nothing survives, then one can hardly speak of “escape.” Only of negation. Annihilation. Hamlet recoils for fear of what dreams may come. But this is the place where no dreams come. There is no one left for dreams to come to.
A memory of love, disguised as a meadow.
— Vladimir Nabokov
7: Signs and Wonders
Over the years we knew each other, Elliott and I took a number of short backpacking expeditions into the Blue Ridge Mountains near where I grew up. Hiking and camping in the mountains had been an important part of my childhood, thanks to my father’s love of nature, and I wanted to share these experiences with Elliott, who’d not spent much time in the mountains before, and whose only camping experience had been with a pup-tent in the woods near his house in Trinity. The first trip we took together was actually with my father. The three of us spent a chilly September weekend at Mt. Rogers National Park, just over the state line in southwestern Virginia. We woke up one morning to miniature wild ponies nibbling at the tent. A similar excursion took us to Shining Rock Wilderness near the Blue Ridge Parkway south of Asheville, North Carolina. This was late summer and Elliott and I got a little carried away eating wild blueberries. We spent a long night sleepless with stomach cramps. But the trip that continues to “trouble the deep” of my dreams was a two-night stay one summer up at Roan Mountain Highlands on the North Carolina/Tennessee border. My father had brought me here for the first time several years earlier, before the divorce, and it was a special place for me. It was to become more so.
Elliott and I hiked in on the Appalachian Trail from Carver’s Gap and pitched our tent on the crest of a grassy bald with panoramic views out over the mountains. The horizon was clear, the sky above an unfathomable indigo. We cooked our dinner out on the ledge and watched the sun light up the few isolated clouds as it went down over the long black ridge of Mount Mitchell. As we lay in the tent that night talking about various things, we heard what sounded like fat raindrops plopping on the tent-fly and on the leaves of the laurel bushes around us. Could storm-clouds have blown in that quickly? The sound got louder and louder, and was soon more on the order of a hailstorm. Elliott opened the tent flap, and in the last light of evening, we saw them, pelting down like bits of volcanic ash, their shiny black bodies covering the earth.
Beetles. Untold millions of them, swarming up out of the valley below us and sweeping over the ridge toward the north like a biblical pestilence. Were they dangerous? Were we under attack? Should we grab our torches and run for it?
We held still and observed that the insects falling around us and on our tent only struggled for a while among the twigs and grass and then took flight again. We huddled in the tent opening and listened until the pock-pock of their hard little bodies gradually ceased, and with a low, droning buzz the last of them mounted once more into the dark air and disappeared into the night. Soon everything was quiet. The whole episode lasted no more than ten minutes.
The next morning, we searched around the tent, but found no sign the beetles had ever been there. Not so much as a chewed leaf. It was weird.
But it wasn’t the end of entomological weirdness for us on that trip. The following day, we packed lunches and bush-whacked down the ridge-spur into the valley, where we’d noticed some interesting-looking meadows we thought might be part of an old orchard. Partway down, following a game trace though a green cove of beech and basswood, we came to a sort of woodland clearing blanketed with fringed phacelia in full bloom. And here the second episode occurred, not as uncanny as the first, but for me somehow more emblematic.
Again, it began with a peculiar sound, this time something like the well-oiled engine of an idling freightliner, or an industrial-sized HVAC unit. Elliott was walking in front of me. He paused at the edge of the clearing. I came up behind him and stood looking past his shoulder.
The flowers were covered with bees. Their bodies formed a dense haze in the air and the trace we had been following seemed to disappear into it as if into a blizzard. As with the beetles the night before, the sheer number of insects, to say nothing of the noise their combined efforts produced, put one in mind of a supernatural visitation. It was scary – not least because bees, for reasons known perhaps only to themselves, will sometimes sting you. I’d had sufficient experience with this phenomenon to be of the opinion that we ought to execute a crisp about-face.
But then, without bothering to ask my opinion on the matter, Elliott walked right into the bee-cloud. He held his arms out straight on either side, as if he were going to hug someone, or were balancing on a curb. The bees eddied thickly around his calves and thighs and occasionally zipped away, bouncing off his outstretched arms. But otherwise they merely went about their business. When he reached the other side of the glade, Elliott turned back to me. They won’t hurt you, he said, in the bemused tone of someone reporting a slightly surprising discovery.
The moon is hid, the night is still.
