In the couple years surrounding our last year of high-school all we did was drive around town every night, getting stoned and talking and finding (usually) innocuous ways of getting into trouble. Since the “getting stoned” part was de rigeur, we wound up frequenting, on a more or less rotating basis, a handful of households that usually had some stash lying around. John and Suzy Joyce*, along with their three young kids, made up not just one of the most welcoming of these households, but easily the most comfortable one. They owned a house in Houston’s Montrose District, a rambling two-story affair that reeked of comfort and roots, and we wound up there at least once a week. It was my sister, Polly, who introduced me to the Joyces (God knows where she met them), but since she was a couple years older than I was chronologically (and a lifetime older than me in terms of maturity) she ran with her own crowd of friends. (There was a period of time where Polly and I ran into each other more at the Joyces’ than we did in our own home.) But usually it was me and Glenn and Dennis, or some subset thereof, who’d show up unannounced on their doorstep. John and Suzy were in their mid to late 30s, almost a generation away from us, but their open-door policy dictated taking in everyone, both the river of friends that flowed through the place as well as these scrounging little long-haired rats who came to scarf down the remnants of that night’s pot of chili and then get high on their pot or hash and zombie out on the livingroom floor while the stereo blared away. Suzy had a frizzed-out mop of hair that tentacled out in every direction, and tended to wear tent-like dresses stamped with African prints that pooled out around her legs when she put her feet up on the couch, while John (who supported the family by working as an architect) looked like George Carlin in his glory days, only with a slow, considered, ruminative way of talking—a trait I initially took as a sign of maturity and wisdom.
The kids were young enough that they were always in bed by 9 or 10, leaving us free to stay up all hours of the night, listening to music and talking, talking, talking. In the early years a lot of it was about the war and Nixon, but in time the conversation revolved more and more around books and movies. John and Suzy could talk about that shit, too, though Suzy was the more knowing and curious one of the two: when Glenn and I came in raving one night about some movie we’d just seen called McCabe & Mrs. Miller, she got up without a word and put on The Songs of Leonard Cohen while we sat there with our mouths open. In high school my bond with Glenn was galvanized by “Howl,” Desolation Angels, and some of the other Beat tracts, but eventually we fell under the baleful influence of the Modernists—a development that doubtless elevated the level of our conversation, but which also hardened us, and made us haughty and impatient with lesser work. Sometimes we were making a legitimate point, but more often we were just being a pain in the ass. The only thing is that the air was full of “lesser work” at the time. It was the age of The Eagles and of the disaster-movie cycle and of Jonathan Livingston Seagull; the cultural landscape was so overloaded with crap it was possible to overlook the fact that American cinema was enjoying a renaissance.
All of this only served to irritate us that much more. I don’t even remember what movie it was now, but one night John Joyce offered up the earth-shaking opinion that such-and-such a film may not have constituted a crime against humanity, and Glenn and I went to work on him. What-about-this, and What-about-that, we kept asking him, growing a little more unsparing with the adjectives we were throwing out with every swing of our whipsaw. We thought we were just having another conversation, so we were surprised when Suzy suddenly got up, crying, and ran out of the room. Somehow that night ended with Glenn and me sitting up with her in the kitchen while she explained to us, decidedly not in so many words, that John, lovely man that he was, just wasn’t very bright. “He tries so hard,” Suzy said, and I think now she was asking us not to lean on him like that again. What it all meant was that John’s deliberate way of talking wasn’t wisdom at all—it was just simple insecurity about saying the wrong damn thing. Listening to Suzy I had the same feeling you get the first time you see your parents fail at something and you realize they’re just doofuses, too, a comparison all the more fitting because it was the first chink of any kind I’d ever seen in the armor of their marriage.
A little time passed, both Glenn and Dennis moved away, I got a girlfriend and a life of my own, and I didn’t see the Joyces anymore. Then came the news from Polly that Suzy and John had separated and were getting divorced—an idea that would’ve upended the world had it come a couple years earlier—and that John was drinking too much. Suzy kept the Montrose house for a couple more years before moving her brood to Colorado, where Polly, in her peripatetic journeys around the Southwest, would often see her.
Finally one night around ’78 or so, I ran into John in Cactus Records. He looked like he was 65 and he was completely shit-faced, stumbling around the aisles and hanging onto the bins to stay upright. I wasn’t in a good place either then—a horrible breakup had left me a dilapidated, weak-willed mess—so I took John up on his offer to have a drink at his house. His “house,” I call it—actually it was a dingy one-bedroom apartment, nearly bereft of furniture and a long ways down from the warm paisleys and throw-pillows of his old home. We sat at a bare kitchen table, and he kept pouring so I kept drinking, especially since he was eager to have someone else who’d recently been dumped beside him. He launched into a couple anti-Suzy tirades that he almost immediately took back, but then out of the blue he remembered that night and he turned his guns on me. Whatever sketchy camaraderie we’d developed in the previous hour evaporated as he started telling me what superior sniveling snots Glenn and I had been, and on he went until he was blaming the breakup of his marriage on a couple of pretentious twenty-somethings. I sat and listened to it for a while before I finally bailed, and when he called stone-cold sober a week later to see if I wanted to get together for a drink, I begged off. I never saw him again.
Or Suzy either, for that matter, though Polly’s relayed the news about her over the years. Those kids we used to shoo upstairs are pushing 40 now, and Suzy somehow landed on a ranch of her own, and nobody knew for sure where John was. Then, on this last Wednesday, Polly emailed me to say that Suzy had gotten intestinal cancer that jumped down her hip bone and into her leg, before killing her a couple of weeks ago. The news hit with only a distant thud, but I didn’t have to think very hard before I remembered all those good nights we had, along with those couple of bad ones. Any lessons I might’ve learned from knowing the Joyces I either learned or didn’t learn 30 years ago, and there’s nothing else to say about it now except thanks for the weed and the chili, Suzy. For the most part I had a really good time.
* – an alias