by Marshall Marcovitz


In a corner of Greenwich Village in New York City, inside St. Francis Xavier Church, a memorial mass is being held for my friend Jerry. It’s a cool, damp, late May day. Clusters of clouds, patches of sunshine, and small bird shadows float on the sidewalk.  Inside the church hangs a massive reproduction of a painting by Caravaggio. The cracking paint is pitch black dark, splashed with shades of blue and yellow.  It’s a crucifixion scene with a muscular Jesus, blood dripping from his hands nailed to the cross.  Hazy faces of the congregants look up from dark corners. The church smells of old stone, wood, and incense. A feeling of gloom floats in the air. When a shaft of sunlight slices through the stained glass windows,  I can now see the wrinkles on Jesus’s face, a black bruise on his forehead. I can  clearly see the intensity of the crowd’s gaze. The sunlight passes, and the painting and people fall into darkness again.

It had been a roller coaster ride these past few months with Jerry. The endless doctors’ appointments, lab tests, follow-up lab tests. The bluish purple bruise marks on his arms from too many blood tests.  Finally a diagnosis, not good, not much hope. Terminal.   His doctors said. “Three months, six months, a year at best.”  One day he was vibrant and healthy. The next he was like a snowflake falling through clouds, dropping somewhere into a soundless darkness.  A total emptiness.  Blankness. Vanishing from this life.

He rarely left his apartment.. Too weak. He’d  lost about twenty-five pounds. He sat by the window and looked down at the vest-pocket park across the street.   Azaleas and lilacs were in full bloom.  He saw a little girl kicking a white and black soccer ball in front of his neighborhood bar.  He saw a car parking.  A tall woman squeezed out of the driver’s side. Everything in the outside world was taking place normally, as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening on the sixteenth floor, and yet he himself was a prisoner inside the apartment. Too sick to go out. All his normality was gone. Soon he would be gone forever. He used to quote Emile Zola: “I am here to live out loud.” Not anymore.

I remember when I first laid eyes on Jerry. It was in the swimming pool at the Y.  I was splashing around in an aqua aerobics class trying to keep up with the energetic instructor’s demands to “keep pushing!” Jerry was late for class.  He knew how to make a grand entrance, prancing along the side of the pool, a white towel around his neck, wearing a tight little Speedo swimsuit in deep purple. It made him look like he had one of the biggest dicks in the world. We got to know each other because the taller men worked out in the deep end and talked a lot. That’s how our friendship began. I learned he was a retired actor. He had a long career, not as a  leading man, but he was always working.  He looked about eighty and had Broadway matinee idol good looks.

He was born in farm country, in Stockton, California. “My family was quite conservative but they’re good people,” he said. “Real straight, church going people. Me, I liked to put on make-up from the age of six. When I told my dad that I had decided to try my luck at acting in New York City, he looked me straight in the eye and said,

‘Son, if you need to come back home, you can always be a gentleman farmer.’ That was my father’s way of making me feel loved and welcome no matter what.” I was touched by the affection Jerry had for his father.

When I met Jerry I was at a time in my life where everything felt unsettled. I wasn’t accepting getting old very gracefully. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” was me all right.  Jerry lightened things up. He always had a good story to tell. A joke about Richard Burton being too drunk to recite his lines in Camelot. “Can you imagine King Arthur, his crown tilted on his head, unable to remember his lines? The stage hands rolled down the curtain really fast.”  He chuckled. I loved Jerry’s show-biz stories. He was fond of quoting Groucho’s line: “If you can get through life, you can get through anything.”

Then there was a series of medical emergencies. He had a cough that wouldn’t go away. He needed oxygen twenty-four hours a day. He had tubes in his nose to help him breathe. His new companion was a steel oxygen tank. His best friend told me he thought that Jerry was dying, but I didn’t believe him. I didn’t want to believe him. I would come to visit him in his apartment. He would greet me lounging in his favorite over stuffed Polo chair with a way too slender arm under his head. The curve of his jaw was changing into sagging flesh. Canyons and hollow gullies invaded his once handsome face. He wore a gray sports jacket with a herringbone design, a yellow silk handkerchief fitted into his breast pocket.  Folds of flesh cascaded down to his loose collar. “Dying stinks,” he said to me. He was doing his best to be the gracious host. He wasn’t giving up. He told me he was getting used to using a walker to get around the apartment. The oxygen tubes in his nose were still a bitch. “I look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon,” he said.  I admired him for the determination he showed. He tolerated every device that was helping him stay alive.

He showed me a get-well card from his favorite niece from Stockton. He had placed it on the fireplace mantle. ”We hardly speak and out of the blue she sends me this beautiful card. She writes,’We’ve got another actor in the family.’ ” She was referring to her daughter, whom he barely knew, but was touched that the family was proud of actors. “My niece is a simple farmer’s wife. I never thought she liked me all that much,” he said.

As I got older, I hadn’t made many new friends.  Jerry and I had conversations over his last months about what was important to us at this time of life. He was still pretty funny at times: “Here I am at the end of my life, and who am I worrying about leaving? My condo cat Clarisse,  Mary Beth, my dear acting teacher from Stockton who I haven’t seen in twenty years, my bulimic best friend Carol and now my family in Stockton who I visit once in a blue moon.  I’m wondering if my life will have a happy ending. Most of the plays I was involved with had happy endings. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if life were like the theater?”

I have a big favor to ask of you,” he said with a mischievous grin. “Please get rid of all my porn.” He pointed under his bed. “I don’t want my niece and nephew to find it. Nothing can prepare them for this side of dear old Uncle Jerry. We all have our little secrets.”  And I did. I got rid of all his porn.

We talked about our dreams. On one visit he told me he had a dream about swimming with his father in the lake country around Stockton.

“I stripped off my clothes. I remember wearing those tight white Jockey undershorts because they were hard to get off. They kept getting snagged on my heels. My dad and I were bare-butt naked, splashing around. We dove to the bottom, held our breath and played at who could stay under for the longer time. It was so quiet, just the two of us, playing in a stream with a muddy bottom. I thought to myself how much I loved being with my dad.”

I told him  I often dreamed of a car that is being assembled, piece-by-piece. Finally, the car is put together, and it’s ready to roll off the assembly line. It’s all shiny and new. Then the door to the car opens and out drops a corpse!  He smiled at me.  “You should have written for Hitchcock.”

The last time I saw Jerry, memories of family and friends were staring out from photographs that  filled his shelves. He made Mojitos and we laughingly toasted Fidel. It was a lighthearted evening. We didn’t discuss death at all. Even so, a line from an Emily Dickinson poem ran through my head. “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me.”

Jerry left us. But I believe the dead don’t completely go away. They travel within us. Whenever I go to the theater, Jerry will be with me. When I hear a Sondheim tune, Jerry will be singing along with me. He said at the end: “I’ve had a good life,” and he gave a good life to me.


Marshall Marcovitz is a life-long daydreamer.  In my story about my friend Jerry, I faced the fact that real writing is a lot harder than daydreaming.