— Alfred Tennyson
A friend testifies to the reality of one’s memories. A friend rescues the past from unreality, from desecration. The friend says: Yes, that happened, I was there. The friend says, Do you remember when we dreamed of riding motorcycles all the way to California? The friend says, Do not be afraid, I am here. The friend says, I knew him. He had his faults, but he was a good man.
Visit to Dad’s place with my sister Lilian, her friend Barbara and Elliott. (Photographs?) (This was right after the divorce, Dad living by himself in Fairview, NC off U.S.74 – a house-sitting arrangement? Too late to ask.) Elliott in the back seat: Hey, ya’ll think I can poke my head through this? Ha ha.
More on Governors School: the swimming pool, Elliott’s wet hair dividing his face; conversation in the foyer of the Fine Arts Center (laughing at Chris Qualls’s antics); long hours together in the studio, discussions of Surrealism and Pop Art, his admiration of Dali, but also Rauschenberg, Johns, Lichtenstein, Warhol. (I’d never heard of any of these people.) (Who had I heard of? Andrew Wyeth, maybe.)
And: the uncanny appearance, almost exactly twenty years later, of a snapshot I’d never seen before: the two of us sitting together on a bench in the student art gallery, our paintings on the walls, a soft glow of overcast sky through the high windows behind us. (Who snapped it? Why?)
(Poems here? “Return to Roan Mountain”, etc.)
(But does the “you” in those poems have anything to do with Elliott? Was it too soon – a year after his death – to attempt to approach him that way?)
Zach’s trailer in the scruffy pine-woods outside Trinity: the outsized bureau, the drawer where Elliott kept his few things: pocket knife, notebook and ballpoints, creepy Mexican cartoon-porn.
(Later, months after Elliott’s death, Zach told me he was was still coming across unopened cans of beer his brother had stashed in various places throughout the property – in the garage, the workshop, the crawlspace, the shed, in a stack of old tyres, the hollow of a stump. Always within arm’s reach, no matter where he was, no matter what he was doing. Scary.)
10: Just Before
That first glimpse was early in the summer of 1987, at Salem College in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the evening of the first day of the twenty-fifth session of the North Carolina Governor’s School, a six-week residential programme for high school kids, founded by Governor Terry Sanford in 1962 with the charge to “prepare gifted youngsters for their future tasks of creative leadership.” Allegedly the first of its kind in the nation.
My mother and sister and I had driven down from Boone, the small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains where I grew up and where we were still living a year or so after my father left. To a mountain boy, Winston-Salem in the summer was unbearably hot and humid, almost as bad as Charlotte, that loathed destination of forced semi-annual road trips to visit the relatives on both sides. Apart from those family gatherings, and a few weeks at church camp down in Old Fort, this summer at Governor’s School was to be my first time away from home.
My mother and sister helped me move into my dorm room, then we hugged and said goodbye, and they drove back up to the mountain. I was alone now. I looked at my books on the shelf by the bed. Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Artist’s Handbook, Camus’ Lyrical and Critical Essays. My roommate had some books too. I looked at the titles. History. Political Science. Economics. Serious stuff, all of it. Suddenly, I felt tired and hungry. I glanced at my watch and flipped through the packet I’d been given at check-in: dinner was not for another hour. Out in the hall, some of the other boys were calling out, laughing, singing. Did they already know each other from high school? Was I the only one here who didn’t know anyone?
I sat down at my half of the desk and opened my sketchbook. I imagined an ancient tree with gnarled branches leaning over a stream full of moss-covered rocks. What I drew looked more like a butchered carcass.
But little do men perceive what solitude is, and how far it extendeth.
— Francis Bacon
Version One: He holds the rifle out to you gently, like a newborn. Here, he says. Take it. You look at the fluted barrel glinting in the dark. It has your eyes.
Version Two: The world is a palimpsest of erasures. Nothing is left for you, nothing remains, and you feel it, the nothing, the place where everything was, an open window without a frame. What does it matter? Backwards, there is only the return of pain, like green returning to what had been trees and grass, like blood to a phantom limb.
Version Three: The voice says, Do not be afraid. Your body is dense as iron. Out in the yard, an unknown bird sings a few notes, then stops, then starts again, and you realise dawn is near. Do not be afraid, the voice says again, this time closer, as if inside your own head; and when the light flares and then goes out, you feel strong hands lower your body slowly, very slowly to the floor, and you leave it there, lying almost still now. And as you look down at it – at your own unsentient body that carried you through your days, that bore silently the weight of so much abuse, that awoke again each time hungry and wounded and alive – you can’t help but feel, for a brief moment, a kind of compassion for it, a kind of pity, impersonal and quickly fading, for this body, so infinitely far away now, like your childhood, lying there in its dark pool of time.
