It was a gray, damp morning at a pancake house overlooking a trash lined canal when I first read the news. The previous day had been Queen’s Day in Amsterdam, a giant city wide outdoor party to celebrate the Queen’s birthday, and the cobblestones were littered with beer cans and food wrappers. It was easy to see how the city might be beautiful, might twinkle and shine as the waters of the Amstel River rolled passed its gables and under its bridges but, even had the sky had not been clogged with rainclouds, the smell of stale beer and the rancid flowers of aluminum and paper blooming in the streets put to rest any concept of “quaint” or “charming.”
I was on my way to India, taking advantage of the flight’s path to eke a couple of days out in cities I had never visited. My phone didn’t work in Europe and I had struggled to find a Wi-Fi signal to check my email. As I sat hunched over a massive pancake watching flyers and banners and bottles drift by below me, I found a weak signal and connected.
And there it was, waiting, hiding in the lines of code that made up an unrelated email message. Just a singular mention, a phrase that meant nothing when I first read it.
“Michael Calvillo has passed.”
I read that wrong. Something else had occurred, maybe he fell and had to be rushed to the hospital, maybe he… he…
“Michael Calvillo has passed.”
It’s a joke, a sick cruel joke played out in a community known for conjuring the sick and the cruel in their fiction.
And yet a trip to Facebook confirmed it. Michael Calvillo had passed.
I first met Michael at a signing at Dark Delicacies in Burbank. It was a massive thing preceding the Bram Stoker Awards that year, a dozen authors crammed into the building signing their books as a huge crowd chattered away around them. Though social skills are usually listed by friends and coworkers as a strength of mine, I’m more awkward in public than anything. Especially in situations like this, where I’m surrounded by people I admire or would like to connect with. I may be all smiles but my mouth is dry and my palms are sweaty and I’m always a sentence away from saying something asinine.
And then there was this guy… Young guy. Little black beard. Black shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He was signing a book with a severed head trussed up like a holiday pig on the cover. AS FATE WOULD HAVE IT.
As awkward as I felt, when I spoke to Michael, things eased. He had that effect. He was genuine, the smile on his face a real one, his questions about me and my writing genuine and sincere. Nice guys like that are rare in an industry built on warring egos and I knew I wanted to stay in touch with him. Everyone that had ever encountered him will say the same thing. Michael infected you. Once you had made contact with him, you couldn’t shake him from your system. People didn’t meet Michael. They caught him.
We exchanged email addresses, I bought a copy of the book, and we agreed, as people often do, to keep in touch.
And yet, unlike most times this hollow exchange is conducted, we did.
# # #
At the end of the sixteenth century, the Calvinists took control in Amsterdam. Catholicism was declared illegal. Any Catholics caught practicing their faith were arrested and all churches were confiscated by the government. Rather than capitulate, Catholics took a page from the Gospels and went underground. Or, in this case, overhead. Hidden churches were built in the attics of some of Amsterdam’s gabled homes, many complete with altars, pews, and even organs.
I had wandered through the streets since reading the news, aimless, dumbstruck, the announcement not quite making sense, not becoming concrete, just staying this horrible idea, when I came across one of these hidden churches. Feet aching, head unsteady, I wanted to sit and be away from the crowds, be alone.
I’m not a particularly religious man. I’ve often described myself as Apatheistic (meaning that I don’t care if there’s a God or not). It’s part joke and part reaction to the constant Facebook bickering between dogmatic self-righteous Christians and dogmatic self-righteous Atheists. But that morning, gray in so many ways, it seemed an appropriate place to be.
I had next met up with Michael and his wife Michelle at the Stoker Award event in Burbank. Michelle was beautiful and funny and what my grandfather would describe as “ornery” and the two of them made one of the best couples I had ever seen. They introduced me to some other friends, including Ben Ethridge, and for the first time I finally felt a little sense of community, that I wasn’t alone in this whole writing thing.
Michael wanted to know more about what I wrote, what I had been working on recently, what my goals were. When he found out I had recently finished a novel, he had to read it. I thought, “sure, yeah, uh-huh” but sent it to him anyway.
