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
"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.
"Ooooh, and his father died of a heart attack in that same room, in 1978--whaddaya think of that?" Shaun asks, scrabbling through her lists in search of cigarettes. "I seem to be smoking a lot. That's okay. Anyway, I came downstairs Saturday morning and saw him lying there, smiling, with one eye open, and the dogs were lying next to him. Ooooh. And my mouth went dry. I was scared. I knew he was dead, but I called 911 and screamed into the phone, and they said, `Ma'am, ma'am, stay on the line,' but I screamed, `Fuck you!' and I hung up and called a friend."
By then, she could hear sirens. In minutes, paramedics were trying to revive Louie while Shaun stepped around them, trying to keep busy by making coffee for District One's Officer Marc Chavez, who told her it was good and strong and came back two hours later with candles from the local botanica.
"I filled out the piece of paper they gave me, and they told me Louie was dead, and I told them to leave the body with me, and they left," Shaun continues. At that point, she remembered what Louie wanted done with his remains: "He didn't want to be filled with fluids. He wanted to do the death thing right. He said, have a big party. Do what you have to do."
So Shaun moved Louie onto the living-room sofa, covered him with a blanket and put Chap Stick on his lips, which were starting to look dry. Then she got out the phone and the Wild Turkey, and the mourners began to arrive.
"I started drinking, and I'm glad," she says, "because it helps. I was sad, glad, dancing, playing music, sobbing. The flowers started to come, and I love flowers. Between three and four hundred people came in and out of here."
Louie ended up hanging out with his friends for nearly 36 hours, despite the county coroner's semi-official position that "you don't want a dead body lying around, and 24 hours would be pushing it." Late Sunday afternoon, Louie was removed to the Horan & McConaty mortuary a few blocks away.
"I picked up what they call his `cremains' that Saturday--just in time," she recalls, "because I had to shoot some of him out of his gun on Sunday." The Aurora Gun Club turned out in force to help Shaun load some of Louie into his favorite rifle. "The club," she says, "dedicated the whole shoot to Louie."
Then she went home and made more lists. "On Monday I was alone for the first time," she recalls. On Tuesday she filled several vials with Louie's ashes to give to his friends. On Wednesday she began making arrangements to scatter another handful of Louie over the mountains north of Black Hawk. "And I think I will sprinkle him in my garden this spring," she decides, "and a lot of our friends want him in their gardens, too. It's illegal, I hear, but whoever says so can kiss my ass."
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The rest of Louie will stay in a small pine box in the living room, five feet from the new fire extinguisher and one wall away from the rapidly depleting woodpile.
"I have to maintain the place," Shaun says. "I have to learn how Louie did it. And then there's this obituary. I mean, what about it? Could this just be it?"