Version Four: Just as you’re passing out through the glass doors into the twilight of the yard, the phone rings. You pause. The trees are perfectly still, as if they too were listening. The phone rings twice, three times into the empty darkness of the house behind you. You look down at the rifle in your hands, at the slashes down your wrists already crusting over. You walk back inside to the kitchen. You pick up the receiver. You lift it slowly to your face. You stand there listening to the faint static. Hello? it says. Hello? Elliott? You almost recognise the voice. It is a young man’s voice. It is a voice you’ve not heard in a long time. Hello
In my journal shortly after Elliott died, I wrote “How can it be we are here already in the past?”
But shall I have the strength to write this book?
— Gaston Bachelard
For many years afterward, until I finally realised the futility of the idea, I planned to write a book about Elliott. The book was to be a sort of biographical memoir, intercut with poems, dialogues, fragments of storytelling, bits of letters, journal entries, drawings and photographs; in short, an experimental work, in which I would attempt to do three things: document Elliott’s life and art, reach a deeper understanding of our friendship and find some consolation for the loss of one of the greatest human beings I’ve ever known.
I’ve given up. Not because the book itself is unwritable, but because I myself am unable to write it. Too much time has passed, or else not enough; and time has done strange things to my sense of who Elliott was and even of what friendship itself is. What seemed clear has become unclear, and I’m reminded of James Agee’s words in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, as he struggles to come to terms with profound experiences now rapidly receding into the past: “But somehow I have lost hold of the reality of all this, I scarcely can understand how; a loss of the reality of simple actions upon the specific surface of the earth.”
This is a singularly distressing state of affairs for any writer, tasked as we are by mythological edict with the job of remembering. If we are unable to remember and communicate the reality of simple actions, then who will? Not historians, who would have been unlikely to concern themselves with the overalls of George Gudger, nor, for that matter, with the self-inflicted tattoos of the unknown visual artist Elliott Orr. Social scientists, then? Perhaps; though that point of view tends not to register the very thing that makes a George Gudger or an Elliott Orr who he is. A “soul” we might call it. Which requires a peculiar sort of perceptual apparatus. Coleridge’s word for this was “Imagination”: a capacity to grasp the internal reality of things. We see it at work in Agee’s vision of the Gudgers, as well as in Walker Evans’ photographic portraits of them.
I am, alas, no James Agee. What’s more, my subject did not arrive at the end of a deliberate search. Elliott came into my life the way friends usually do: a more or less accidental confluence of life circumstances brought us together, and if we found in each other a kindred spirit, this was surely due in large part to other accidents and circumstances, earlier ones, whether genetic, socio-cultural, experiential, who knows. Also, Agee had his subject in front of him, under close journalistic observation for days on end, whereas I did not set out to write about Elliott until he was gone. And his departure was abrupt, it was a shock, it did not allow a moment’s preparation. To write about him is to write in response to something that happened, something beyond my control, a rupture. Elliott will forever remain on the other side of that break. All I really have now are my memories of him, and they are a “closed set”. There will be no new ones. I can only turn them over in my mind, again and again, rotating them like holograms, as if by doing so I might discover hidden depths.
But that’s not the right image, really. “Hologram” suggests a virtual purity, an eternal quality that my memories do not have. They are more like a stamp collection or an arrangement of butterflies in a glass case. They deteriorate with much handling. I’m almost afraid now even to look at them. But leaving the memories locked away and far from view doesn’t really conserve them either, since their deterioration, I have begun to understand, occurs also by an internal process, a kind of atomic or metaphysical decay. As the years go by, the images erode. The more I try to halt or at least slow this process – the more conscious mental energy I devote to preserving my memories of Elliott – the more quickly and irrevocably I lose my sense of him. Sometimes I begin to doubt whether I ever even knew him at all. This is a doubt of terrible consequence.
What do I know then? I know that Elliott’s suicide was the first irruption of significant grief into my life. I know that the news literally knocked me to the floor. I know that everything changed in an instant. For several years thereafter, his death was all I thought about, all I wrote about. To the distress of other friends and family, it was virtually all I ever talked about as well. But then other griefs came, and the black river seemed to fan out into a delta. My grief no longer defined the landscape, but grew coterminous with it, such that now, in the daily routines of work and family, I hardly think about Elliott at all, the way one hardly notices the air one breathes or the shush of one’s own pulse. Without my intending it, the wound has healed and scarred-over. And today, the thought of opening it again and digging around in it like some delusional Doubting Thomas – that’s a thought I do not relish.
