FEBRUARY 6, 2015
I heard that my high school friend, Bob Kurtovich, died the other day.
I’d been preparing myself for his death, but the news still hit hard. Mark Arax, whose late father, Ara, was another buddy of Bob’s, called to tell me. I turned to the obituary page, and there was Bob’s picture, a man in old age, at the bottom. In keeping with Bob’s wishes, the obit read, there’d be no public funeral, no memorial service.
Last June, Mark drove me to a local care home for Alzheimer’s patients to see Bobby, as I called him, as everyone called him, in the time and the place of our youth. He had recently returned to Fresno, a town where he’d once been the shining prince, because his failing memory demanded that he be near family. Now he was living in a facility on the north end of town, a community setting, with so many others suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s.
Mark and I walked in, a little tentative, and a nurse pointed us in the direction of Bob’s room. Down one hall and another, each patient’s living quarters had been decorated with a framed memorial next to the front door of their rooms. It was an introductory tableau that captured their lives, tombstone-like, as if their lives had been done living. Inside Bob’s framed display was his high school graduation photo and a one-page statement declaring that Bob Kurtovich had once been a teacher of English. The tableau didn’t begin to speak to who he was. How could it?
Mark gently rapped a knuckle against the door, and we waited. When a second knock brought no response, Mark suggested I wait in the hall until he could locate Bob.
With the hall empty of anyone, I backed up to a wall and allowed my knees to buckle a bit to ease my tension. I’d seen Bob many times since that high school photo, most of the occasions spaced close enough that I’d not noticed the changes time had put to our faces and frames. Would Bob even know who I was? Would I recognize him? Of course, I assured myself. How could I possibly forget?
Bob Kurtovich came to Fresno High as an outsider in 1948, a time ripe for teen heroes to replace those who’d won the war of our childhoods. Unlike most of us northenders, he and other students from Washington Junior High would be invading us rather than enrolling in their own Fresno Tech, which had now closed. So here came the kids from across town, young Mr. Kurtovich ending every step onto our campus by pushing up and off the toes of his polished loafers. It was a walk I’d never seen before.
Khakis instead of Levi’s, rolled up to show white gym socks. White dress shirt in place of plaid flannel, cuffs turned up one time. What was it with this darkly handsome, 6-foot freshman? A few days into the semester, and already Kurtovich, along with Don Davis and Dick Keyoshyan, who’d made the trip with him, were the solution to the school’s basketball nightmares. We might even beat my uncle Elam Hill’s Edison High School team.
Now, Mark appeared in the hall beside me.
“Bob’s having lunch,” he said. “We can go talk to him in the cafeteria.”
And there sat Bobby, the boy I’d spent hundreds of hours with playing basketball at the Young Men’s Christian Association, the patch of hardwood downtown on M street. The lockers there were homes to many of us. There, we began to lose our boyhoods, those tender nights when we left our games to stroll together along the avenues, all of us a mix of breeds, all of us innocent, all of us wanting to belong to a place before moving on.
Bob, the aged gentleman, sat as if expecting us. He wore a spotless robe. His face bore a resemblance to the man I once knew, pale, but there were those brows, silver now. His eyes, too, had taken on a glaze where once they were such an endless brown. It was his voice that brought him back to me, the way it hinted of something joyful the instant it began.
“My heart,” is what he first said as he patted his chest with a palm and then turned it up in a gesture of giving.
He talked about the food served in the cafeteria, endless trays of it, and the desserts that had no limit.
“I’m eating good,” he said.
We shared what came easy to mind and dodged the dark stuff — things Bob could write himself and might have, for I believe he had the soul of a writer. The thing was, he knew that his memory was playing tricks on him, and there was nothing, not one thing, he could do about it. So like so much else, good and bad, that had happened in his life, he just ran with it.
“The past,” he said to Mark and me, without pity, “comes like a blast and then flings away.”
I’m sure I will always recall the empty plate before him, his empty glass, the wheelchair there next to him, and that damned tube apparatus mostly out of sight near his legs under the table. What I do know for sure now is that we students in the class of 1950 could never find him in full, never really could. Golden boys never tell what turned them gold for us. We didn’t know their lives were really like ours. Full of holes.
When Bob and I said goodbye, I saw in his eyes a certain calm, a kind of grace he’d always owned. As we parted, he didn’t complain about what lay ahead. Come to think about it, I’d never once heard him complain about anything.