I DUSTED IT yesterday. Al Kinnison’s hat. It’s been hanging on the wall here about nine years, since just before he died in 2005.
Long before the cancer appeared, I often told Al that I wanted him to leave the hat to me in his will. I was joking, but I did covet it. Since he was almost old enough to be my father, I figured he would go first, and he surely did.
I had no idea the hat was too small for my head, so it’s been a wall decoration on the downstairs terraza all this time.
The hat had been a gift to Al around 1940 when he was 14, and he kept it — and wore it — all his life. Al was an Arizona cowboy in spirit, bred and born, and a mining engineer by trade. He did other things in his 79 years, but mostly he was an old mining engineer/cowboy.
I met him here not long after I moved to this mountaintop. Al arrived before me but not by much, a year or two. He and his wife Jean, a very crusty woman who often had a snoot full, had bought an old Colonial directly downtown, and they renovated it.
After we built our Hacienda, Al gave us a housewarming gift, a string of raw garlic to hang over the front door for buena suerte, good luck. It dangles there to this day — and we’ve had no bad luck whatsoever.
Al was a wonderful guy, a brilliant fellow. He would help you with absolutely anything you asked. He and Jean would often lasso tourists into their home for chitchat and coffee. And Al was a libertarian’s libertarian, about as anti-government as it’s possible to be.
He was complex, as are most brilliant people. Though warm as 9 o’clock coffee, he angered easily, but he got angry only at things that had it coming. Stupidity sat badly with him — and street musicians. Stupidity is worldwide, and street musicians are all over Mexico.
Jean died first, about two years before Al. She felt real bad one day, and Al took her to a clinic a block away. As she lay on the cot, a look of shock and surprise suddenly spread across her face, and that was it. Al told me this the next day. I had gone to his house and found him alone shuffling through paperwork, distracting himself. In that situation, I likely would be doing the same. Al loved Jean.
As we sat there in the dimly lit kitchen, he stood up and starting walking in circles, trying not to cry. I really miss her, he said. I felt badly for him. A short while later, I left him there with his paperwork and his sadness.
The cough started about a year later. Al wouldn’t mess with chemo, of course. He decided to let things happen naturally. I visited now and then. A sister came down from California, the best-looking 70-plus-year-old woman I had seen in all my life, to lend a hand. She was divorced from one of the lesser Beat Poets in San Francisco. I forget which one. She was exceptionally nice.
Al had told me about his plan right after the cough started. He had a stash of cyanide that he’d owned for years, something he’d obtained back during his days as a mining engineer. That was to be his end game.
He went gradually downhill. He never seemed to be in pain, which surprised me. He only grew weaker and weaker. I visited him at his home on his final evening. I did not know till the next day that it was his final evening. But it was. He could hardly stand up.
Another friend who had stayed the night told me that Al was found later lying peacefully in bed. He had taken that strong medicine he’d been saving for decades, and it pushed him over the brink. I miss him still. He was a stupendous guy.
And I have his hat.