And yet I find these papers, these scraps of writing I produced over the years. Journals, mostly. But also poems and fragments of poems, bits of prose, scenes cut from plays that became something else. They form, I suppose, a kind of travel diary of my journey through what was apparently a very strange territory, a series of places, or rather, of non-places, grey zones where I felt haunted by strange figures and utterances, and terrified by sharp flashes of light. How did I find my way out? Or have I remained there, still wandering, but now familiar with certain landmarks, certain places to rest for a while before hoisting my burdens and going on?
The world is gone
I must carry you
— Paul Celan
First visit: Heading down NC 62 in my navy-blue 1971 Volvo sedan (inherited from Grandaddy Lobdell). A crack in the engine block reduced maximum speed to about 58 or 59 mph. No a/c. The piece of notebook paper with directions on it taped to the dashboard. High Point, then Thomasville, then Trinity, then Old Turnpike Road, spiralling down into a fractal of dead farms and ranch houses with permanent Christmas decorations and lawn ornaments, leaning, sun-bleached, ghostly. Dirt-bike trails in the red clay. Poison ivy and kudzu rolling like metallic green waves. Smell of creosote and dry snakeskins. A crossroads outside a small town outside a slightly larger town in the middle of nowhere you’d ever want to be.
The first time I ate kiwi fruit: Elliott and I are sitting on bar stools at the little kitchen island. His mother, Linda, is washing up at the sink. A sense of afternoon, summer, the prickly Piedmont light reflected in through the windows at a low angle, perhaps from the concrete slab of the driveway. Neighbourhood sounds. The fuzzy fruit like an alien life form. Eating it, a feeling of cannibalism.
The house-party in Greensboro: Elliott’s high school friend Greg playing drums in a hideous punk band. Dude, what is this shit?
Elliott’s orange Carmen Ghia: The odd feeling of sitting so low to the ground. Then after college: “Pearl”, a cream-colored ’65 Chevy pickup with solid oak-plank bed, perfectly restored. Hearing the fuel slosh around in the tank behind the seat. I love how everything about her is so intuitive. It’s beautiful. You look at it and instantly you know how it works.
Then, much later: the story of Elliott, now stripped of his driver’s license, walking 12 miles along the highway in the snow at night to a farm where his ex-fiancée was living. (Who told me this story? Can it be true? What happened when he got there?)
Elliott’s “retrospective” exhibit: None of the disturbing works, none of the real works; my sense of betrayal at this. Afterwards, driving with Zach out to the trailer where he kept dozens of venomous snakes in cages: rattlers, copperheads, cottonmouths, diamondbacks, coral snakes, all of which he’d caught himself. Watching him feed live rats to them as he told of his brother’s last months, the substitute teaching at Trinity High School, the little projects that never amounted to anything, the cash advances on the credit card, the late-night phone calls from the bartender at the roadhouse up the way; having to get dressed and drive out there, Elliott dead-drunk, slumped over in a booth by himself, or else already lying down in the parking lot, his notebook crumpled under him: the word home scrawled over and over, first clearly, then starting to veer a little, then spilling into complete illegibility.
The walk in the winter cornfield: Rows of cracked stalks forming L‘s with their own shadows. A landscape overwritten in code.
There is no action or imagination of mine wherein I do not miss him.
— Michel de Montaigne
Just over a year after his death, at the beginning of the summer of 2003, I had my left upper arm tattooed with a memorial band and Elliott’s initials, his birth and death dates. Why my left arm? Maybe because I wanted it to be close to my heart. Though anatomically, the heart’s in the middle of the chest, under the sternum. But it’s also a lopsided beast, the heart is. Maybe more of it’s on the left side than the right, like a left-handed tennis player. Anyway, the thing was done in less than two hours, freehand, by a guy with super-thick eyeglasses who called himself The Reverend Charles Cain (he went by “Cain”). His shop was on Appalachian Street back in my hometown, where by a strange turn of events I had my first teaching job after graduate school. The shop was called, perhaps unsurprisingly, “Mark of Cain”. It’s no longer there. I went to Germany on a faculty exchange for a year soon after getting the tattoo, and when I got back, Cain was gone and his shop was something else, a little boutique for the sorority girls. I asked around and was told that he’d left town and opened up a new shop in Johnson City, Tennessee. Or maybe Bristol, Virginia. I can’t remember now.
