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Al Martinez

We returned to the Hollow Leg and called it a tie and toasted the storm. : No Sad Songs for Us

September 10, 1987|AL MARTINEZ

I awoke early the day my best friend died, and I don't know why. I sat out on the deck and watched a pale dawn wash through the sky, heavy with a fog that lingered in the mountains and dripped from the oak trees.

It wasn't until later that his wife called to tell me that Jerry Belcher had let go the pain and fear that accompanies cancer, and cold silence lay where an immense energy had burned.

He was the Nick I wrote about when he was told two months ago that he was going to die, so it was no surprise when the end came.

I saw him for the last time a week ago, a gaunt and skeletal man on a rented hospital bed in the living room of his home, barely able to talk, but still able to peer at me closely and whisper, "Where in the hell did you get that jacket?"

It was an affirmation of our ties: a friendship rooted in combat, bound in steel and tested each time we were together, even the last time.

I took his hand and sat next to him and we just looked at each other, half-smiling. Then I said it was a Penney's Outlet sale jacket and he said, "I thought so."

I didn't cry and he didn't cry, because that's not what our bond was. We had truth between us, and truth is closer and deeper and stronger than tears.

No sad songs for us, my friend.

Belcher was my confidant, my competitor and my critic for 30 years, with a wit like the sting of a wasp, and 10,000 times we battled over trivialities elevated to supremacy in a wash of dry martinis.

These were no casual debates. We clashed over who was fastest and who was best and once even over who wasn't best, for reasons lost in the blurry past.

I argued that his command of words far surpassed mine, and he argued that my style of prose towered over his, and to prove it we decided on a write-off.

We stalked through the rain from a bar called the Hollow Leg toward the city room of the Oakland Tribune across the street.

But halfway there we realized that, in order to prove the point, we would have to leave the judging to others, and that was an intrusion neither of us could abide, so we returned to the Hollow Leg and called it a tie and toasted the storm.

We could tolerate the wounds we inflicted on each other, because ours was the combat of young lions in the process of maturing, but we knew better than to seek judgment from those who could not begin to fathom our truths.

They were good days. We drank too much, but by God we communicated , and that's rare between warriors.

The Hollow Leg was our special place, and whoever wrote slowest on a given day would have to holler "Save me a place at the bar!" as the other headed out the door.

It was a shout of concession, but only for today. There was always tomorrow.

When I came to L.A., Belch followed a couple of years later. But he was never really happy here.

He missed the wind and the rain of San Francisco, and the boozy camaraderie that typified its journalism. The Times was bigger, slower, colder. The kind of flaming rewrite he had become accustomed to up north was non-existent down here.

Priorities were shifting. Times were changing.

We talked about it in a quiet moment, this time at a bar called the Redwood, when it was late and there was no one left but us, and nothing to offer but truth.

He wanted to go home again and I talked him out of it, because this was the top, this was why we had written all those words a lifetime ago, to be here, where the muscle and the money were.

Belch was never convinced, but he began dealing with misery in his own way. He quit drinking and quit smoking and started seeing a shrink. It helped at first, but then his emotional problems deepened and after awhile he was taking mood-lifting drugs.

We talked about that too, and he told me once they'd given him the wrong prescription and he began hallucinating that he was seeing Ed McMahon in his living room.

It saddened him, I think, not so much that he hallucinated, but Ed McMahon? He would have preferred Ella Fitzgerald. Belcher loved jazz.

Later, McMahon led a St. Patrick's Day parade in Beverly Hills and I messaged Belch that I had finally seen him in person too. Jer flashed back a memo, "Are you sure? "

When they told Belcher he was dying I took him to the Wellness Community in Santa Monica, where cancer patients draw on each other for the strength and style to face the uncertainties ahead, and I think it helped him.

I was with him often in the two months that followed. We talked about the people we'd known and the stories we'd written and the deadlines we'd beaten. We talked about the weather in San Francisco, and he looked at me and said quietly, "I wish it would rain."

On the day he died, his wife said, "I never saw anyone fight so hard to live. He said to me when he found out about the cancer, 'I don't want to die a wimp.' By God, Al, he was never a wimp."

I'll miss Belcher more than I have ever missed anyone, but the truths we discovered together are still stronger than tears. I'll just say goodby, Jer.

And save me a place at the bar.

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