He read it and read it quickly. I can barely get people I’ve been friends with for years to slow down long enough to read my work. But Michael did.
That was one of the things about him, a realization that he gave me. Some people in your life are friends of convenience. They’re there because they have similar interests, maybe live close to you, maybe laugh at all of your jokes. But they’re not invested. They don’t want to get inside, not really.
And then there are people like Michael, people who legitimately care about others. Even though we lived a decent drive away from one another and didn’t get together as often as I wish we would have, when I thought of him it was like thinking of a friend from high school, someone I’d known forever and shared the most intimate details of my life with.
Michael could have one conversation with someone and he would carve out a place for them. Michael was a people person in the true sense of the word. People were important to him. Not the bullshit rat race or networking or trying to fit some Hollywood ideal of what it means to be hip and young.
Michael recommended my novel to a publisher and they accepted it. It was later that I found out that Michael had done the same for other writers, that he went out of his way to kick these doors down and yell “This way,” pulling other dreamers along with him like revolutionaries storming the Bastille.
# # #
I took the train to Paris the next day, zipping through the Dutch countryside, the sky refusing to brighten. In Paris I again wandered, this time down wide modern boulevards past Enlightenment era monuments and modern office buildings. It rained, a cool misting rain that peppered my shoulders and dampened my hair and made me feel awestruck and amazed and hollowed out and lonely.
AS FATE WOULD HAVE IT was one of those of books that made you close the cover, sigh, and then fling it across the room, angry that you didn’t write it. If I were to say that Michael’s voice was unique I would be grossly understating the facts. If I said that Michael tried things that other authors wouldn’t dream of, that he pushed boundaries and had the courage to be himself, 110%, with no thought placed on what publishers or agents or other writers would think of him, I would barely be scratching the surface. This voice carried through all of us his work, is even evident in the near-daily posts on his website, the wonderfully named “MLC Must Be Destroyed.”
I never told him this, and I’ll always regret that fact, but he was one of my idols. Even now, writing this, I can’t help the tears in my eyes, blurring the keyboard in front of me, knowing that someone was so inspirational to me in so many ways and that I never let them know. Reading Michael made me want to write, it was that simple.
Often times, when a writer finds an author they enjoy, they subtly (and perhaps subconsciously) mimic that author’s voice or write about the same themes or topics. I call it the Bleeding Effect and it’s something I have to be conscious to avoid. But with Michael, the Bleeding Effect didn’t occur. It couldn’t. For looking at those words on that page, having that voice in your head, that matter-of-fact in your face hip-hop Hemingway grabbing your hand and pulling you, screaming, along the way, you knew that you could never do the same. You could never out-Michael Michael. You could never imagine such original and bizarre scenarios and then, good God, actually follow them to their twisted conclusions.
But the strength of Michael’s conviction, his sheer goddamned I don’t give a fuck determination in what he was doing artistically, made me want to be a better writer, made me strive to find my voice, to find what makes me unique, to take my own ride. He gave me courage.
I wish I had told him that.
# # #
Notre Dame Cathedral was crowded. Tour groups came by the bus load and anyone nearby who didn’t enjoy Paris in the rain wanted to crowd inside its ancient stone.
The church is one of the, if not the, grandest examples of Gothic architecture. The sheer size of it is overwhelming, let alone the beauty and simple elegance of its construction. To think of the faith that the original planners took in breaking ground with the knowledge that they would never see its completion, that their kids and grandkids and great-grandkids would not see the dedication ceremony, is awe inspiring.
I lit a candle for my friend and, for the first time in years, prayed to a God that I’m not sure was listening.
It’s not fair. It’s just not fucking fair that, on a day to day basis, I meet the most miserable, soul-starved, shit sucking excuses for life that have ever crawled out from between someone’s legs, that I work every day with people who only feel fulfilled by causing stress and misery, that I see the depths of human selfishness in Los Angeles and human corruption in India, and that someone like Michael gets snatched away, stolen from a wonderful family that loves him.
I try not to think that way, but it’s difficult. Michael was one of the Good Ones, always there to offer a hand, always quick with a smile and a shoulder to lean on, always caring, never judging.