He liked to talk while he worked, the good Reverend did; and he mentioned several times, while I was under his steady needle, that he took great pride in his craft and considered his artistic and professional integrity at stake in every tattoo; and furthermore he insisted that all his customers come back within a year of getting their tattoos, so that he could do any “touch ups” that were necessary, free of charge. I’ve never had my “touch up”; but other tattoo artists I’ve shown Cain’s work to have been amazed at the scrupulous execution and attention to detail. Or in the words of one highly reputable Asheville artist: That’s some fucking bad-ass perfectionism, yo.
It’s beautiful was my mother’s reaction upon seeing it for the first time a year later. I was surprised. I had expected at best a thinly-veiled revulsion or, at worst, open alarm at the thought that her son would do something so macabre. My girlfriend at the time, who had been with me through Elliott’s suicide, and who, though she’d never met him, had spent many long hours listening to me talk about him, expressed concern that the tattoo would be a constant renewal of my grief, that it would keep me bound to the violence of Elliott’s departure. In the smooth, black stripe and solemn block lettering, she saw the rune of a death-wish. I couldn’t have said for certain that she was wrong.
Strangely, though, as the years have gone by, the tattoo has come to function in a way I never would have imagined when I first got it. In the beginning, when my grief over Elliott’s suicide was most intense and unremitting, the tattoo helped connect me to him across the barrier of death. It gave me an odd kind of strength, as if by marking myself with death and declaring my solidarity with the dead, I was forging a deeper connection to life. Having paid homage to death, I no longer felt afraid of it. The tattoo marked me as belonging to a secret brotherhood, and this sense of belonging filled me with a kind of grim fortitude. My life was no longer one dimensional and frivolous. Now I lived under the shadow of something real, something vast and impenetrable, but at the same time profoundly human.
And in those days, hardly an hour would go by when I didn’t at some point experience a sudden pang of loss. Whenever I felt alone or hopeless, which in my early thirties was pretty frequently, the thought of Elliott would come to me, and I would wish more than anything just to be able talk to him again, or even just to hear his voice. At those times of anguish and confusion, it was Elliott I wanted near, and not any of my other friends or family. Of all the people I knew and had known, he was the one by whom I felt best understood. And by a strange dialectic, the tattoo that marked his absence also brought him closer to me, as if his absence itself were now the form his presence took. By intensifying my sense of his physical departure, even to the point of inscribing it in my own body, I was keeping open a door for his spiritual return. The tattoo was a permanent wound, like the ditch Odysseus fills with blood to colloquy with the shades.
Now, twenty years since Elliott’s death, a week will go by, sometimes two, without me even thinking about him. Then someone will ask about the tattoo on my arm and I’ll realise I’d forgotten it was even there. This memorial stained permanently and painfully into my skin: I’d forgotten about it entirely. The realisation always comes as a shock, although it happens again and again. The black band burns all the way around my upper arm between the bicep and the deltoid muscle. How could I have forgotten it? I’m frightened and disturbed by this. Apparently it’s possible to become so habituated to seeing something, and so inured to its meaning, that one no longer even really notices it, and no longer thinks about what it was originally intended to signify. But the tattoo is there, written indelibly in the flesh. I am grateful for it now. And humbled. This is not why I had it put there; I never imagined I would need a reminder of Elliott’s passing, which left, I felt, an irreparable rent in the fabric of my life. And yet, it is so. The band reminds me of what I would otherwise gradually forget.
But will it too, at some point, become a mere cipher? A mark even I can no longer interpret? Or perhaps still interpret in a factual way, but no longer feel?
– handwritten letters (maybe half a dozen).
– The Spectrum (Governor’s School West 1987 Yearbook), incl. art class portrait, E. smiling from the back row, last on the right; me in the middle. Autograph and inscription: “Man, these six weeks flew by didn’t they. You really put out a lot of great artwork. I really like your paintings, & I think your sketches of trees are wonderful, keep it up. Since your moving to Winston maybe we could get together & kick a soccer ball around. Give me a call or write a letter.”
– small glazed ceramic sculpture of slender figure (a boy?) reclining, one arm broken off; packed in box in attic at Lincoln Ave. house in Asheville.
– small polymer portrait of Mark Twain w/inscription: “For John, The Best Friend Anyone Could Ask For”; buried at Grassy Ridge Bald (Roan Mountain Highlands), NC, April 4, 2003 as part of semi-improvised private grief-ritual. Maybe still there. Maybe disintegrated by now. Maybe discovered, brushed off, wondered at, stuffed in a backpack or tossed aside.
