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LIFE OF THE PARTY

AT THIS NORTHWEST DENVER WAKE, A GOOD TIME WAS HAD BY ALL--EVEN THE GUEST OF HONOR.

If I had it to do over again, I would use dry ice," Shaun Gothwaite says. "Louie began to turn a little purple without it."

Other than that, it was the perfect wake.
No one who knew Louie Aran could imagine him filled with embalming fluid or laid out among waxy flowers in a funeral home. So they had an enormous party the day after he died of a heart attack, at home, at age fifty. Louie's wife, Shaun, stayed home to direct the revel, which stretched on into the week. Louie himself was in attendance, dead, on the sofa. Inside the house at 37th Avenue and Perry Street, at least a hundred people joined hands and walked through the rooms to the strains of live bagpipe music. The temperature outside stuck at zero, and the neighborhood block captain shoveled snow from the sidewalk with such intense concentration that he kept forgetting to blow his runny nose. Out of respect for the dead, and to avoid a traffic jam, no one parked at the karate academy up the street. The party ended and another began.

"There was one for the people who came to see the body and another for the people who got there too late, and the food and the booze and the flowers, ooooh, there were so many," Gothwaite says, brimming with details and tears. She paces around her living room, smoking. She has lost ten pounds since Louie died last week. He hasn't been dead long enough for the tense change to take effect--she says "he loves" when she means "he loved." But being a "weeping widow," as she likes to call herself, she can get away with it. Often, when she thinks she's talking, she's shouting.

The phone rings every five minutes. People from the Common Grounds coffeehouse, where Shaun hangs out; the Zip 37 gallery, where she shows her photographs; her massage-therapy clients; Louie's chemistry students from Metro State; his hippie friends from Texas; his comrades in arms from the Aurora Gun Club. Shaun lets it ring and works on her lists instead. One reads:

Get new fire extinguisher
Get chimney swept
Check refrigerator

"The water pipe broke behind the washing machine," she recites. "The light switch in the bathroom doesn't work. The toilet wouldn't stop running."

The windows are wide open. The view is of large wood stumps, ready to be cut for the house's wood stove. "Oh, God," Shaun says, "I should learn to cut wood." A gust of wind blows off the coffee table a shred of paper on which Shaun has written "Louie, 50, chemist/cowboy."

"And what am I going to do about the obituary? I don't want it to be like the ones in the papers. `So-and-so was a housewife. She was a member of the Eastern Star and a homemaker. She is survived by four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.' Please. What am I going to write? Where it all starts...You know where it all starts? When we met."

Shaun met Louie in 1987 when she agreed to deliver a book to him at the Metro State chemistry lab. He was, she remembers, "an older guy, a little guy. He didn't say much." But suddenly Shaun liked everything about the chemistry department--even its smell. She learned that Louie had been born in Spanish Harlem in 1945 but had always been enamored of cowboys and Indians and had moved to Texas in his late teens. Following a brief stint with a group of San Antonio radicals know as the "hippanos," Louie came to Denver to work for the U.S. Geological Survey, got his master's degree in chemistry and went to work for Metro State College as the chemistry-lab coordinator. He believed not just in astrology but in black-powder rifles. Shaun liked the contradictions. She liked to be around Louie, she says, because he was "content--he had the most amazing ability to do nothing. He called it Louie-ism. `Do nothing,' he would say. `There is nothing to do.'"

Married in 1989, Shaun and Louie settled in the northwest Denver house Louie had bought for cash in the early Seventies and remodeled until it looked like a cross between a New Mexico shaman's cottage and Grizzly Adams's place. To this ambience Shaun added shrines made of dead flowers and found objects. (Her most recent, in honor of Louie, contains two packages of Marlboro Lights, a vial of his ashes and his Aurora Gun Club membership card, among other things.) Their circle of friends, in the neighborhood and elsewhere, was huge. The marriage survived several hospitalizations--Louie had developed a bacterial heart infection--infidelity, and the usual lesser skirmishes.

"We were exact opposites," Shaun recalls. "We were two rocks in the tumbler, and the lock represented the marriage and the freedom to tumble and smash and maybe polish against each other. I stayed with him because I was so sure it wasn't finished between us. There was something between us like an umbilical cord."

On the night of January 26, in fact, Shaun and Louie discussed their marriage while walking their dogs. The talk ended peacefully. Shaun went to bed, but Louie stayed up--he planned to sharpen knives and then make bullets for the next day's shooting. He had his fatal heart attack within the hour.

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