The phone rings, I pick up, Dorothy Giliam says, "Hello."
"Dorothy, been a long time. How are you?"
"I'm good," Dorothy says. "I finished editing Frank's book, and it's published now. I remarried. His name is Richard." Silence. "I've been thinking about you lately, saw the Chargers were on TV, and thought I'd call."
Dorothy is the widow of my friend, Frank Giliam.
* * *
"Here," says Frank Giliam as he hands me a folded piece of paper.
I open it, read, "I'm in town wanting to see you. Mardie."
To back up a bit, Frank Giliam is my political science instructor, and this is February 24, 1969, the 35th day of Richard Nixon's presidency. I am loitering in the first-floor hallway of a three-story, cement-block social-science building on the campus of University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Said collegiate appellation is an optimistic and highly inaccurate descriptor for what is a small strip-mall college placed on the edge of the Mohave Desert.
Frank Giliam is a friend. I was a student in his Poly Sci 101 class last semester. We talked after class, which led to beers at the Rocking Horse Ranch, which led to hanging out on weekends. He's 5 foot 11, 190 pounds, with clear brown eyes showing a touch of sadness, butterscotch brown hair, and a large -- one is tempted to say -- magnificent, handlebar mustache set over an enigmatic smile.
The note Frank handed me is written by one Mardie Gibbons, a woman I found in the student union of Arizona State University. I'd gone on a short hitchhiking trip to Phoenix, then on to the Grand Canyon, to the Hopi reservation, and back to Vegas. Mardie and I had a couple of good days in Phoenix. I did say something about "look me up in Vegas," but I didn't expect the lookup to occur four days after I returned. This is my first day back at school, two weeks since I'd seen her.
For the first time in my life I am set up. I live in a rent-free four-room cabin out in the desert southwest of town. I have a fake student job and financial grants and loans and tuition waivers. I am an official, legal student. I have friends, mostly teachers. I have a social life of parties and bars and trips and exploring the desert and good books and people to talk to about good books. I am 24 years old and have no bitch with anybody. I figure I can float here for years.
"Where is she?" I ask.
Frank lowers his head, blushes, "She's been staying with me." Silence. "She came to school looking for you, but you weren't back yet."
Frank was born in Salt Lake City, raised a Mormon, attended University of Utah. He came to UNLV the way most instructors did in those days, with an M.A. from a state university and a start -- but never a finish -- to a Ph.D.
Frank is old school, very smart, soft-spoken, soft humor. One could go years and not hear him say anything against another person. He did not swear. He could drink beer all night, never lose his manners, then go home and play Brahms on his piano. He studied Arabic, in the 1960s. Wry wit, honest, loyal, fair, kind... I'll never meet his like again.
But, as I saw it, he was poaching on my finds. I didn't stop to ask myself whether I wanted to see Mardie or not.
"Well...great. I'll just pop over," I say.
It was male territoriality. My girl-thing was with other man. Must retrieve girl-thing. I drove over to Frank's Motel, a name we'd given his one-bedroom, cement block apartment on the north end of Las Vegas Valley.
Turned out, by the way, Frank was a lifelong friend. He'll die of colon cancer 34 years from now. I drove over to Las Vegas for a final visit. He sat on a recliner in his living room, hooked up to a drip and catheter, body wasted from cancer's assault. Dorothy sat close by on the couch. We talked about the things we always talked about: gossip, news, and books. Frank wound up working as a curator for a local museum, became an expert on Nevada history. He was the guy TV producers, writers, and reporters talked to when they wanted Las Vegas information. I'd often see him on PBS, The History Channel, or A&E. After he died, the City of Las Vegas named a plaza after him.
But, right now, I'm knocking on Frank's apartment door. Mardie answers. We talk. Mardie tells me how good Frank has been to her, what a good man he is. Looking back, I'm not sure Mardie wanted to come with me. I'm not sure I wanted her to come. She came. And then she went.
Frank found Dorothy two months later.