– tattoo on left arm (doesn’t really count).
– various photographs; some in photo albums, some still in envelope from developer (pre-digital), most packed away in boxes.
– one photograph: E. holding scruffy dark kitten (Ozzy), window in background, sense of trees outside; framed, hanging right here, on wall over desk.
– certain feelings (guilt, panic, love, anger, despair, living for two people, obligation not to give up, wanting to prove him wrong, wanting to prove him right, missing him, rage of incomprehension, rage of numbness, rage of weariness).
– certain memories.
– certain other people’s memories, conveyed as stories, testimonials at his memorial service, etc.
– promise to visit his parents.
– promise to find out what really happened.
A page from the 1987 edition of The Spectrum, yearbook of the North Carolina Governor’s School West, Winston-Salem North Carolina. Pictured is the Art class. Back row, far right: Elliott Orr. Second row, third from left: the author
Guard him as thy counterpart. Let him be to thee forever a sort of beautiful enemy, untamable, devoutly revered.
— R. W. Emerson
17: The Work
In the spring of 1993, I drove from Chapel Hill down to Greenville to see Elliott’s Senior Art Exhibit. He was graduating from East Carolina University with a degree in Sculpture. This was a strange period for me. I had returned from my year as an exchange student in Tübingen, Germany many months before, but was not re-adjusting to American life as smoothly as everyone had assured me I would. I remember my poetry professor, Robert Kirkpatrick, taking a long look at some of my new poems: What happened to you over there?
Thanks to Chapel Hill and Tübingen, my experience of university life was of the bucolic/medieval variety: college was a civilised place, rooted in tradition and smelling faintly of tobacco and tweed, with venerable buildings, brick walkways and ancient hardwoods, a place where one read the great works, wrote poems in a dusky café, engaged in abstract philosophical discussion and courted refined young women in a manner congruent with the highest precepts of chivalry.
ECU was none of these things, and Greenville itself seemed to me a hideous cultural wasteland – tasteless, trashy, post-industrial, dead: the last place on earth where I could imagine going to college. Yet these were the very things Elliott loved about it, and seeing the work he had been doing, I began to understand why. Instead of turning away from his “heritage” and aspiring to some kind of faux-European High Culture the way (I realise now) I had done, he was digging around in the native trash-heap. Many of his works were re-constructed from actual trash or else rough-cast in iron that looked as if it were caked with dirt. Much of the work was disturbing in its combination of violence and pornography. I remember a pink miniature hot-rod, about three feet long, its chassis in the shape of a naked woman without a head. The chrome exhaust manifold sat upright in the crotch. The title was Turbo Pussy. Nearby stood a small cast-iron figure of a businessman on a unicycle who masturbated when you cranked the pedals, as I noticed several people doing – cranking not wanking – with amused smirks on their faces. Both of these sculptures I was afraid to look at.
A third was shocking in a different way, and I remember standing in front for it for a long time: a raggedy suitcase, also in cast iron, lying flat with the top blown open and riddled with bullet-holes. From inside jutted a thick fist gripping a snub-nosed revolver.
What disturbed me, I think, was the internal tension of these works – a tension, a collision of motifs, that in its unresolved absurdity and irreverence expressed something true about the world. That truth was uncomfortable, but undeniable. The business man masturbating on his unicycle, the hot-rod disguised as a headless nude, the suitcase-turned-murder weapon: by juxtaposing these elements, Elliott’s work made connections I had not known existed in the culture I lived in. Those connections short-circuited the conventional mediations, and they threw off sparks. Those sparks bounced off hidden surfaces, and left burn marks.
18: Dramatis Personae
About a year later, I went to see Elliott in Greensboro, where he’d moved after college. He was sharing an apartment with his friend Tracy, who he said was a really good writer, and yet he had given up on his art and was laying floors for a living. (The next time I saw Tracy was at the memorial service. He credited Elliott with saving his life, but didn’t elaborate on the circumstances.) There was an antique Coke machine in the apartment, which the guys had rigged up to dispense bottles of cold beer when you put a nickel in. Elliott was working long hours at a coffee shop called The Dessertery, a small regional chain. He was drinking about 12 cups of coffee a day at work, he said, until his heart would start racing; when he got home he’d run eight or ten miles, and then stay up most of the night working on his art and listening to Black Sabbath, music I found (in the innocence of my heart) ponderous and scary. He loved it, and the movie Taxi Driver. He was reading Harry Crews and Henry Rollins.
