Thursday, January 29, 2009

My Friend, Grendel


It was January 1990 when I found out about the death of a family friend, Morgan R. He was an IT man we knew through a work connection, a "techie" before that designation meant much to the average person—before the dot-com Silicon Alley boom (or bust) became part of public discourse. Morgan was a tall, thin man, and somewhat frail. He had pale skin, brown hair, brown or hazel eyes; he wore glasses. He spoke with a Southern accent, though I don't recall where he was from. Perhaps the Carolinas. He was sweet, intelligent, and was dying from the day I met him. He was the first man I knew personally who was homosexual (until then I'd only known boys who were struggling with the issue), and he was HIV-positive when the AIDS epidemic was ripping mercilessly through that population in the 1980s. I remember Morgan walking the office in his gray suit pants, his white shirt—his employee badge and a tiny red-handled screwdriver in his breast pocket. He wanted to leave his job, I heard, but of course he couldn't—he would never have health coverage otherwise. I remember a time when he came to my parents' house, a time when I was there, too, home from college for a weekend or a longer holiday. We talked about books, about one in particular that he encouraged me to read and that he eventually loaned to me—it turned out to be a parting gift, and the two will remain forever linked in my mind: Morgan, and John Gardner's Grendel. If you're not familiar with the book, it turns the epic poem Beowulf on its ear, revisiting the story from the point of view of the monster that the hero fights and slays. Gardner's version transforms the hideous creature into a lonely, intelligent outsider, who more resembles humanity than perhaps the humans do. I have thought often of Morgan through the years, especially when scanning my bookshelf and spying the worn paperback, yellowed and dog-eared, clearly read often. I wonder to what extent he identified with beastly Grendel: isolated, intellectual, outsider . . . all descriptions that fit Morgan perfectly well. Did he feel persecuted? I'm sure he must have, though we never talked about anything that personal—I am not sure he was aware that I knew about his sexuality, or about the affliction ravaging his body. Now Morgan is gone, Grendel remains. If we could re-create "the whole universe, blink by blink," what would we change?

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