This is screwy. This is nuts. This has to be some kind of pathetic, sick joke!" Maynard Sudbury unexpectedly blurted out.
Timothy Callahan and I stared at Maynard as he stared down with a look of shocked bewilderment at one particular panel in the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
"Jim Suter is not dead," Maynard said, gawking. "I don't think he's even sick. I saw him in Mexico not more than two weeks ago."
Maynard brushed away the shock of sandy-colored hair that had flopped across his ever-youthful Midwestern farmboy's face. It seemed as if he needed the clearest vision possible in order to take in and try to comprehend this shocking sight.
Just a few cottony clouds were strung out across a pale sky, and the sun was surprisingly warm for D.C. in October. At midday the Washington Monument cast a short shadow, none of it touching any of the forty thousand—plus panels of the Names Project quilt. The tens of thousands of visitors to the Columbus Day-weekend quilt display were silent or spoke to one another in low voices as loudspeakers broadcast a solemn recitation by grieving survivors of the names of the AIDS dead. Every two or three minutes a jet en route to National Airport screeched down an electronic flight path above the nearby Potomac, but no one seemed to mind the noise. Most of the people were too absorbed in remembering—lovers, pals, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, parents—or too caught up in one or another of the life stories, depicted or sketched, of people cut down by the plague.
A tanned, middle-aged woman with a bandage across the bridge of her nose and two younger women who bore what looked like a family resemblance to each other and to the older woman turned and peered at Maynard. They saw a short, raus-cularly lean, fifty-year-old man with a thick head of unruly hair, an open, expressive face, and intense brown eyes that were now full of angry perplexity.
Again, Maynard said disgustedly, "This is just so screwy. I can't figure out what the heck this panel could possibly be doing here."
Timmy and I, along with the three nearby women, looked down at the panel and then back at Maynard, whose outburst was not just out of sync with the sweet melancholy of the occasion but out of character for Maynard, one of the most subdued and even-tempered men I had ever known. Timmy had been Maynard's friend since their Peace Corps days in India in the late sixties, and, during our twenty years together, Timmy had often spoken, when Peace Corps stories were told, of Maynard's famous sangfroid.
Maynard Sudbury was a man who had once talked a small mob, one man at a time, out of beating an Andhra Pradesh taxi driver to death after the driver had struck and badly injured a cow. Maynard had accomplished this feat while employing no fewer than three languages: English, Hindi, and Telugu. The regional Peace Corps director had later admonished Maynard, telling him he had been lucky the mob hadn't left him broken and bloody as well—or, if the mob hadn't, then the police.
Maynard, Timmy said, had displayed the same equanimity with the Peace Corps staff man that he had with the street mob. He explained that it was not his rationality that had saved the driver, and certainly not his Peace Corps training, but that it had been his naivete. He had been living in rural India only a few weeks when the incident took place, he said, and—having spent his entire life up until then in small-town Southern Illinois—he had acted on impulse, and at the moment of Maynard's intervention the villagers had looked upon him as some kind of holy fool, and they let the driver go. Later, Maynard once told me, some of the same people came to regard him as an unholy fool, but that was another story.
"Maybe," Timmy said to Maynard tentatively, "this panel is for another Jim Suter, not the one you know. Who is Jim Suter, anyway?"
As the quiet throngs continued to circulate among the maze of quilt sections, the three nearby women stood and watched us, and a burly young man in a University of Tennessee T-shirt, who had paused by the Suter panel, seemed also to be interested in our small drama.
"Suter's a Washington freelance writer and conservative political operative," Maynard said. "Jim and I had a brief, torrid romance about fifteen years ago that didn't last. Jim was in his mid-twenties at the time and still in his caveman mode of spreading his sperm around. I was old enough by then to want to start nest-building, and anyway, we had some serious political differences. It was a real Carville-Matalin match, except there was no way this one was ever going to last."
The three women next to us walked on now, quietly murmuring to one another, and they were replaced by a young, whiffle-haired, apparently lesbian couple in huge farm overalls and with rings in their noses. The beefy Tennessean stayed on and gazed down at the Jim Suter quilt panel along with Maynard, Timmy, and me.
I said, "It does look, Maynard, as if this Jim Suter was a writer—like the one you knew."
"And those look like his dates?" Timmy said. "Or date?"
"I think they are," Maynard said. "The birth date anyway."
The standard coffin-shaped, four-by-six-foot cloth panel with Jim Suter's name and the dates "1956-1996" on it was a plain black fabric with white Gothic lettering. Unlike so many of the colorful and even affectionately whimsical quilt panels spreading for acres around us, Suter's panel was stark and funereal except for a sketch of a typewriter, encased in clear plastic and sewn on, with typed pages streaming out of the typewriter and up toward Suter's name and dates.
Timmy got down on his hands and knees for a closer inspection and reported up to us, "These look like manuscript pages, but I don't recognize what they're from. What kind of writer was Jim Suter?
Maynard got down beside Timmy—we were all wearing khakis and light sport shirts—and I joined them as they examined the manuscript pages stitched to the panel and appearing to fly out of the picture of a typewriter. At the top of each page was the slug "Suter/Krumfutz" and a page number.
"This looks like Jim's campaign bio of Betty Krumfutz," Maynard said. "Jeez, what a cruel thing to do to a writer. We've all written things for money that we'd rather forget about. But congressional campaign biographies commissioned by a candidate represent about as low a form of literary endeavor as exists in the English-speaking world. Dead or alive, I don't think Jim ever did anything bad enough to deserve to be remembered this way. Although I know from experience that Jim was what I would call ethically challenged in some areas of life, and I know there are people around Washington, mostly gay men, whose opinion of Jim is rather low, mainly for personal reasons."
Maynard sprang back upright, and Timmy and I climbed back to our feet with more effort. He was the fittest of the three of us, although Maynard had joked the night before, when he met our train from Albany, that he maintained his youthful, lean physique with the aid of the intestinal parasites he picked up while writing the sixteen travel pieces that had been collected in