It was around this time, I think, that he met K., who also worked at the coffee shop. She was an artist as well, though still in school at UNC-Greensboro. Elliott said she was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. When I finally met her (Where exactly? When?) she turned out to be a slender, rather ethereal girl with large brown eyes, dark hair and a flawless, slightly olive-tinted complexion. Something about her seemed evasive to me – somehow she kept slipping out of focus.
This was the woman Elliott later became engaged to. At one point they tried to set me up with her sister, a literary type, who was working as an editor for a small regional press. The sisters were related to a celebrated North Carolina writer whose work I had not read. (Still haven’t.) According to my sister Lilian, who attended one of his seminars at Duke University, the man identified strongly with John Milton, maybe even to the point of confusing himself with John Milton.
The memorial service at the country church: the testimonies, the weird chill between Elliott’s friends and K., whom they seemed to hold responsible for his death. The older woman I didn’t know who stood up weeping, accusatory of everyone, the world. Greg was there from New York, skinny now and chain-smoking. Arriving back at the house: Elliott’s father standing out front, smiling as if welcoming guests to a Saturday cookout. (This still the most terrifying spectacle of human grief and helplessness I’ve ever witnessed.) Elliott’s mother inside weeping quietly together with friends in the dark sitting room. My moment alone in the back yard: the wooden shed where he shot himself. (Can I even touch this?)
Returning a year later to visit with them on my own. Kenneth immobile in his chair, the lamplight strange on the side of his face. Linda beside me on the couch. (Where was Zach?) They both look ten years older. Elliott’s room down the hall, where I used to spend the night on the trundle bed.
Kenneth: I made the bullet that killed my son.
And again later: I made the bullet that killed my son.
20: The Surge
I have children of my own now, two little girls, and can begin to imagine – but only begin, since the imagination recoils from such a thought – what it must have felt like, what it must still feel like for Elliott’s parents to have lost their son the way they did. If he could go back and really think about it, Kenneth recently told me over the phone, He wouldn’t have done it. He destroyed other people’s lives.
A later conversation made clear what he meant by this. Elliott’s mother, Linda, died in 2017 of Alzheimers. She and Kennth had been married for fifty years. She was my best friend, Kenneth said. And then, speaking of Elliott’s suicide, he said straight out, It’s what killed her.
Even if this would be difficult to prove scientifically, I could feel the truth of what he was saying. The loss of a child by suicide: How can a parent survive such a catastrophe? The mere thought that one’s child’s spiritual suffering was so intense and unrelenting, and that they felt so hopelessly alone – that thought would surely render reality itself and the irreversibility of time unbearable for any parent who loved their child. Perhaps the corrosive self-forgetting of Alzheimers makes sense, at least symbolically. There, Elliott can live on – in his father’s face, in his brother’s face, in the vividness of imagination.
Yes. If he could have thought about it. Elliott, who thought of others his whole life. But he couldn’t. The pain itself made that impossible. The only thought the pain left room for was how to end it. A last flicker of light before the darkness.
But that last flicker of light was a tremendous pulse, and in that moment, the moment of his death, the network of love connecting him to his family and friends became a kind of power grid that transferred the full load of his pain to the rest of us. The voltage was enormous for those up close, the wires of a heavier gauge, the shock an almost molecular rearrangement. A permanent change of state. He wouldn’t have done it if he had known.
I learned something else in that conversation. What I had taken to be a shed, as I stood looking at it from across the yard after the memorial service, was actually a treehouse. Kenneth had built it for Elliott when he was seven years old. He used to go there to spend the night with his Snoopy blanket, Kenneth said. It was his safe place.
Is not memory inseparable from love, which seeks to preserve what yet must pass away?
— Theodor Adorno
21: A Gathering of Clouds
The drive back from our Roan Mountain camping trip: listening to Creedence Clearwater Revival on the tape deck in Elliott’s Carmen Ghia. J: What does that even mean, dude? E: Um, I think it’s about a girl.
My sister Lilian’s Debutante Ball in Charlotte: Elliott back at the hotel, drunk and weeping in the bathroom, mumbling about Lilian’s friend Barbara, whom he’d known for years: She so beautiful…as if her beauty, or the mere fact of it, caused him actual physical pain. I’d never seen him this way before. I sat beside him on the edge of the bathtub, my hand on his shoulder, not knowing what else to do. His tears actually splashing down into their own puddle on the linoleum. Then all at once, I think there’s a hair in my mouth.