But if I think of what Michael might have said, if I think of that crooked grin and the way he’d slowly shake his head, I know that I can’t think that way. “That’s life,” I think he would have said. It would have been something that simple and yet, from him, it would have been profound.
We drove down to Lake Elsinore for some of Michael and Michelle’s parties. I have to be completely honest here. They were some of the best damned parties I’d ever been to. Complete and unadulterated fun. I mean, c’mon, Halloween at a horror writer’s pad? It don’t get no better, son.
We’d crash there, Michael and Michelle giving me and my wife (and sometimes random friends we brought with us that they had never met but welcomed with open arms) a place to crash for the night. Being with the two of them felt like you had made lifelong friends. Hell, that wasn’t just what it felt like – it was true, true then and true now. Michael and Michelle will always be in my heart.
I’m infected, you see.
# # #
India is hot and humid and smells of dirt. Construction projects are everywhere, roads being torn up, soil and exhaust filling the air, stray dogs digging through piles of trash in the street while young children play by open sewage lines. But Indians are a kind, friendly, hard working people, bright and joyful and full of life.
The last time I saw Michael, he was just as bright and joyful and full of life and the idea that the cancer would finish him seemed infinitely absurd. We were at KillerCon in Vegas. He had lost weight and walked on crutches but still smiled and laughed and couldn’t sit still. Watching him read a section of his novella 7 BRAINS was like seeing some kind of bizarre melding of Burroughs and Tupac. Michael rapped at his readings, he moved around, he infused the very room with energy as though he had more than his fragile body could hold and had no alternative but to leak it into the air around him.
We saw Penn & Teller with Michael, Michelle, and some friends and then went out for sushi and drinks. We stayed up too late and drank too much, as anyone who spent time with them would do. It was impossible not to get caught up in their mood, not to feel like every moment with them was a celebration of some kind. Maybe it was.
They invited us down for Halloween again that year, but I was leaving the following day for India for the first time and we decided to stay close to home. We went to party filled with pouty Hollywood poseurs and, comparing notes afterward, my wife and a friend who’d had the pleasure of attending one of Michael’s parties all realized we’d had the same thought all night.
“We should have gone to Michael and Michelle’s.”
I wish we had. Vegas was the last time that I saw Michael.
# # #
And so here I am, worlds away, thinking of a man who touched so many people. The Supermoon brightened the night skies and made the news this week but, here in India and across California and for anyone who had ever met him, the world is a left a darker place without Michael Louis Calvillo in it. All we can do is remember him, a gesture that, right now, seems hollow and self-indulgent and self-absorbed and not enough, not nearly enough for someone so vibrant. We can only talk about what his passing does to us, how it leaves us, how it makes us feel. In that, it’s difficult not to feel that you’re speaking more of yourself than of the person who’s gone.
And maybe that’s as it should be. Michael touched us, after all. He gave us this wonderful little gift of having him in our lives, a gift that no one will ever be able to take away from us. The way Michael was, he would have loved that. Oh, he would have rolled his eyes and shook his head and laughed, his cheeks pink beneath his beard, and said that we shouldn’t, don’t fuss, it’s too much. But I like to think he would have been warmed by all the remembrances, all of the heartfelt writings from friends and colleagues and his students.
And then, of course, there’s his fiction. As writers, the closest thing to immortality we have is our words. And Michael left behind some hauntingly beautiful words. I have full confidence that, for generations to come, readers will be discovering Michael Louis Calvillo’s brave and unique voice, that some part of him will live on in his work. And once they read one piece, they’ll have to find another, and another, and another. For they’ll be infected.
And that infection will spread.
I wish I could tell Michael that that’s one thing he got wrong.
MLC cannot be destroyed.
Our love is with Michelle and Deja.
To check out Micheal’s work, please visit http://michaellouiscalvillo.com/
The family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Calvillo Hope Fund, a project Michael and Michelle started to help his students who had serious illnesses in their family buy medication and other needs not fully covered by insurance. PayPal donations can be sent to CalvilloHopeFund@gmail.com