Rex always smelled of the fire. That acrid scent of burning cedar and daily BBQ mingled with a sour whiff of whatever cheap whiskey they had around. It clung to his heavy works shirt in the summer, and I gradually became so accustomed to it that I could sense that hint of smoke at first sight.
Somehow I can’t recall ever seeing him by a fire even once, though surely I must have. Nor can call up the details of his features; more than a decade later, only the silhouette of his huge frame and the ten-gallon hats he favored pulled down low over his fleshy face linger in my mind’s eye. That ungainly form, so heavily tied to this earth, was unforgettable. On so many occasions, I recall that bulky shape filling his rickety porch, leaning forward with a good-natured leer as C and I approached, watching her eyes glance over the rusty bike leaning against the weathered steps. “Hey,” he wheezed. “Wanna ride my Huffy? Heh.” As if to demonstrate that his lechery was all in good fun, he would heave his awkward frame skyward and shuffle into the old house for another beer, always safely assuming we would follow.
I hadn’t grown up with Rex as C had, an old drinking buddy of her dad’s. His wife, Magnolia, had died not long before, and though he didn’t speak much of it, we knew he had a hard time living without her. Teenagers, our company probably wasn’t much comfort, but we came by to visit when we could.
His house was a collection of odds and ends. Drums and guitars, artifacts from the ‘70s, the odd bit of disused drug paraphernalia, and pieces of Magnolia’s old jewelry and other feminine trinkets strewn about. He seemed indifferent to most of it and spent the majority of his time outside—by a fire somewhere, or on that porch. Most clearly I remember a faded portrait of a nondescript clown in a neat but plain frame. There wasn’t much he’d made deliberate effort to display, which made this dull, humorless clown of all things stand out even more.
The last time I saw Rex was after the big flood. His house was hit hard and he’d lost most of his belongings. He didn’t really care too much. The clown was still there, somehow. Some haunted thing that survived forty feet of rushing water only to be more faded and washed out, hanging on the flimsy wall of what we all knew without saying would be Rex’s makeshift home for at best a couple more years anyway. In the replacement house there was also a photograph: Rex’s Willie Nelson and Family touring drum kit, perfectly intact, perched quite nicely at the top of a twenty-foot tree where the floodwaters had deposited it, not so much as a cymbal out of place.
Rex died not long after that of cirrhosis, same as Magnolia had. Instead of a traditional funeral, his old buddy Jimmy insisted on throwing a “funeral fiesta” at Poodie’s Hilltop Bar. So C and I went to help set up. We brought out the old memorabilia, Rex’s photographs and his records, including the copy of Red Headed Stranger with the printing error that had left him uncredited for his drumming. For his part, Jimmy made sure everyone went home with a little piece of Rex. In the permanently addled state that only decades of meth and prison time can cause and no anti-drug PSA could ever simulate, Jimmy divided Rex’s ashes into notoriously tiny ziplock bags, the sort in which pills and powders are typically dispensed in his line of work.
As I departed that night, leaving the sad yet joyful celebration of Rex’s life drunkenly swaying on behind me, I pondered dully how many of those mourners were celebrating their own lives and anticipating their own cirrhotic demise in parallel with Rex’s. I pocketed Jimmy’s not-so-subtle metaphor and wondered what I was supposed to do with that little baggie of Rex. I’d never been close to the man, but I’d always admired him, and he’d more or less accepted me hanging around. But then again there weren’t too many things or people that bothered him.
I ended up carrying those ashes around the world with me. Carried them all the way to Moscow in fact, until I released them out of my fifth-floor apartment window, allowing the wind to carry them toward the black river below. I can think of no reason why Rex would want his ashes in Russia, and that river never seemed to be going much of anywhere; really it was frozen for the better part of the year and only noticeable when the thawing ice began to break apart, sending thunderous cracks echoing down the canal like gunshots, reminding pedestrians to look up. But spreading ashes, like all funeral rituals, is a process for the living, and if Rex was an early teacher in observing a lifestyle different from and stranger, more fascinating than my own, then Moscow was the master class. After three years of living there as an outsider, functioning in a foreign language, seeing the Second Chechen War wind down and the Putin presidency wind up, the art of watching, waiting, and learning had been well ingrained in me. And that night, packing my bags to leave Russia for good, it only seemed fair to give a little nod to Rex.