Visiting Elliott and K. at their sketchy apartment in downtown Durham. She called him “Smelliott”. He’d installed a chin-up bar in the kitchen doorway, and had tattoos on his lean, brown arms and on his legs: ALIVE. He was happy.
Then the night after K. had left on a road-trip with her old high school boyfriend. Elliott very distraught. E: I don’t understand it. J: She’s young. E: She’s the same age as you. J: Yeah, but you know what I mean, though even I didn’t really know what I meant. Then him telling how earlier that day he’d been feeling bad and had gone to this free psychological counselling centre downtown, had walked in only to find the place totally empty. He’d rung the bell and waited, he said, but no one ever showed up, so finally he left. For some reason he expected me to stay with him that night (Had I led him to believe I would?), but I wanted to see a girl I was interested in, a friend of my sister’s who worked at Duke. We argued, I left him there and promised to come back in the morning.
(Is that true? Can I have been that clueless and selfish?)
But after that, for a while, everything seemed to have worked out with Elliott and K. They got engaged. I ran into Elliott by chance a year later back in Greensboro, very close to the UNCG campus, where he was apartment-hunting. He was looking for a place big enough so that he and K. could each have a studio, he said. He wore plaid polyester golf-pants and cowboy boots. Our conversation awkward, brief. We were out-of-phase somehow. I had lost my sense of the rhythm of his thought and feeling. He seemed so slow, so still. I had left graduate school and was working with the theatre company by then. I had to run to rehearsal.
(And is that true? Can that be all?)
Our last actual conversation: some days later, on the phone; him telling me he and K. knew someone in theatre there in Greensboro who might be able to get us a gig. I jotted down the info but never followed up. Some months after that, I wrote him a long letter from the road, doubtless full of the perennial romantic longings – by then the theatre company was working on the Lees-McRae version of my first play, The Songs of Robert; his reply came like a slap in the face (I remember reading it at Eric’s mother’s house in Boone): I should grow up and quit dreaming of the perfect girl.
(That was the summer I first met X.)
Two years later, having finally finished grad school and now at my first teaching job, living alone in the little house on Winklers Creek Road: a call at night from someone I thought identified herself as “Sue Elliot”, a woman I knew from my Chapel Hill days. No: it was K., who knew me “through Elliott.” Elliott’s dead, she said. He killed himself. The date, location of the memorial service, not much more. Hung up, then suddenly I’m on my hands and knees on the floor, as if knocked down: the immediacy of it, the visceral bluntness, no time to think.
Various assumptions shown up as self-exonerating fabrications: that Elliott was going to be okay: that if I hadn’t heard from him, it was because he was okay.
Telling my mother about his suicide; her reaction, a memory: Elliott coming to visit me for the first time after Governor’s School, pulling up in his orange Carmen Ghia to the little farmhouse on Sally Kirk Road in Winston-Salem, where we lived by then. As clear as if it happened just yesterday (her words).
The story of all that.
The sense of
(Reproductions of Elliott’s art? Quotations from his journals? Interview transcriptions: Kenneth, Linda, Zach. Friends also: Greg, Tracy, his cousin Christian. And what about K.? Who else really knew him?)
(Elliott Orr was a man, etc.)
(Elliott Orr was born, lived, and died, etc.)
(Elliott Orr would have been such and such an age, etc.)
(Elliott Orr said such and such a thing on such and such a date, etc.)
(These notes: lines of fracture, pointing toward an event. A violent impact or excision. A shape is left, an outline, but the shape is not the thing. What does it mean to say, Elliott Paul Orr was? And to whom?)
(a slight breeze)
–Hey, man, check out that cloud.
–Looks like a falling girl.
–A falling girl?
–Yeah. A girl, like, falling from the sky.
–You mean an angel?
–No, man. Just a girl.
–I could love a girl like that.
–She’s almost gone now. Look.
–Sun’s going down.
–There she goes.
(faint sound of dog barking)
–I like your mountain, bro. It’s nice up here.
–We should do this every summer.
(faint sound of dog barking)
–It’s nice up here.
The Samaritans Helpline and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are safe, private and available 24 hours a day. AASRA provide a list of working helplines in India. Gotcha4Life work to provide meaningful mateship in Australia.
This essay was amended for accuracy in August 2022.
About the Author
John Crutchfield is a writer, performer, translator and teacher who divides his time between Asheville, North Carolina and Berlin, Germany. At present he serves as Associate Artistic Director of The Sublime Theater & Press.