May 21st, 2017
“Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that’s what.” – Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses
Karin and I left Hans’ travel trailer one fine morning and we drove to College Station. College Station is the home of Texas A&M. The university is like the sun; everything in the city revolves around it. A person either works for A&M, or they work for somebody else who works for Texas A&M.
We went for coffee at Sweet Eugene’s. Sweet Eugene’s is a café near the university. It has an artsy feel to it. It’s always had that, ever since it opened in 1993. The café has little niches and side rooms with sofas and comfy chairs. Some of the décor is silly, as if the coffee shop has a sense of humor and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s a place that attracts young people, and it provides an antidote to the relentlessly conservative energy of the university. The place tries to be hip and trendy in a way that Texas A&M is totally not.
Karin and I have a history at Sweet Eugene’s. Actually, we have a long history at College Station, a history that goes back to 1989 or so. Karin and I have had coffee at Sweet Eugene’s more times than we can remember. We used to sit together with family and friends, but this time we shared our table with ghosts.
Our ghosts were polite and unobtrusive. They didn’t try to sip Karin’s cappuccino or nibble on my bagel. They just sat nearby, silent, but unmistakably there. Karin and I talked about them, as they hovered close to us. People from our past who still make an impact upon our present. People like Marc Blaze, Tom, Bob, Delphia, and Shawn’s brother, Mark.
I got up from our table to get a refill on my coffee. There was a young man behind the counter. He wore a baseball cap and t-shirt that showed the Seattle skyline on it.
I asked him, “Have you been to Seattle?”
The young guy worked on my refill and said, “No. A friend went there, and he brought this back for me.”
As he brought me my cup, I noticed an absurdly large class ring on his hand.
I asked, ”Aggie?”
He smiled and replied, “Yeah, I graduated from there last year.”
I thought to myself, “And you’re working here as a barista? Ow.”
Instead of that, I said to him, “I was just noticing the class ring.”
“Oh yeah. The rings are a big deal at A&M.”
I told him, “I went to West Point. Class rings were a big deal there too.”
He replied, “A&M does a lot of things that they do there.”
“I always thought A&M was a southern-fried West Point.”
The guy looked at me for moment. Then he said, “Yeah, that sounds about right”, and he returned to his work.
My younger brother, Marc Blaze, went to Texas A&M. During his freshman year, he was part of the school’s Corps of Cadets. He was as gung ho as anybody could possibly be. He got to be the guide on bearer, which was a major deal in that organization. Marc was an over-achiever with a severe case of OCD. The guy was ruthlessly competitive. He had to be number one, all the time.
Then he met Shawn, his future wife. This rigid, driven, military man fell in love with a punk/hippie hybrid who had an affinity for black berets and Chinese slippers. The agnostic, free-spirited girl fell for the hardcore Catholic cadet. Marc quit school and got a job in town. The two of them married in 1990. They had two daughters, Maire and Roise. Karin and I, along with our kids, drove down nearly every year to Texas to visit Marc and Shawn. We often took Hans, Hannah, and Stefan to meet up with Shawn and Marc at Sweet Eugene’s.
Marc Blaze died in February of 1998. It was a fatal car accident. The crash that tore out his seatbelt also tore the heart out of his family. Now, almost twenty years later, his wife and daughters still wrestle with the effects of that crash. The sound of Marc’s voice echoed in my mind as I sat with Karin at Sweet Eugene’s. I could hear him that morning. I can hear him now.
Marc started a chain of events continues to this day. When Hans got to be a teenager, he spent nearly every summer with Shawn in Texas. Hans eventually found his home there because Marc had found a home there. Marc was Stefan’s godfather. Stefan spent almost two years in College Station, working with people who remembered his uncle. Hannah made connections with her cousin, Maire. Over the years, the web between our families grew more intimate and more tangled. Visits to Sweet Eugene’s were usually part of the process.
Marc Blaze was the first one to leave. In recent years others have followed. Shawn’s mother, Delphia, died from dementia. Shawn’s second husband, Bob, was stricken with cancer. Hans was living with Shawn’s step-father, Tom, when Tom died in a house fire. Shawn’s brother, Mark, killed himself. Karin and I knew all of these people. They were all parts of a family mosaic. They were integral to our lives. They are gone.
Karin and I finished our conversation. We finished our coffee and our bagels. Marc smiled at me. Tom did too, as he held up his hand like he was still smoking a cigarette. Delphia gave me a funny look, as if she was still wondering if I was just some damn Yankee. Bob grinned, amused by the practical joke we call life. Mark, I don’t how he looked. Remorseful? Relieved? Finally at peace? Maybe all of those things.
Karin and I left the café. The ghosts followed us out.