Copyright 2008 Ben S. Pollock
Over the decade (since February 1998) that we’ve lived in Northwest Arkansas, Ginny and Nick Masullo have thrown the most fantastic and memorable, surreal and comforting parties. Some involved costumes, a number had modest bonfires, and all had warmth, lots of food and a truly wide assortment of guests. The one Monday night, the 8th, was no exception. That it was Nick’s funeral almost was beside the point.
Multiple sclerosis isn’t contagious, but Nick’s joy, humor and zest continued to be infectious throughout his house and yard. In the drizzly darkness, we had light.
Robert, MC’ing at the start, claimed Nick choreographed his memorial in detail. The crowd of 60–70 laughed. Nick’s illness began slowing him down about six years ago. All circles of friends had been wishing this week wouldn’t come. Yet we laughed a lot Monday night.
The community loved him. His friends loved him. I loved him. Was I a friend? When the call went out about five years ago for friends to be volunteer caregivers, I held back. My reasons made sense then and since. Yet
Nick and I were not best friends nor in the next circle or two of closeness. Compared to most of Monday’s tribe, My Beloved and I are newcomers to the Fayetteville artistic community. That we were welcomed as deeply and quickly as we were remains a big reason why we’ve stayed here, even through job losses and stuff.
M.B. and I were more friendly with Nick’s wife. Ginny is a poet and for several years wrote the poetry column in the Northwest Arkansas Times. The Masullos’ “couple” friends were long-established. On his own, Nick hung out with songwriters and other musicians, Kelly and Donna, Emily, Keith. Nick was a folkie, a gifted, witty, not-quite-sentimental-at-the-end lyricist. Composed with a guitar. Nick also wrote poems and performed them comically and with great stage timing, even when short of breath. In the last year he turned columnist as well, for the Fayetteville Free Weekly. At that point he composed in his head, memorized those sentences then waited until one particular caregiver came to take his dictation.
On these, Nick and I could talk, He was brought to parties, readings and other performances. He lived for these, building up energy to get there, staying a good hour and putting on a hearty front. Nick attracted a crowd each time. Friends — in my circle or further out, who weren’t coming to the house on that weekly schedule — mobbed his wheelchair. Thus at each Nick and I had just a few moments. The conversation was efficient yet sincere. I’d leave him with a kiss on his forehead. Is it cold or is it right to say that was enough?
From the announcement to the tribe of Nick’s diagnosis in about 2002, it felt ghoulish of me to turn suddenly into the friends we likely wouldn’t be if Nick stayed healthy. I’m not one of those people who glom on to others in dire circumstances, sort of a cross-double-reverse Munchausen.
It was right, going by the example of what went on before. Ginny and I had the Ozark Poets and Writers Collective, with her the administrator and me the Web master for its site, both on its board.
This is an appraisal. It’s what was. It could be just right, or else it could be that I’m a selfish scoundrel. I’ll think about it some more. I thought about it more Monday night in their yard.
The Rupple Road house is small and decades old, sitting on a good acre. The road is just months away from becoming a four-laner. Even in this skittish economy, subdivisions within a couple of years will surround the cottage. But there’s enough woods and pasture still to feel like the country.
We’ve gossiped around bonfires and sung with flashlights in this yard. The other night a card table held several pictures of Nick and a couple dozen votive candles. A half-dozen yard torches on posts were staked among the six dozen folding metal, wood, plastic, webbed and dining-set chairs as well as a hammock and army cot.
A light mist fell every so often. String instruments not played at the moment sat on their stands, covered in a blanket. A garage lantern — the electrical aluminum kind with a hook — served as floodlight for the grass-covered stage, hanging on a tree branch. Kelly and Donna sang a couple of Nick’s songs. Ginny cried as she spoke, with intimacy, admiration and humor. Everyone could relate funny stories. One son made it though what he had to say, between sobs. The other related a riotous and surreal tale of Nick’s failed attempt to rescue a lost chick and duckling — over there, he pointed, past the clothesline. One sister cried more than spoke and the other the reverse. Both women, with mandolin accompaniment, sang the Lennon-McCartney “In My Life.” Steve and Ralph performed once again as the tribe’s designated storytellers, with Borscht Belt punch lines. They were the only two who did not bring notes up with them.
When people quit rising to offer words, song sheets were handed out: “Amazing Grace,” “I’ll Fly Away” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” All who earlier had played got their instruments and the rest of us had the words. There was no note of religion previously, and despite being gospel standards this was not a Christian element. I believed the songs were chosen because they’re also folk standards and that those of us who are Muslim and Jewish would know these songs too. M.B. says I overthought this, that these are just classics Nick loved.
Between the instrument stands, picture table and music table an old iron floor lamp with cloth shade stood on its five-foot stand. It worked as the spotlight. It gave all of us who brought scripts (I read an Auden poem) just enough light, but also set mood.
The pole lamp was a Brautigan touch, bringing the indoors out. It was the lamp to stand by the armchair or the wheelchair, holding Nick and a good book or Nick and an acoustic guitar or Nick and blank paper. Nick